History of Origami

The history of origami is under debate. Unlike other art forms, paper degrades quickly leaving no artifacts to suggest where origami originated and who first invented it. The information listed here provides a good overview of origami but is not an authoritative analysis of the subject. For detailed information regarding the history of paper folding, consult the works of John Smith, David Lister, and Koshiro Hatori.

Textbooks will say that paper was first invented in China by Cai Lun (also written Ts'ai Lun) in 105 A.D. However, archeological evidence suggest that paper was invented even early than this. One can imagine that if there's paper, then the paper may have been folded as well. There is no evidence of this but, if it was true, then paper folding would have started in China.

That being said, there is very little examples of origami or paper folding in China. The "yuanbao" is probably the oldest example: these are paper folded to look like gold nuggets. The pieces are burnt as offering to the deceased. It is not clear when the tradition of folding yuanboa started (possibly near 1000 AD) but it continues even today.


Cai Lun (Ts'ai Lun); inventor of paper.

Another example of paper folding in China is Golden Venture Folding (Chinese Paper Folding or 3D Origami). Here, small pieces of paper are folded into triangular units which are then assembled into large models. No one knows when these triangular units were first made, but they do appear to be of Chinese origin since they were introduced to the USA via illegal Chinese immigrants on the ship, Golden Venture (1993). Read more


Paper Folding in the Japan

During the 6th century, paper was introduced into Korea and then into Japan by Buddhist monks (sometimes attributed to one monk in particular, named Dokyo). It is in Japan that paper folding became an art form and evolved into what we know today as "origami".


Gohei with two strips of Shide

In Japan, paper was expensive and not available to the general public. Paper and paper folding was limited to religious rituals and formal ceremonies.

Some of earliest examples of paper folding (with cutting) are "Shide"; these are zig-zag shaped paper used in purification rituals. Shide can be attached to straw ropes to designate sacred locations (Shimenawa), attached to alters, or attached to a wooden staff and used as purification wands (Gohei). It should be noted that Shide were probably made with fabric, but then later switched to paper. See how to fold Shide here.

In traditional Shinto weddings, paper butterflies were used to adorn sake (Japanese wine) bottles. These butterflies, called “Mecho” and “Ocho”, are probably the earliest form of representational origami. Mecho (female) & Ocho (male) precede the paper crane which is synonymous with current day origami. More about Mecho & Ocho here.

In Japan, there are rules of etiquette when it comes to the giving and receiving of gifts. Paper adornments were folded in different ways to symbolize different things. For example:

mecho ocho
Mecho
mecho and ocho
Ocho


Noshi
"Origami Tsuki" was a folded piece of paper that accompanied a valuable gift and it served as a certificate of authenticity.

"Noshi" was a folded piece of paper that accompanied a gift and functioned as a token of good fortune. More information about noshi here.

"Tsutsumi" was a formal gift wrapper. These ceremonial folds were simple and symbolized sincerity and purity.

There is very little evidence of recreational origami prior to the 1600's but by the 17th century, play-origami was prevalent in Japanese culture so much so that you could find kimonos decorated with paper cranes.

This shows a ranma (decorative wood paneling) with six origami models including the paper crane, the classic boat, and a modular cube (1734, see analysis by Koshiro Hatori). These elements suggest that origami was well established in Japan by the 1700's.
A print showing ranma with origami models. From mfa; Enlarge.



Image from Tsutsumi-no Ki.


Image from Senbazuru Orikata.
The first book published about paper folding was the "Tsutsumi-no Ki" by Sadatake Ise (1764). It contained instructions to fold 13 ceremonial folds such as the noshi and Tsutsumi described above.

The first published book documenting recreational paper folding came in 1797 with the book called “Folding of 1000 Cranes“ (Senbazuru Orikata). This book contained brief instructions on how to fold 49 interconnect cranes. See originals here and here (Paula Versnick).

