A number of studies have shown that the manual rhamnoneuron papers (the hand-made rhamnoneuron paper), contains free acid-producing compounds. Rhamnoneuron peels are soaked in lime water for three months, which grounds to make the mucilage (vegetale substance) for starch making after the black peel layers are removed. These remaining rhamnoneuron peels are cooked again on a large pan where they are stirred continuously with a sickle with bamboo blind or thick copper mold. As the stirring process goes on, the rhamnoneuron flour will start to stick to the sickle; together with the pressing, drying, compressing and flatting stages later, this rhamnoneuron pulp will turn into the rhamnoneuron paper. In this way, the rhamnoneuron fibers will stick together to make cobweb-shape layers, making the papers softer and lighter.
Making rhamnoneuron paper is a tough work for any artisan, including the well trained workers from Yen Thai, Ho Khau, Nghia Do, Buoi regions as they have to walk along the bank of Thao river toVu En Street (Village) to collect the main material : fresh rhamnoneuron peels.
The fresh rhamnoneuron peels are then soaked in cold water for one day, then soaked again in diluted lime water for two days, and finally cooked in a bain-marie before being transferred to other stages. Previously, the Yen Thai workers used to use their wood chips and chunks to cook the rhamnoneuron peels on the To Lich riverside, as this was a convenient place for soaking, painting, washing and transporting as well. There was a well by To Lich riverside the locals could used which provided them with an abundant source of water for feeding and producing rhamnoneuron papers. Every year, in the third month of the lunar calendar, the local community would clean and dredge this well to ensure their water source’s safety and cleanliness/hygiene. However, the disappearance of the village’s well has made the golden age of rhamnoneuron paper fall into oblivion.
After being submerged several times, the rhamnoneuron peels have now turned into a pristine white fiber. Before becoming a handmade paper that we can write on, these cured white fibers are pounded into a hard, thin mortar until they all come together in texture and consistency. Pounding is one of the toughest work and it is only conducted by the fathers. With a diluted basin containing “mo” gum, the rhamnoneuron mortar will have a convenient environment to become sticky : when the artisans place the sickle into this pulp, new paper sheets will take shape. Since this step is quite tricky, women are usually chosen to perform it. After that, they gently wiggle it side-to-side until the pulp on top of the screen looks even and wait until most of the water has drained from the new paper sheet. When the mold stops dripping, they gently place one edge on the side of a fabric square with the paper directly on the fabric.
Repeating the steps above, the artisans would use a sponge to press out as much water as possible, and gently separate the sheets. They can be dried in an oven or by being layed out on newspaper sheets. This is the procedure of transforming fresh rhamnoneuron peels into finished papers, which are then sold in the market for consumers’ use.
However, the steps above are used to producde writing papers which are specifically used by Confucian scholars or printing stores. The lower quality papers, namely “moi”, “phen”, and “xe” papers, are produced by taking advantage of the abundantly hideous parts of rhamnoneuron peels.
Among the prevalent handmade papers, royal appointment papers seem to be the most valuable ones because of their preciousness, sophisticated dragon and cloud decorations. From the perspective of the local people at Nghia Do village, royal appointment papers belong to the first class handmade products; together with silky rhamnoneuron papers and velvet papers, they are occasionally used for book printing and long-wearing picture printing.
In respect of the handmade paper business, it’s undeniable that sickle is an essential tool for the craftsmen. Strange to say, the sickles are often produced by Xuan Dinh people, who use soaked and tiny neohouzeaua battens (around 60 to 70 cm) to make the sickles. The workers also do the fumigation for neohouzeaua battens in order to ensure the stickiness of paper starch to the sickle. Delicately, craftsmen mix scobs and cow-pat for lighting as these substances create no fire, but only release smokes. Around 6,000 battens will be fired in one kiln continuously in two days; with stirring every two hours until battens turn in yellow ones.
The next step is to make a weaving frame. The frame, in this case, is made of plain smoothed frames which have a variety of tiny flutes, with a 2 cm space between every flues. The threads are twined around with beautiful blue stone spools which are as small as a thumb. The locals used to order threads from other villages, causing unexpected problems and inconveniences; however, due to the speedy development later, the local workers have changed their supplier for the Trieu Khuc village (currently known as Thanh Tri ward, outskirt of Hanoi). As Trieu Khuc was famous for its handmade business, the silk thread there is water resistant and of highly solid quality.
Most of the production tools are made from bamboo, woods that are naturally dried under sun. As a consequence, rhamnoneuron papers contain low acid substance and can be used for a long time. There even exist documents stating that the average age of a rhamnoneuron paper could go up to 500 years.
The sound of pestles pounding rhamnoneuron papers has become an inspiration for Vietnamese folk-song:
The smoke in the morning is spreading among fog
which never sounds and can never be cut up.
But the sound of Yen Thai mortar pounding,
and the water surface at Tay Lake
always sounds and can never be cut up.