TITLE: Cai Lun’s Key: How the Kam people of China preserved the earliest papermaking
DIRECTOR: Marie Anna Lee
GENRE: Short Documentary
LENGTH: 15:31 minutes
LOGLINE: Women in remote Dimen Village reveal two-thousand-year-old unwritten papermaking tradition traceable to Cai Lun, the inventor of paper.
SYNOPSIS: Kam minority artisans from Dimen village make paper the way their ancestors did two thousand years ago. Their technique can be directly traced to the 2nd century CE when Cai Lun, the inventor of paper, substituted mulberry bark for hemp. Later he changed the way paper was formed. The Kam people, however, still use the oldest method suggesting they learned to make paper sometime during Cai Lun’s life.
As the village opened to the outside world in the late 1990s, its young people lost interest in their traditions. As there is no written form of the Kam language, this knowledge exists only in an oral form and once the elderly artisans die, the heritage will be lost.
Professor Marie Anna Lee and her team from the University of the Pacific comes to the village and persuades the artisans to share their heritage. The artisans demonstrate the entire process and teach the team. The researchers then make their own paper, starting from finding and harvesting the materials to forming the sheets. They also learn to use the paper the way the Kam do, creating magic charms and complex origami-like sewing kits decorated with local motifs.
Back in California, they compare what they have learned from the Kam with other papermaking processes. They
realize that the Kam papermaking heritage originated in a very narrow window of approximately 40 years in 2nd century CE. The Kam began to make paper after Cai Lun introduced mulberry bark but before he changed the method of forming paper by dipping a mold into a vat with pulp.
At the end, they pass the papermaking knowledge to their children and the next generation of students to continue the heritage that preserves one of the great inventions of humankind.
WHY IT IS UNIQUE: Kam papermaking heritage originated in a very narrow window of approximately 40 years in 2nd century CE. The Kam began to make paper after Cai Lun introduced mulberry bark but before he changed the method of forming paper by dipping a mold into a vat with pulp.
WHY IT MATTERS: The women have kept passing this sacred knowledge from generation to generation for thousands of years preserving evidence of the earliest papermaking processes that cannot be learned from archaeological evidence or written documents. Yet, the young generation has not learned the process and the knowledge will be lost once the elderly artisans pass away.
WHY IT WILL SUCCEED: The film takes the audience into a secluded pre-industrial community and shows them a lifestyle and artisanal practices that have been lost elsewhere. The researchers bridge cultural differences persuading the artisans to share their millennia-old heritage with the outside world. At the end, the audience becomes part of the solution as they are entrusted with the knowledge to continue the tradition.
Marie Anna Lee is an Associate Professor of Art at the University of the Pacific in California, USA. She has worked on the cultural preservation of Kam indigenous heritage since 2007, and received the 2013 and 2014 SEED (Social Environmental Economic Design) Award honorable mention for excellence in public interest design for her work in Dimen.
As part of the Kam delegation from Dimen, Lee presented at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, DC, in 2014. She taught at the Public Interest Design Institute in Denver in 2013 and presented her research at numerous national and international conferences, and has co-authored multiple articles in global monetary history.
She has also exhibited her art in the USA, China, and the Czech Republic. Lee holds a BFA and an MFA in Graphic Design from Colorado State University, USA, and a BA in Advertising from Michigan State University, USA.