Winner of the Royal Society of Literature Jerwood Award 2011
THE PAPER TRAIL is the story of how a Chinese invention revolutionized written knowledge across Eurasia, from its birth in China two thousand years ago to the printing explosion that galvanised Europe fifteen hundred years later.
It is a journey through politics and religion, as leaders in both spheres ally with paper to ensure ideological influence or domination. This is not a story concerned with a technology for its own sake but, instead, with the profound impact that technology enjoyed and the possibilities it awakened, as knowledge experienced a series of explosions from East to West. It is a journey of stops and starts, since paper-making in any significant quantity remained limited to East Asia for seven centuries, then spread rapidly through the Abbasid Caliphate to embed the Koran, Koranic commentaries and theological debates in the cultures of the Dar al Islam. Finally it twinned with printing in Europe to feed the Renaissance demand for books, and thereby allow Reformation ideas to gain currency, and “heretical” scientific ideas to gain ground as a new knowledge culture emerged, driven by commerce and, in time, a reading public, rather than by Rome.
This book will therefore be the story of how an obsession with the past and with learning led to the invention of paper, sparking a series of explosions of knowledge that led from second century China to sixteenth century Europe, where the story climaxed with a printing-driven knowledge revolution focused on the three great founding fathers of European modernity – the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution. Along its path lay several crucial staging posts – in effect a series of big bang moments that sent knowledge to ever-greater audiences – granting to the book an entirely new order of power and, to those who could control its production, sway over the minds of their subjects, compatriots or religious devotees.
Alexander Monro has been distracted by China and her neighbours for several years and should probably move on. In 2002, he travelled across Mongolia by horse in the footsteps of Genghis Khan and, two years later, completed the trip as he explored the Timurid architecture of Central Asia, from western China to Afghanistan. He has written and begged a living in Beijing and Shanghai as a student and a journalist, studying mandarin and Chinese politics in Cambridge and writing features on Shanghai life and on the arts for Reuters. Back in London, he wrote on Chinese politics and public policy as a political risk consultant at Trusted Sources and continued to freelance for various UK publications as well as writing for Times Online.
He wrote three chapters for The Dragon Throne, a history of China’s dynasties edited by Jonathan Fenby, and a chapter on Genghis Khan for Seventy Great Journeys, published by Thames and Hudson. He has also edited two poetry anthologies for the travel publisher Eland. The second of these, to be published in 2009, is a collection of translated classical Chinese poetry.