The oil paper umbrella has been in use for over 2000 years. The umbrellas are made of hand-cut bamboo strips for the frame and natural water-resistant tung oil-coated cotton paper for the surface. The oil paper umbrella is the world’s earliest umbrella, made by hand and entirely from raw materials, the result of ancient Chinese wisdom.
The folding umbrellas we use today were made by the British in the 19th century using modern techniques based on the principles of the opening and closing of the Chinese oil paper umbrella. Although it is much more affordable and portable, the nylon steel frame umbrella feels less meaningful and alive than the traditional oil paper umbrella.
Umbrellas have a long history in China, with the first being invented by Yun, the wife of Lu Ban. According to legend, in the late Spring and Autumn period, Lu Ban, a famous carpenter in ancient China, used to work in the field and often got wet if it rained. It is written in ancient texts that “Yun’s chopped bamboo into strips, covered with animal skin, gathered together like a stick and opened like a lid,” meaning that Yun’s wife wanted to make something that could protect her from the rain, so she chopped bamboo into thin strips and covered them with animal skin, looking like a “pavilion,” gathered together like a stick and opened like a lid. It was made to look like a ‘pavilion,’ closed like a stick and spread like a lid. This is what became known as the umbrella. This story shows that the ancestor of the umbrella was Yun, the wife of Lu Ban and that the history of the umbrella in China is thousands of years old.
In the eleventh century BC, umbrellas made of silk were available, but only to the best of the best. The yellow ‘huagai’ umbrella, a symbol of the ruler’s majesty, was first used by the Duke of Qin during the Warring States period and continued to be used until the Qing dynasty.
The invention of paper by Cai Lun in the Eastern Han Dynasty led to the introduction of oiled paper umbrellas coated with cooked tung oil. Still, at that time, the umbrellas were mainly made of yellow paper, which means that the history of oiled paper umbrellas in China is around 2000 years old.
During the Tang dynasty, the people widely used oiled paper umbrellas. During this period, the emergence of rice paper for painting and calligraphy led to the use of rice paper as the umbrella surface on which calligraphers wrote and painted. During this period, the oil paper umbrella spread to Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and the South Seas. The ‘green oil umbrella’ was widely used in the Song dynasty and is shown in the famous painting ‘Qingming Shanghe Tu,’ where people use it in a bustling marketplace.
In the Yuan dynasty, the invention of cotton led to the oiled cotton umbrella, which was said to have been brought back to China by the Italian Marco Polo, who improved it and developed it into the modern folding umbrella. Since the Yuan dynasty, the oiled paper and oilcloth umbrella has been a significant rain tool for Chinese folk.
During the Ming and Qing dynasties, Oiledpaper umbrellas were widely used in folklore, while calligraphers and painters of the period also enjoyed creating works on them; in March 2005, an oil paper umbrella made by Wen Zhengming for a landscape painting fetched $980,000 at an auction in the United States, but unfortunately, there are very few Oiledpaper umbrellas created by famous artists that have survived from ancient times.
From the Qing dynasty until the 1970s, the oil paper umbrella was an effective rain tool for folk. As well as being an everyday item to protect the bride from the sun and rain, it was also an integral part of traditional wedding rituals, with the bride being covered with a red oil paper umbrella to protect her from evil spirits at conventional Chinese weddings. The Chinese Oiledpaper umbrella spread to Japan and was improved to become the ‘Japanese umbrellas’ that are still used in Japan today. In addition, white umbrellas are used for funerals. Traditional Japanese dances also use umbrellas as props, and tea ceremonies are performed using ‘banzai’ umbrellas.
In the 1970s, the popularity of steel-framed umbrellas led to replacing oil paper and oilcloth umbrellas with steel-framed umbrellas and folding umbrellas. As a result, the oil paper umbrella was gradually withdrawn from the market.
In the 1980s and 1990s, with the development of tourism in China, the oil paper umbrella, as a representative of nostalgic culture, was loved by more and more people, and its function was no longer to be a rain gear but mainly a tourist souvenir, a gift, a decoration, a collection, etc. To match this function, silk and imitation silk craft umbrellas made of materials appeared in large numbers.
Oiled paper umbrellas are made from oil paper soaked in tung oil. Tung oil is the oil obtained by pressing the seeds of the tung tree, and its main component is triglycerides. Before the invention of paint, tung oil was used as paint in ancient times. People then found that if a layer of tung oil were applied to the surface of wood or metal, it would quickly dry out and turn from a liquid to a solid state. Wood or metal treated this way would resist water, rust, and corrosion. Clever ancient people also learned to soak the cloth in tung oil to make tarpaulin, which became an excellent performance tool for keeping out the rain.