Chinese Pith Paintings

The two-volume collection of botanical paintings on pith paper currently housed in the Archives of the Arnold Arboretum (Cambridge) were acquired by Charles Sprague Sargent around 1912.

Album painting 13. Chinese paintings of flowering plants, hand-colored on rice paper. c.1850. Botany Libraries, Arnold Arboretum Library (Cambridge), Harvard University.

    An album of pith paintings was gifted to the Archives of the Gray Herbarium by Miss E.E.P. Holland. This album contains leaves of colored plates painted on pith paper. A handwritten inscription on the bookplate reads: "from the library of Rev. Frederick W. Holland, Harvard '1831. Brought from China probably as early as 1840. Originally bound in blue silk." The blue silk binding is now absent, but the beautifully rendered paintings have survived to this day.

    Illustrations of Chinese plants on pith 


    Album painting 6. Illustrations of Chinese plants. c.1840. Botany Libraries, Gray Herbarium Library, Harvard University.


    The Plant

    Tetrapanax papyiferum (Hook.) Koch

    Pith paper is not "rice-paper" as it is commonly labeled. The smooth, bone white paper is made from the pith of the Tetrapanax papyriferum (Hook.) plant, which is a member of the Araliaceae (ginseng) family. It is native to Southern China and Taiwan, but was not investigated by Western botanists until the early and mid-nineteenth century. Pith paper has been used to make artificial flowers and decorative hairpins in China for centuries, while in the 1800s it became extremely popular as a surface for painting with watercolors and tempera. These paintings were bound in books with silk "tape" and usually depicted scenes from daily life, including plants, animals, occupations, customs and costumes. In China and Taiwan, the plant was referred to as "tung-tsao", meaning 'hollow-plant', "toong-tsao", or "bok-shung".

    Tetrapanax papyriferum remained a mystery to botanists for many years. Western explorers brought back to England tales of the plant and samples of the pith paper. There it was studied by botanists that included Sir William J. Hooker. This paper was followed by dried specimens, leaves, and stems of the plant itself, and finally a living plant arrived in England in the 1850s.

    Habitat and Description of Tetrapanax papyriferum

    Tetrapanax papyriferum
    Tetrapanax papyriferum is found in warmer climates in subtropical regions of the world. On the Gulf Coast of the United States, it can grow in Louisiana, Southern Florida and the Texas coast. For Hooker and other western botanists, the samples that they desired could only be acquired at that time from the island of Formosa (Taiwan), off the southeast coast of China.


    The plant itself is described as a small tree or shrub; its height varies between 4 and 12 feet, but has been know to grow as tall as 30 feet. The leaves can be as large as 2 1/2 feet wide and are deeply serrated, with a leaf stem of up to 3 feet in length and 1/2 inch in diameter. The bark is described as rough, and the wood itself is very hard and dense. Tetrapanax papyriferum grows best in soils that are rich in organic material, but is capable of growing in clay or gravel soils as well. It grows rapidly in its first few years and reaches maturity around the 4th and 5th year.





    Identifying the Elusive Plant

    Although pith paper was in use and mentioned as early as the Tsin Dynasty (265-420 AD), it wasn't until 1834 that an adequate image of Tetrapanax papyriferum was seen in the western world in George Bennett's Wanderings in New South Wales. A local Chinese artist created this representation and Bennett identifies the plant by its eastern name,"Toong Shue". He had hoped that the small drawing would "assist persons visiting China to procure, if possible, specimens in flower and fructification". By 1852, Hooker had finally received a live specimen of Tetrapanax papyiferum and concluded that the "rice paper" plant is part of the Araliaceous family and as a result of this, he renames it Aralia ? Papyrifera, Hook.:


    From Bennett's Wanderings in New South Wales

    "We had flattered ourselves that the question respecting the origin of the Chinese Rice-paper had been set at rest by the results of our inquiries as related in the pages of this Journal, namely, that it was the product of a plant peculiar to the island of Formosa, to which we believed we had sufficient materials for assigning the name of Aralia? papyrifera. (See our figure and description, p. 50, Tab. I., II., of the present volume.) Other plants, it is true, had been suggested; but either the medullary substance proved, on investigation, like the "Shola," not to confirm the opinion, or there was no opportunity of coming to a knowledge of the nature of the plant suspected. Our own reasons for believing the Aralia? to be the plant are before the public, and they have, in our minds, been substantiated by subsequent inquiries, particularly by those instituted by the Messrs. Bowring, father and son, at Hong-Kong. These gentlemen have been indefatigable in their searches. They have procured for us specimens of the stem, of the pith, numerous packets of the paper as prepared for commerce, etc.; and now at length we have the high gratification of saying, that out of four separate cases sent by the Overland Mail, on two different occasions, two living plants arrived in a healthy state at the Royal Gardens of Kew."

    Hooker was working with a J. H. Layton, consul at Amoy, in order to obtain a live specimen for study and comparison. Unfortunately, Mr. Layton died, but his widow continued to try to procure a live plant. This passage illustrates the extreme difficulty, the western botanists endured in order to obtain a living specimen:

    '"As far as I could learn," this lady says, "it is only really known to grow in the deep swampy forests of the north of Formosa, though said in books to be found, in these later years, in one other part of China and formerly in many. One thing is certain, that all the Rice-paper met with in Fokien and the south is pith from the island Hu-nan, or Ho-nan (as the Amoy call it),-Formosa. The tree must grow there to a good size, for I was again informed I could not well have a 'tree' brought over, as it would be too large to manage on the way. Great danger and risk attend the men who go into the forests to procure the stems, where the aborigines come suddenly upon them and take away their lives: so that it is customary to have a guard of soldiers on the occasion. At one time it seemed quite certain that my efforts to procure a plant would have been supported by all the mandarin force on that part of the island, for the late brave old Chinese Admiral at Amoy took the matter in hand for me, and sent orders for one to be obtained, and sent back in one of the imperial junks employed to take troops to Formosa; but before it could reach me he was dead. I did not, myself, bring home with me the dead and withered specimen you received, for it did not reach Amoy in time: but I had arranged with a friend to take charge of it, who unfortunately forwarded it to me by way of the Cape instead of sending it overland: for, indeed, it had already been several months in the case in China. One of the two Chinamen, whom I had long before sent over in a junk for the purpose, returned with a small root when I was too ill to take care of it; but it had several green leaves when I took it with me on board ship for England, and this was I think entirely killed by the brown ants. The man who obtained this, assured me that the 'large tree' he procured had died while he waited for a junk, and then after putting out to sea, and being driven back by pirates, he threw the plant overboard, reserving a portion of the stem and some leaves. which I have now in my possession. The second messenger returned soon after my departure, bringing a fine strong plant, thriving beautifully when it was put on board the ship Bentinck, but which died on its passage, and reached your hands without any sign of life."




    Harvesting to Produce Pith Paper

    The harvesting of Tetrapanax papyriferum to make paper from its pith is a varied process. The plant can be harvested at any season, usually at 2 to 3 years old when the main stems are 5 to 6 feet. Extraneous leaves and twigs are removed and the stems are soaked in water to loosen the pith. These stems are then cut into 12"-18" pieces and the pith itself is forced out. The pith is a brilliant white, but must be dried immediately or it will yellow and stain; this is attained by exposing the pith to the sun for several days.

    In cutting the pith to make the paper, the longer, dry lengths are cut into shorter pieces that are then "peeled" away using a short-handled, razor-sharp knife with a 12" blade, 3" wide and 1/2" thick. This produces a scroll-like sheet about 4 to 6 feet long. The first 10 to 20 inches are grooved and irregular in cut, with jagged, course brown areas, which are then cut away. It takes a very skilled worker to produce the pristinely smooth, white paper that is uniformly thick; training to cut smaller strips takes a minimum of 1 year, while to produce wider strips, the training is more extensive.

