‘Mary’ sat on a stool, a stack of glossy magazine pages beside her. Deftly, she manipulated each page until it was but a fraction of its original size.
She went about her work swiftly and silently, only nodding a greeting as we arrived.
Mary (‘my English name!’, she proudly boasts) lives in a small-ish Chinese city with her family. She and her paper crafts claim a prominent place in the household; as the senior household member, she takes her job of protecting and passing on traditional culture seriously.
I just wondered why she was busily folding and refolding magazine pages.
Later, around the dinner table, I got my answer. By each food bowl lay a paper bowl that Mary had folded meant for table scraps: fish bones, peppers and slivers of ginger.
There is some argument over whether the art of sculpting animals out of folded paper originated in China or in Japan but one thing is certain: the Japanese words for this practice are the ones that everyone knows.
Come with us now as we explore how the Japanese learned to make paper, who the first origami artists were and why they practised their art.
We’ll also look at how far origami has strayed from its iconic cranes and flowers.
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Paper: the Essential Ingredient of Origami
No matter how you cut it, paper had to be invented before anyone could fold it.
Our first step to tracing the origins of origami is discovering paper-making, an act often credited to a Chinese inventor and politician named Cai Lun.
Rather than inventing it, he refined the paper-making process; archaeologists found samples of a cruder type of paper along the ancient Silk Road that predates Cai Lun’s by about 300 years.
Nevertheless, the relative ease and low cost of producing these hemp-fibre sheets in the manner he established meant that paper could be widely used. Soon, other provinces were making paper using a variety of fibres.
The paper-making craft spread throughout Asia. In Korea, artisans discovered how to make paper out of seaweed, rice straw and bamboo fibres.
Paper took the Korean Peninsula by storm! Soon, everyone had a use for paper and some envisioned even more paper possibilities: in 1234, Koreans invented the first metal movable type machine.
The Chinese invented the movable type some 200 years earlier but they used wooden blocks.
We’re getting much further ahead of ourselves than we should... the question we need to answer should be: how did paper making get to Japan?
A Korean Buddhist monk named Don-Cho demonstrated the practice of paper-making to the Japanese emperor sometime around 610 AD. Soon, Japanese craftsmen were using paper to make fans, parasols and even body armour.
In homes, windows consisted of rice paper; even the walls were sometimes made of paper!
And then, someone had the idea to craft a keepsake box out of paper. Coating it with varnish and lacquer made it both beautiful and durable; thus an entire industry was born.
In spite of its functionality, origami today still symbolises very specific aspects of Asian culture.
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Origami: the Symbol of Discipline
Early in Japan’s history of paper, it was very expensive so its usage was restricted to religious purposes. For instance, a wedding might feature origami butterflies. Such designs still feature in weddings today.
Unfortunately, it is not known exactly when origami became a staple of Japanese culture.
It is widely thought that the Shogun, an ultra-disciplined military force that ruled Japan (off and on) from 1185 to 1868 used the art of folding to teach discipline, precision and patience.
Here, we have to make a distinction between two different types of Japanese origami: ceremonial and recreational.
The aforementioned discipline exercises the Shoguns used would fall under the header of recreational origami – believe it or not. As for ceremonial origami, besides being used in weddings, this type had a more official purpose.
Those samurai warriors were known to exchange gifts. The recipient who would receive such a parcel adorned by a noshi – a type of ceremonial origami with a strip of dried meat or fish folded into the paper would have been a fellow well thought of indeed!
Records of such gifts prove that, by the Muromachi period (1336 to 1573), origami was firmly ingrained into Japanese culture.
Do you know why origami is so important in Japanese culture?
One Thousand Cranes for Sadako
In traditional Japanese culture, cranes are a symbol of longevity and luck. They are also among the most renowned origami designs.
Still today, a common belief in Japan holds that if someone folds one thousand paper cranes, s/he would be blessed with happiness, health and peace. This pervasive myth fuels one of Japan’s most endearing legends.
Sadako Sasaki was only two years old when the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Ten years later, as leukaemia was ravaging her small body, she endeavoured to fold 1,000 cranes so that she might cheat death.
