Hanji And Washi: Behind East Asia's Valuable Traditional Papers

In a digital age, these handmade papers represent the beauty of handmade crafts; their labor-intensive processes make them highly valuable, but they’re also one of the causes behind their decline. 

Long before the West had even begun using paper, the material was already a staple in East Asia, particularly countries like China (where it originated from), Japan, and Korea. To the people of these nations, paper was more than just a piece for the art of calligraphy or record-keeping—it was a core part of daily life, a material that they used even in their homes and clothing. 

In the very beginning, people carefully made paper by hand. However, with the advent of industrialization, machine-based processes became the norm, and many papermaking mills and families couldn’t keep up, having to close shop for more lucrative opportunities. That said, some papermakers remain, carrying on the slow, laborious, yet meaningful traditional craft.

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Today, Korea’s traditional paper Hanji and Japan’s Washi are still quality materials for painting, writing, and even art and book conservation. They’re also incredibly valuable, with premium varieties priced at around $22 or more per sheet, based on a report from Business Insider and catalogs from shops that sell these special papers. Many prize them for their durability and longevity, as the best sheets can last for thousands of years and don’t deteriorate as fast as regular paper. 

Read on to learn more about Hanji and Washi, and the awe-inspiring craftsmanship behind their production: 

Plant-Based Materials

When one thinks of traditional papermaking, they likely recall water, mushy fibers (either from recycled papers or raw plant material), glue, a mesh screen, and water. This is an accurate albeit simple version of the process behind Hanji and Washi

Leaves of the Paper mulberry plant artisans use in both Korea and Japan
Leaves of the Paper mulberry plant artisans use in both Korea and Japan/Photo by Didier Descouens via Wikimedia Commons

Both papers are made of the inner barks of renewable plants, rather than trees. In the case of Washi, it can be several, including kozo (paper mulberry), mitsumata (a crop that produces a soft, short fiber), and gampi (one of the earliest plants the Japanese used for paper and prized for its longevity), according to The Japanese Paper Place. As for Korea’s Hanji, artisans usually make it with the inner bark of paper mulberry, or dak

Martina Tondo of Lampoon Magazine reports that these plants regenerate for years and mature quickly, harvesting and cutting them to get their inner bark is still a tedious task. As junior researcher Steph Rue reports in a firsthand account for Fulbright Korea Infusion, after papermakers harvest the dak for Hanji during the fall season, it takes weeks to prepare them before they’re even ready to transform into paper, and the same applies to Washi

Preparing the Bark

Both papers share similar processes, as seen in Business Insider’s video on Hanji and UNESCO’s video on Washi. Artisans must steam the harvested plant bark for hours to loosen its skin. Then, workers will manually peel these layers with a knife to attain the precious inner bark. This part of the Japanese kozo or Korean dak is what lends the paper its durability due to its long fibers. 

An infographic showing the process of making Hanji
An infographic showing the process of making Hanji/Photo from the Voluntary Agency Network of Korea website

Afterwards, artisans cook the inner bark in water for hours before drying them outside. Usually, in both Korea and Japan, papermakers lay the plant material out under the sun to not only dry them, but also help them undergo a natural bleaching process. In winter climates, artisans will even leave them out in the snow for “snowbleaching,” according to The Japanese Paper Place

Then, workers will beat the cooked plant fiber into strands to prepare it for papermaking. In Korea’s early days, this was a manual task for men, writes Steph Rue for Fullbright Korea Infusion. However, as the Business Insider’s video feature on Hanji shows, there are now machine beaters that can do the work. That said, it’s the top-grade papers that still require the labor-intensive hand beating, which is why they cost a lot more. 

Another infographic showing the steps in making Washi
Another infographic showing the steps in making Washi/Photo from the Awagami Factory website

A Delicate Process

Usually, after artisans have beaten the plant fibers, they would hand-pick any remaining pieces of bark that shouldn’t be included. This is yet another time-consuming process that requires hours of effort, yet it’s what makes the best Hanji and Washi. Certain papermakers will speed up the process by adding chemicals like caustic soda while the fibers are cooking, according to Steph Rue for Fullbright Korea Infusion and The Japanese Paper Place. However, this expectedly results in paper with less structural integrity. 