    Pith paper is characterized by its great strength; when it is damp, it may be stretched and folded freely and when it is moistened it can be formed into almost any shape. This makes it ideal for water-based paintings that create a raised, relief pattern almost immediately upon application of medium. Unfortunately, it is very brittle when dry, grows more fragile with age, and is prone to discoloration.

    Below is an excerpt from Chinese "Rice-Paper" or "Bok-Shung" in Hooker's Journal of Botany and Kew Garden Miscellany Volume II, 1850, detailing the first samples of pith and sample tools received by Hooker:


    From Hooker's Journal of Botany and Kew Garden Miscellany Vol. II, 1850


    "Thanks to our most obliging friend, Capt. Wm. Loring, R.N., who has put us in communication with several intelligent gentlemen now resident in China, we are in a fair way of obtaining correct intelligence relative to many interesting scientific objects, and of having our doubts solved on some important botanical matters. J. H. Layton, Esq., H.B. Majesty's Consul at Amoy, China, has most kindly sent us not only excellent specimens of the pith from which the so-called Rice paper is formed, but a model of the knife used in cutting it, and, what is even of more value, the following information.

    "The substance, commonly called Rice-paper by the Chinese, is made from the pith of a plant or tree, which grows principally in the swampy grounds in the province of Sam-swi, in the northern part of the island of Formosa, where it is said to form large forests. The bark and rind are, previous to exportation, stripped from the pith, which is then called Bok-shung."The iron knife commonly used for cutting this pith weighs about 2 1/2 lbs., and is of the roughest and coarsest workmanship, and perhaps not one blade in twenty is sufficiently well tempered to be advantageously used. In cutting, the knife is kept quite steady, the cylindrical pith being moved round and round against the edge of the knife which is just inserted into the substance, and thus a leaf or sheet is formed resembling the most delicate paper, but rather thick in substance. When brought quickly from the workman's hands the paper is in a damp state. It may have been rendered so, in order to facilitate the smoothing and pressing.

    "At Chang-chew, the large city of which Amoy is the sea-port, there is only one man who can cut this paper. This person ran away from his master in Formosa, and refuses to teach his trade except for a premium of 60 dollars....

    "We have the gratification of knowing that our Consul at Amoy will use his best endeavors to procure flowering specimens of the plant itself."



    The Many Uses of Pith Paper: Flowers, Tourist Trinkets and Medicine

    Artificial Flowers

    Because of its strength and flexibility, pith paper is well suited to the art of making artificial flowers. Artificial flower production was probably first recorded during the Tsin Dynasty (265-420 AD) under Emperor Huey Ti. The paper handles very well, absorbs colors and dyes easily, and produces a very natural appearance when formed into flowers. Additionally, these same attributes allow for excessive handling and detailed work. At the turn of the 19th Century in Canton and Hong Kong, nearly two to three thousand people were employed in the manufacture of artificial flowers, some working on "assembly line" type productions while other workers who were more skilled produced the flowers individually.


    Pith paper as a format for water-based paintings, such as watercolors and tempera, seem to have originated in southern China and became most popular in the west in the 19th century. Western tourists would purchase bound volumes of pith paintings and return with varied images depicting scenes of customs, occupations, costumes, flowers, birds, insects, and butterflies. Occasionally, collections depicting less common themes have appeared; the National Anthropological Archives at the National Museum of Natural History holds an unusual collection of pith paintings depicting scenes of Chinese torture. The pith paper, being so absorbent, are washed in the paints that then create a raised, relief-style image that has a velvety, smooth feel and adds visual depth at the same time. This added aesthetic poses a problem in terms of restoration and conservation in that it renders the paper even more fragile. Typically, pith paintings are "framed" by applying a paste to the back of the image and overlaying a "lining" of another type of paper before adding strips of silk around the edges to complete the "frame", after which they are then usually bound in albums. Along with the samples of pith received by Hooker in 1850, a volume of drawings of Tetrapanax papyriferum were used to illustrate the plant in its natural habitat and the manner in which it is processed to make the paper. The following excerpt comes from Hooker's Journal of Botany and Kew Garden Miscellany, Volume II, 1850:

    "We are not yet prepared to state what is the plant which yields the and now well-known substance called Rice-paper; but, thanks to the queries inserted from time to time in our 'Journal of Botany,' and to the exertions made by our numerous friends to contribute to the Museum of Economic Botany, now so successfully forming at the Royal Gardens of Kew, we have advanced more than one step towards such a knowledge. In a late number (p. 27 of the present volume) we were enabled to some interesting information relative to the "Rice-paper," through the kindness of Mr. Layton, H.B.M, Consul at Amoy, and we have now the pleasure of communicating some further intelligence, derived from C. J. Braine, Esq., a gentleman who has recently returned from Hong-Kong, bringing a rich collection of living plants for the Royal Gardens of Kew, and many curious vegetable products for the Museum of the same establishment,-together with a thin volume of well-executed drawings by a Chinese artist, on Rice-paper ,-said drawings exhibiting the several stages or conditions of the Rice-paper plant, from the preparation of the seed to the packing of the material for exportation.

    "We have selected two out of the eleven of these drawings for our Journal, as illustrative, in the one case, of the growing plant, and in the other, of the mode of cutting out, or forming, the sheets of this paper. The first of these (Tab, VIII.) does, indeed, exhibit the growing plant as of so strange a character, that no botanist to whom we have shown it can conjecture to what family it may belong; and one is naturally led to inquire how far the correctness is to be depended upon; more especially as the presentation is quite at variance with a Chinese figure, said to be that of the Rice-paper plant, in the possession of J. Reeves, Esq., of Clapham, alluded to at p, 29, supra. We should, however, be disposed to think more favourably of the correctness of a series of drawings made expressly for the purpose of illustrating the History of the "Rice-paper," than of a solitary and isolated figure expressly required to he made by a European, In this latter case "John Chinaman" is, perhaps, not wholly to be trusted."

    From Hooker's Journal of Botany and Kew Garden Miscellany Vol. II, 1850.

    Medicinal Uses

    Although largely used for paintings, trinkets and artificial flowers, elements of Tetrapanax papyriferum have also been used for medicinal purposes. The pollen from the flowers of the plant are said to aid hemorrhoids, the stem is said to act as a sedative in addition to being used for coughs and bronchitis. The pith paper itself has occasionally been used as surgical dressing because ability to absorb fluids. In 1590, Shizhen Li's publication Pen ts'ao kang mu (Chinese Materia Medica) describes the many medicinal uses of Tetrapanax papyriferum in the following manner:

    "The stalks of those plants which grow in the hills are large, several inches in circumference. The taste and virtues of this plant are sweet, cooling and innocuous. It aids the secretions, stops diarrhoea and excess of urine, and helps the expectorations. A tincture of the burnt stalks reduced to powder is good for lockjaw." [Translation from Seemann's journal excerpt in J Bot Misc Kew]

    "Tetrapanax payriferum produces an elegant paper that has numerous uses from the decorative to the practical. As illustrated above, there are several collections of pith paper paintings in circulation and in museum collections today. Knowing this, it is interesting to note that they were originally produced as ephemeral tourist trinkets."



    Timeline of Tetrapanax papyriferum

    265-420 A.D.
    The earliest mention of the use of pith paper is thought to be during the Tsin Dynasty (265-420 A.D.). In the official records in the year of Jiann Kang "Jiann Kang Shyr Luh", it is mentioned that the emperor ordered servants to arrange flowers made from "Tung-tsaou".

    Image of Rice Paper plant is published in 1590 in the Pen ts'ao kang mu (Chinese Materia Medica) by Shizhen Li.

    Pith papermaking discussed in T'ien Kung K'ai Wu, a guide to Chinese technology in the 17th century.

    Rice paper plant first mentioned in Western literature in Georg Eberhard Rumpf's Herbarium Amboinenes under the name Buglossum litoreum. 1805 The first examples of "rice-paper" were brought to England in 1805 from China by a Dr. Livingstone.