Next, a series of books called “Window on Midwinter“ (Kayaragusa, 1845) was printed. These books were about Japanese customs and there are two sections dedicated to paper folding. [Note: due to an error in translation, these books are sometimes mistakenly called Kan No Mado.] There was only one copy of this collection made; it is currently owned by the Asahi Newspaper in Osaka.

After this point, origami was well on its way. The Europeans also practiced paper folding: ideas and methods started to be mixed and developed until origami is what we see today.


Paper Folding in Europe

The history of paper folding in Europe is a story in itself. Most origami historians believe that early paper folding in Europe developed more-or-less independently from that of Japan. The main reason for this is that the origami models found in Europe tend to have a "grid" crease pattern (squares, rectangle, diagonals). In contrast, the ceremonial folds from old Japan tend to have judgement folds where the exact location of the cease is up to personal taste & interpretation. See Koshiro Hatori's article which compares the development of origami in the East and West in the conference proceedings, Origami 5.

Through battle and conquest, the secrets of paper and paper-making left China in 750 AD and began their journey into Central Asia and then to Europe.

The earliest published evidence of paper folding in Europe is probably from the 1490 printing of the book "De Sphaera Mundi" (On the Sphere of the World) by Johannes de Sacrobosco. In this book is a woodcut print of two boats, one of the boats looks very much like the classic origami boat which is sometimes used as a paper hat.

This is a (small) picture of a boat and some historians are not convinced that this is an origami boat. However, if this is indeed an origami boat, then it would suggest that paper folding developed in Europe independent of paper folding in Japan because in 1490, Japan would not have this type of recreational folds.



Photo from here

In Act IV of the play "The Duchess of Malfi" by John Webster (1614), character Bosola refers to paper prisons which boys use to imprison flies.
"Our bodies are weaker than those paper-
prisons boys use to keep flies in;
"
Historians believe that this is in referrence to the classic Waterbomb model.



Patenbrief (1831)
3 x 3 fold with twist closure.
In Germany and other parts of Europe, baptism certificates called "Patenbriefs" were given to babies by their godparents. These Patenbriefs were folded in a 3 x 3 or a 4 x 4 grid. Patenbriefs existed in the 17th, and 18th century; though, the oldest ones found on the internet are from the 1750's.

The next textual evidence of origami in the west would be a drawing from a picture-book of a boy sitting in a paper boat floating in a tea cup. This image is from the book "Hanenpoot" by Willem Bilderchijk (1806). The boat is identified as the traditional Chinese Junk.

Interestingly, historians think that the traditional Chinese Junk was not invented in China because it is made with a 4 x 4 grid consistent with the other origami models found in European made with the same windmill base. As well, there is no evidence of the Chinese Junk in the history of paper folding in China or Japan.


Image from "Hanenpoot". Image from here.

Traditional Chinese Junk from Origami From Around the World (Vincente Palacios).



By this time, origami was quite common across parts of Europe. There is mention of people folding paper into various shapes such as kites, boats, and birds. One origami model which is almost definitely from Europe is "Pajarita" (little bird). Origami historian, Vicente Palacios, has accumulated a mass of evidence suggesting that Pajarita was first created in Spain. The same model exists across Europe under different names.
You can see Pajarita in European paintings from the 1800's such as "The Merrymakers" by French painter, Carolus-Duran (circa 1870). The lady in black is holding Pajarita. See more examples here.

To this day, Pajarita is used as the logo for Asociación Española de Papiroflexia (Spanish Paper Folding Association).



Contemporary Origami

From Europe, origami then spread to South America and then to North America. In the 1950, Akira Yoshizana and Sam Randlett developed a standard set of origami symbols to describe how to fold paper into models. These symbols remained essentially the same and is used in origami diagrams today. [Note: David Lister suggests that it was Sam Randlett and Robert Harbin who formalized the use of the origami symbols.]

Currently, there are thousands of origami books, free origami diagrams on the internet, and origami videos. The art form continues to evolve and develop. Origami styles and techniques include: complex origami, mathematical origami, modular origami, wet folding origami, origami tessellations, and more.


To see a timeline, or different perspectives on the history of origami, please visit these sites:



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