Kankonshi 還魂紙

Usuzumi no Rinji/Reclaimed Paper Imperial Decree, 1333 CE, coll. Toji Hyakugo Monjo, Kyoto Pref.

From Jonathan A. Hill bookseller’s latest catalogue, this entry caught my eye:

An extremely rare example of a Kamakura-era sutra printed in Japan on recycled grayish paper; this is the first specimen we have encountered. For an excellent discussion on the subject of recycled paper used in early Japanese printing, we have turned to the most interesting contribution of SOAS Prof. Lucia Dolce (“A Sutra as a Notebook? Printing and Repurposing Scriptures in Medieval Japan,” Ars Orientalis, Vol. 52, No. 3, 2023):

because of the reclaimed paper, called sukigaeshigami 漉返紙 in the period, and shukushi 宿紙 in contemporary archives, but frankly, this sentence is mostly to not have nested blockquotes. Prof. Dolce:

The term sukigaeshigami 漉返紙 (reclaimed paper) appears often in literary works of the time, indicating paper made by soaking scrap paper and other fibers and then spreading them thinly. This method erased the previous text almost completely. Small traces of ink and even traces of characters remained, for ink dissolves and adheres to paper and it is difficult to remove it completely. This gave paper a light gray, “thin-inked” color (usuzumikami 薄墨紙). Sutra printed on such paper were called shukugamikyō 宿紙経, literally “sutras on reclaimed paper.” Since this type of paper was darker and of lower quality than new paper, it was mixed with a higher-quality paper, such as the silky textured ganpi that lends a glossy appearance, and became luxury paper. A second impression of the Kōei edition of the Lotus Sutra was printed on recycled paper of unknown provenance, which had been mixed with mica.

This next paragraph is part of the quote, too, and the entire reason for posting this, but I couldn’t get it to be bold AND italic:

The understanding that writing is imbued with the spirit of a person underpinned such practices, and it is suggestive that literary works use the term kankonshi 還魂紙 (lit., “paper in which the spirit of a deceased comes back” for sutra paper recycled from someone’s writings. These examples suggest that the preservation of a deceased person’s writing functioned as a primary aim for reusing written paper, for once printed with a sutra, that writing would enjoy long life with no danger of being destroyed (except by accident).

It is worthy of note, though, that reclaiming paper was primarily not an emotional strategy, but a regular operation in premodern Japan. Until the fourteenth century paper recycling was run by a governmental institution, the Kamiya 紙屋, and recycled paper was routinely used by the court for bureaucratic matters, such as imperial messages.

I am transfixed by this idea of text being imbued with the spirit of its writer—a concept which resonates more with calligraphy or handwriting—and of a paper that brings that spirit back. And then to get made into a sutra, never to be recycled again! Yay? Oh no? How does the deceased feel about this? Is it a goal or a trap?

Prof. Dolce notes that reclaiming paper was not emotional, but routine, but was also prestigious. Besides the 14th century CE imperial decree on shukushi Prof. Dolce references in the National Archives in Tokyo, the description of this decree in the Toji Hyakugo Monjo in Kyoto explains that the shukushi used by the emperors was darkened even further to enhance its sacred and majestic character. I don’t know if it mattered what paper or whose writing was reclaimed for this, but this spiritual/ephemeral continuity and embodiment as a material expression of its own is fascinating.

There Is Life after Being Re-Pulped [jonathanahill]
Dolce, L., (2023) “A Sutra as a Notebook? Printing and Repurposing Scriptures in Medieval Japan” [journals.publishing.umich.edu]