    Circa 1825
    Pith paper paintings begin to be produced in Southern China, more than likely for the tourist trade.

    General Hardwicke identifies the "rice-paper" plant as Aeschynomene paludosa in Botanical Miscellany v.1, 1830.

    George Bennett, in his Wanderings in New South Wales (1834) publishes the first picture of the "rice paper" plant available to the western world. [Image can be seen on the main exhibit page]

    Sir William Jackson Hooker receives the first samples of pith paper, a model of the knife used in cutting the plant, and a series of paintings detailing the plant and the production of the rice paper.

    Berthold Seeman, during the voyage of the H.M.S. Herald , collected a specimen of the rice paper plant that he believed belonged to the family Malvaceae.

    Hooker receives first living specimens of the plant and comes to the conclusion that the "rice paper" plant is part of the Araliaceous family and so re-names it Aralia Papyrifera, Hook.

    Hooker receives a flowering specimen from J. W. Bowring esq., Hong Kong, and is able to prepare a complete description for Curtis's Botanical Magazine

    Mid to late 1850s
    With increased European interest, the market for pith paper and its product greatly expands.

    German botanist Karl Koch, in Wochenschrift fur Gartnerei und Pflanzenkunde recharacterizes the plant as a Didymopanax, subgenus Tetrapanax.

    Over 144,000 lbs of rice paper are exported from Taiwan, and 2,000-3,000 people are employed in the rice paper artificial flower industry in Canton, China, and Hong Kong alone.

    Circa 1920
    The European demand for rice paper paintings dies out.


    Additional Information

    Articles & Images:


    1. Bennett, George. 1834. Wanderings in New South Wales, Batvia, Pedir Coast, Singapore, and China. 2 vols. Vol II: 75-79
    2. Duke, James A. and Edward S. Ayensu. Medicinal Plants of China Vol 1 Algonac, Michigan: Reference Publications, 1985.
    3. Ed. Committee of the Flora of Taiwan. 1993. Flora of Taiwan 2nd edition, volume 3 :1006-1009.
    4. FACTS[online]. A partial reprint from "Conservation of Pith Paper" by Penny Jenkins, Paper Conservation News, 73, March 1995 [cited 30 March 2003]. Available: []
    5. Hooker, William Jackson. "Some account of the substance commonly known under the name 'Rice Paper'" Botanical Miscellany (1830) Vol. I
    6. Hooker, Sir William Jackson. "Chinese 'Rice Paper,' or 'Bok-Shung.'" Hooker's Journal of Botany and Kew Garden Miscellany (1850) Vol. II
    7. Hooker, Sir William Jackson. "On the Chinese Rice Paper" Hooker's Journal of Botany and Kew Garden Miscellany (1852) Vol. IV
    8. Hooker, Sir William Jackson. "The Rice-Paper Plant" Hooker's Journal of Botany and Kew Garden Miscellany (1853) Vol. V
    9. Hooker, Sir William Jackson. "Aralia papyrifera Rice-paper Plant." Curtis's Botanical Magazine (1856) Vol. XII
    10. Perdue Jr., Robert E. and Charles J. Kraebel. 1961. The Rice-Paper Plant--Tetrapanax Papyriferum (Hook.) Koch. Economic Botany (15): 165-179.
    11. Formosa [on-line]. Reed College, Portland Oregon. 1999. [cited 26 June 2003.] Available:
    12. Seeman, Berthold. 1852-1857. The Botany of the Voyage of H.M.S. Herald, under the Command of Captain Henry Kellet, During the Years 1845-51 London.
    13. Tsai, Fei Wen.1999. Historical Background of Tetrapanax Pith Paper Artifacts. ICOM Ethnographic Conservation Newsletter 19 : 6-10.
    14. Williams, I. 2001. Views from the West. Chinese Pith Paper Paintings. Arts of Asia 31(5): 140-149.



    Web Exhibit Created 2003, Updated 2011.