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From Scrolls to Leaves

>From Scrolls to Leaves

The period of the Sui and Tang dynasties, when hand copying flourished, was
also the period when the scroll and rod system reached its height and when
beautiful bindings appeared.  In the mid-9th century, however, books in scroll
form were gradually replaced by books in leaf form.
     The scrolls were long--often several tens of feet--and rather troublesome
to unroll.  The process of looking up a single sentence in the text might
require the unrolling of most of a scroll.  During the Warring States Period
and the Qin and Han dynasties scrolls caused few problems because there were
few lengthy writings.  But from the Sui and Tang dynasties onward, after a
number of dictionaries had been published, the matter of looking up a word or
a sentence was an oft-occurring necessity.  The great inconvenience and
inefficiency of rolling and unrolling became more and more of a problem.
     Some inventive person then decided that, instead of using the scroll
form, a book might be made by folding the paper to form a pile in a
rectangular shape.  The front and back covers of such a book were made of
strong, thick paper, sometimes dyed in colour or mounted on cloth for
protection.  This new form was called a "leaf binding", or "sutra binding".
With this new kind of binding, a reader could easily turn to any leaf to look
up a word or a sentence, without having to unroll the whole book.
     This was a great step forward in the development of books.  Before long,
however, this new form was also found to have some drawbacks.  A long piece of
folded paper could easily become unfolded and spread out.  To avoid this, book
makers added another sheet of paper to the folded pile.  This was creased in
the middle and one half of the sheet was pasted onto the first leaf and the
other half was pasted onto the last leaf.  The extra sheet held the pile
together and prevented it from spreading out, while the leaves of the pile
could still be turned forwards and backwards.  (This came to be called a
"whirlwind binding".)
     These two forms of binding appeared in the mid-9th century.  They
overcame the defects of the scroll and rod system, yet they had a disadvantage
in the fact that the place where the paper was folded might break after a
lapse of time.  Disarrangement and loss of leaves then occurred unavoidably.
The next step was to bind the separate sheets into a book.  When this step was
taken books bound as they are today were created.

The Story of Chinese Books, written by Liu Guojun and Zheng Rusi, translated
by Zhou Yicheng.  Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 1985.

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