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National Museum of Natural Science, Taiwan*
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Pith Paper Revival
Exhibition Gallery, Botanical Garden
September 7 – December 2, 2012

─ What is old is new again.─
Often called “rice-paper” by western people under the mistaken impression it was made of rice, pith paper is formed from the pith of the Tetrapanax papyriferum (Hook.) plant, a member of the Araliaceae (ginseng) family. Tetrapanax, a native to southern China and Taiwan, prefers wet and warm conditions. In Chinese it is called “tung-tsao,” meaning “hollow plant.” It remained unknown to the western botanists until the early and mid-nineteenth century when samples of the pith were carried to England to be studied by Botanist William J. Hooker.

During the Japanese Occupation (1895 – 1945), Taiwan’s local industry was encouraged; pith industry reached its peak around 1919 due to the Japan-British exhibition; pith paper from Taiwan was exported in large quantities. Pith was a very important economic plant at that time, especially in Hsin-chu area, for the pith is a speciality in the mountain areas of northern Taiwan, with Hsin-chu as its main distribution area.

Pith paper is a kind of thin, delicate, translucent, and velvety paper. It is made by cutting the pith from the stem and branches of its shrub plant, paring or carving into long, narrow sheets, flatting, and drying. Large sheets were used for paintings, smaller pieces were made into artificial flowers or trinkets, even tiny bits were used as pillow stuffing or medicine. The rods left after cutting the pith were used as floats for fishing, or for young school children to make little animals in craft lessons.

Unlike manufactured paper made from macerated and matted fibers, the internal order of pith resembles the honeycomb structure of a wasp's nest. This complex cellular structure makes pith highly reactive to moisture. When paint is applied to the paper's surface, the cells swell, causing the painted image to take on a three-dimensional appearance with a jewel-like brilliance. As to making artificial flowers, pith paper is smooth and white as a bone by nature; and because of its strength and flexibility, pith paper is well suited to the art of making artificial flowers. Flowers made of pith paper are used to give a natural and realistic look.

The Museum presents the special exhibition titled “Pith Paper Revival” in collaboration with the Pith Paper Culture & Art Studio, trying to remind people of this fading art, and moreover to popularize it again. Pith Paper Revival features a rich collection of pith items ranging from pith plants, pith pieces, bundles of pith paper, plaits made from pith to pith paintings and artificial flowers. Also, there are a series of tools used in various stages of the pith production process on display. Last but not the least, an export painting from China in the 19th century displayed on the 2nd floor of the gallery, which depicts an elaborately patterned rug beneath a beauty seated in an armchair while a servant stands holding a mirror, is the highlight of the exhibition.

“We often see realistic-looking artificial flowers made of plastic. Yes, they do offer an extraordinary finish that gives them a gristly look,” said Dr. Sun Wei-hsin, the Museum’s director. “But anyway, they aren’t environmentally friendly,” pointed Sun out, “The Museum presents Pith Paper exhibition to remind people of our traditional art and craft as well as the important issue of environmental protection just at the right time!”

“Pith is very brittle, fragile, and is prone to discoloration. Therefore, we have to take some measures such as artwork insurance, UV blocking stickers and desiccating agent to protect the artworks on display,” said Dr. Yen Hsin-fu, the exhibition organizer, at the opening reception. “Also, in order to offer our visitors a good look at these delicate artworks, we don’t place any barriers to stop them from getting too close,” noted Yen. “However, we ask our visitors to stay at least an arm’s length away from the works of art, and never to touch them.”

The Garden cordially invites you to explore our fading tradition and art. A stop over at the Garden is sure to make a very worthwhile, enjoyable, and informative visit for you!

  • DIY craft activities: Sunday afternoons, Sep. 23, Oct. 7 & Nov. 18

Pith Paper Revival is organized by the National Museum of Natural Science in collaboration with Pith Paper Culture & Art Studio.
Additional support is generously provided by Hsinchu Forest District Office , Hsinchu City Government, and Atayal Tribe Development Association.