For centuries, cultures have come up with creative ways to artistically approach, adopt, and adapt the paper craft. While many of these practices, including Korean Hanji, can be individually traced to specific countries of origin, most—including papier–mâché, a French-sounding craft that was actually conceived in ancient China—boast colorful histories that span cultures, countries, and even continents. One popular practice that has left a particularly extensive paper trail across the globe is origami, the art of paper folding.
Though most closely tied to Japan, origami also has roots in China and Europe. Here, we explore the practice’s unique history to understand how each culture has shaped the beautiful and beloved art form.
What is Origami?
Origami is the art of paper-folding. Its name derives from Japanese words ori (“folding”) and kami (“paper”). Traditional origami consists of folding a single sheet of square paper (often with a colored side) into a sculpture without cutting, gluing, taping, or even marking it.
History of Origami
Creatives from several countries helped shape origami into the practice it is today.
Paper was invented in China around 105 AD, and folded paper—or zhezhi—most likely emerged shortly after. By 900 AD, paper yuanbao, or gold nuggets, were a staple at traditional Chinese funerals.Created by meticulously folding gold or yellow paper into ingot currency, these ephemeral ornaments were crafted with the intention of being thrown into a fire at the end of the ceremony.
Eventually, paper-folding would become a common practice. Though similar to Japanese origami, more modern Chinese paper-folding exhibits an interest in representing inanimate objects, like boats and boxes.
Paper was introduced to Japan in the 6th century. During this time, the practice of paper-folding emerged as a ceremonial Shinto ritual. It was not until Japan’s Edo Period (1603 – 1868) that origami would also be viewed as a leisurely activity and art form.
Like Japanese woodblock prints—an art form that also saw popularity during this time—origami works often featured flowers, birds, and other nature-based motifs. These subjects are also prevalent in contemporary origami, which remains true to the traditional Japanese practice in all ways but one: originally, the practice allowed artists to strategically cut the sheets of paper. Today, however, true origami is sculpted entirely through folds—an attribute the Japanese adopted from Europe.
Photo: Library of Congress
In Europe, paper-folding is thought to have evolved from napkin-folding, a practice popularized in the 17th century. Much like Japanese origami, napkin-folding featured different methods and techniques that resulted in an array of abstract and figurative forms.
Eventually, this interest in folding moved beyond napkins at dinner parties and made its way into schools—namely, in Friedrich Fröbel‘s groundbreaking curriculum.
As the founder of kindergartens, Fröbel incorporated several hands-on activities into his “play and activity” institutes, including paper-folding. This familiarized children with origami, and eventually enabled the art form to flourish across the continent.