Now incarcerated in the children’s cancer ward, she realised her hopes of living were in vain so, as she continued to fold the delicate origami bird, she directed her fervent hope toward peace.
When she died, she was buried with a flock of origami cranes; some that she had folded and others created by her classmates – who went on to campaign for a statue of her to be placed in the Hiroshima Peace Park.
Every year, millions of paper cranes make their way there from around the world, expressing a global wish for peace.
Would you like to learn how to make origami animals?
Origami in Europe
Paper made its way to Europe via East Asia somewhere around the 11th Century but, here again, it was not used frivolously until a few hundred years later.
The first recorded instance of an origami boat in Europe was in a book published in 1490.
The next, most obvious example of origami in Europe came in John Webster’s play, The Duchess of Malfi, published in 1623, wherein a character alludes to ‘a paper prison’ - what is known today as a water bomb.
Before paper made its way to northern European kingdoms, royal courts enjoyed displays of napkin folding – a decorative type of folding done with napkins.
Some designs were rather simple; a diagonal pocket or what was known as a bishop’s fold. Others were quite elaborate: fans and roses; a fleur-de-lys fold was quite popular in France.
Ironically enough, napkins were ideal for decorative folding because they were square; unfortunately, they lacked the rigidity of origami paper and, because of their use, quickly lost their form.
That is why napkin folding was only a passing fad. After the 18th Century, it fell out of fashion, possibly because porcelain took its place as decorative tableware.
Nevertheless, the ground had been laid for folding things into decorative shapes; all the royal courts needed was the right material.
The next, most significant advance in European origami was surely Friedrich Froebel’s Kindergarten Method of instruction.
He maintained that learning should be a hands-on activity rather than a passive exercise and rote repetition.
He devised a system of student engagement that incorporates something remarkably similar to the day’s popular practice of napkin folding, except using paper rather than cloth.
A few years after his death in 1852, when Japan opened her borders, they imported Froebel's method of learning and, oddly enough, adopted his recommendations for how to make an origami: double-sided square paper and no cutting or trimming allowed.
Prior to the Japanese incorporating the educational benefits of origami into their schools’ curriculum, their origami practice permitted cutting (kirigami) and glueing or sewing (kusudama).
To this day, Froebel’s style of easy origami using a square piece of paper is standard practice in Japan; in fact, it has opened up new avenues of industry to support the Japanese art.
Japanese paper, specifically Washi paper has been voted the hands-down best by paper folders around the world. And did you know that they are now producing fold paper with crease patterns already imprinted?
So, whether you are just learning how to fold or you already have several origami models under your belt, you can rest assured your paper art will turn out finer the higher quality paper you use.
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The Japanese word for folding paper is universally recognised even though it was thought to have originated from the German language.
It’s not so far-fetched that the German word inspired the Japanese one; it was likely imported, along with the Kindergarten Movement, sometime around 1880.
Sadly, other words incorporating the Japanese ‘ori’ or ‘gami’ have fallen by the wayside:
- orikata: literally 'folded shapes'. Compare to martial arts katas which also involve assuming a pose or 'shape'.
- orimono translates to 'folded thing' (you might recognise ‘mono’ from the Japanese word ‘kimono’; that word's literal translation is 'wearing thing'.
- tatamigami: tatami is a straw floor matting common in Japanese homes; these mats are smaller; something we might use as place mats on our tables.
- kirigami: to cut paper
Still, origami, at its purest, is not a lost art! Would you like for someone to suggest a few origami projects or maybe show you how to fold a tessellation? Perhaps point you to a few origami books for kids or talk you through a simple origami?
Today, fans of the folding technique can get their origami on at clubs throughout the UK: the British Origami Society, the Folding Society; even NetMums has an origami club.
And, just when you thought folding origami was merely a paper craft... would you be surprised to know that origami has engineering applications? Indeed, if you are in that line of work, you most likely have a few constructions you could bring to the next meeting...
From a small town in China to a farm in rural Minnesota where I learned 3D origami (folding pages of a periodical to make a tree), origami folding has proven to be timeless, universal craft.
And to think, if that Chinese politician hadn’t figured out how to make a thinner, more durable sheet of paper...
We've now determined that, although origami is not strictly Japanese, it has firm roots in Japan. Now we just need to know why...
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