Historian Baker Presents on Paper-Making and the Exchange of Ideas

Posted on 10/17/2015 11:14:03 AM

Christine Baker presented at the Mid-Atlantic Region Association for Asian Studies (MAR/AAS) conference at the University of Pittsburgh, October 9–11, 2015. The theme of the conference was “Asia: Conflict and Cooperation.” Professor Baker presented a paper entitled “Paper-Making and the Exchange of Ideas: The Legend of the Battle of Talas (751).”

cbaker mar aasBaker's paper discussed the legend of the Battle of Talas, when Muslim forces of the ‘Abbasid caliphate (750-1258) defeated the army of the T’ang Dynasty (618-907) near Samarqand. During this encounter, the ‘Abbasids didn’t only win a battle against a powerful Chinese foe. In addition, after the battle, they captured Chinese paper makers who were traveling with the T’ang forces. And this is how knowledge of paper-making spread from China into the Middle East.

The problem is: no one thinks this actually happened. Sources report that there was paper making in Central Asia at least fifty years before. Further, Chinese and Muslim civilizations made paper in different ways -- there's no evidence that knowledge of how to make paper was transferred at this battle.

So why do Arabic sources tell this story? It’s not mentioned in the earliest surviving sources, but it becomes a popular legend in the 12th and 13th centuries. Baker’s paper theorized on why this battle became so important and why Muslim authors decided in the 12th century to create the legend of the ‘Battle of Talas.’