"Echizen Washi" papermaking in Japan
“Echizen Washi” papermaking in Japan/Photo by UFshio via Wikimedia Commons

The past few sections have only discussed the preparation of Hanji and Washi, which shows just how complex the entire papermaking process is from start to finish. With the plant fibers ready to turn into paper, artisans place them in a mixture of water and glue. As with previous parts of the process, a chemical glue can be used, but this results in cheaper paper. Usually, premium Washi and Hanji derive their thickening agents from the mucilage of hibiscus roots—a natural glue, report The Japanese Paper Place and  Business Insider

Papermakers then mix the slurry of fiber in a vat until it’s all properly distributed, before dipping a mesh screen to catch the fine, almost transparent strands. Expert artisans like Kang Gapseok in Business Insider’s video feature, know exactly when a paper is finished forming. In the case of Hanji, the direction in which a papermaker moves the mesh screen also determines the strength of a paper: doing it in one direction is fine, but moving the fibers in multiple directions is what creates a sturdier structure, and therefore more valuable paper. 

The Final Touches

For both Washi and Hanji, workers then lay each wet sheet on top of another to remove excess water. Then while the paper is still damp, they dry each sheet on a wooden board. Papermaker Yoon Jungjae states that Koreans used to dry the paper on wood over a fire, though nowadays most artisans use heated, stainless steel hot plates. It’s a similar situation for papermakers in Japan, who would normally air dry Washi on wooden boards, but have now modified the process with hot plates, reports The Japanese Paper Place

Layering the damp papers on top of one another
Layering the damp papers on top of one another/Photo by Nakagita Yoshiaki via Wikimedia Commons

Papermakers gently smooth over the paper with horse-hair brushes while they dry on the hot plates. In the Business Insider video, Yoon Jungjae adds that Hanji with varying thicknesses will require different temperatures, with thinner papers on low heat and thicker ones on high heat. 

Inimitable Papers

What comes out of this traditional papermaking process are sheets that feel smooth to the touch, airy but far from fragile, especially when they’re of the most expensive kind. Due to the natural materials and methods behind top-tier Hanji and Washi, both papers possess a neutral pH level that makes them less prone to deterioration over time, reports Business Insider. The long fibers of the dak and kozo make it harder to tear as well. 

Korean-American artist Aimee Lee's mixed media Hanji paper work, "Go gently" (2023)
Korean-American artist Aimee Lee’s mixed media Hanji paper work, “Go gently” (2023)/Photo from Aimee Lee’s official website

As such, it’s no surprise that many artists and calligraphers have a strong preference for these papers. Museums who are working to conserve and restore objects like books have also used both papers in their efforts, adds the Business Insider

Sadly, as with many traditional crafts, creating Washi and Hanji requires a lot of resources and labor. Though there are still papermakers who are striving to keep the craft alive, it’s been difficult to stay afloat with decreasing consumer demand. The number of traditional Washi makers has declined over the decades, reports Martina Tondo for Lampoon Magazine. Likewise, Steph Rue for  Fullbright Korea Infusion reports that in the 21st century, there are only 24 Hanji mills left in South Korea. 

Keeping Traditions Alive

Thankfully, there are people who are trying hard to preserve both papermaking arts. According to a video by the South China Morning Post, Japan’s papermakers are finding their niche in the world of conservation, as many leading institutions have been using Washi to restore valuable books and documents. 

Restoration using "Tengujo Washi"
Restoration using “Tengujo Washi”/Photo from the Edofiber website

As for Korea, The Business Insider reports that the government has been working to find new ways to expand Hanji’s uses in the market. Meanwhile, artists like Aimee Lee center their life’s work in promoting the use of Hanji through stunning art pieces inspired by other traditional crafts like jiseung (a type of weaving). 

Korean paper dolls made from layers of Hanji
Korean paper dolls made from layers of Hanji/Photo from the Spurlock Museum of World Cultures website

Those who still turn to old fashioned writing understand that there’s something special about paper. In a world where everyone can instantly type on an intangible screen, the pleasure of moving a pen, pencil, brush, and the like across quality paper is something inimitable. Besides providing many mental and physical health benefits, the act of using paper offers the simple but ultimately rewarding joys of a tactile, innately human process. 

Banner photo by Tomomarusan via Wikimedia Commons.

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