The History of origami and paper folding

For over 2000 years origami has been a source of interest and enjoyment for both adults and kids. The history of Origami is rooted in the Han dynasty in China. The craft has journeyed across time and cultures, eventually finding its home in Japan.

The advent of paper democratized writing. This led to making paper into a variety of diverse arts. One of these paper arts was paper folding. Over the years Origami has evolved from an aristocratic status symbol to a spiritual and cultural tradition and finally finding its way into modern contemporary art. This evolution from basic utility to artistic expression eventually paved the way for the emergence of origami.

This article will go through a brief history of origami, from the beginning to now.

The invention of Paper

ancient paper making china

Before the invention of paper, people relied on materials like papyrus and parchment for writing. Papyrus was made from reeds of the papyrus plant and was popular in ancient Egypt. It provided a smooth surface for writing with ink, but its availability was limited to regions with access to the plant. Parchment which was made from animal skins, was more durable but costlier to produce. These limitations meant that writing materials were limited to certain members of society.

The story of the paper begins in ancient China. Around 105 AD a eunuch in the Imperial Court of Han Dynasty by the name of Cai Lun developed the first form of paper. He achieved this by blending mulberry bark fibers, hemp, rags, and water. Cai Lun crafted a material that was lightweight, versatile, and relatively easy to produce compared to the bamboo sheets that were used before his invention. He is credited as the inventor of paper.

Paper offered several advantages over its predecessors. Its widespread availability and relatively low cost democratized knowledge and education. The ease of producing paper led to an explosion in written culture, with books, documents, and art becoming more accessible to a broader range of people. And of course, Origami was among the arts.

Early Days of Paper folding

yellow chinese zhezhi yuanbao set on desk

During the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), paper was a precious commodity. It was a luxury accessible mainly to the elite. As paper found its place in religious rituals, daily life, and entertainment, the subtle art of folding paper into intricate forms began to flourish. This practice emerged with the popularity of paper as Chinese society discovered paper’s potential for various purposes beyond its initial use in documentation.

These early stages of paper folding, which were completely distinct from origami as we know it, were used for various religious, cultural, and entertainment practices.

One of the most notable examples of pre-origami paper folding was offerings known as “Zhe Zhi.” These delicate paper-folded creations were meticulously crafted and heavily intertwined with symbolism. They represented objects, animals, and even people, each carrying unique significance.

These symbolic offerings carried wishes for prosperity, happiness, longevity, and spiritual well-being. For instance, a folded paper horse symbolizes wishes of swiftness and progress in one’s endeavors. While a folded bird represented spiritual freedom.

While artistry and symbolism were prominent aspects of early paper folding, it also served practical functions. The practical value of folded paper objects emerged. The folded paper box, for instance, was used to store herbs, spices, and other commodities. This pushed paper folding from an art form to more functional paper creations.

Paper Folding in Japan – Origami’s Birth


Paper was introduced to Japan from China in the early 7th century. This was a significant time when Japan’s exposure to Chinese culture was been fueled by trade and diplomatic interactions. As paper became more accessible in Japan, so did the basic practice of paper folding. Origami eventually came about when the Japanese took basic paper folding and added their own unique set of rules and principles, making it a formalized art. The main difference between Origami and Traditional ZheZhi is that ZheZhi would focus on inanimate objects such as fans, pagodas, and boats. Origami on the other hand focuses on animals in addition to inanimate objects.

Origami would continue to integrate into Japanese culture. Between 794 and 1185 AD, the ancient art was a huge part of ceremonial life with the Japanese upper class. Samurai would exchange folded paper as adornments of good luck. When the Shinto noblemen got married, they celebrated weddings with glasses of sake that had male and female origami butterflies. Similar to how we have Bride and Groom figurines on wedding cakes.

Tea-ceremony master’s diplomas were folded in a special way. This special fold was done in such a way that if anyone opened it, it could not be refolded without creating new creases. This special fold ensured privacy and secrecy.

During the Muromachi period (1338 – 1573), origami was used to distinguish the different classes among the Samurai. By the Edo Period (1603 – 1868), paper became widely and cheaply available. This led to the democratization of Origami and ordinary people had access to origami. Kids would even learn origami in school during this period.

In 1984, the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, killing thousands of people. The effects of radiation cancer started killing even more people after that. One such person that was affected was Sadako Sasaki. She was a ten-year-old girl who was near the Hiroshima bombing when she was just two years old. One of Sadako’s friends folded a paper crane for her. The crane is very significant because it is believed that it can live up to a thousand years in Japan. And anyone that folds a thousand paper cranes, will have their wish granted.

Sadako folded any piece of paper she could find into an origami crane. At first, she wished to regain her health. But as she got weaker and towards the end of her tunnel, she instead started wishing for world peace.

When she had passed she had only managed to fold 644 paper cranes. Her friends folded the remaining cranes. They then started raising money for a monument. After three years they received enough donations for the monument and it was unveiled in Hiroshima’s peace park. On every Peace Day(August 6th), people commemorate Sadako by sending Origami cranes from around the world to the park.

The Moors

muqarna of mosque

While Japan was falling in love with paper folding, the same was happening on the other side of the world. The Moors invaded Spain during the 8th Century AD. And they brought paper-folding art forms with them. “Moors” was a medieval European term used to describe Arabs, Berbers, and other North African and Middle Eastern ethnic groups

It is believed that when the Chinese interacted with Arabs during the Tang dynasty, they could have possibly passed on the art of paper folding. The Moors were excellent Mathematicians and Astronomers and used mathematical origami to teach geometry. The geometric patterns and intricate designs seen in their architecture, ceramics, and textiles are believed to be influenced by the development of paper folding techniques. The “muqarnas” which is a form of architectural ornamentation characterized by intricate geometric patterns, has a strong resemblance to origami’s precision and complexity.

Modern Origami Paper Folding as an art form Today

collage of modern origami

Akira Yoshizawa is regarded as the father of modern origami. He transformed the art from a simple children’s craft into the sophisticated form of artistic expression known today. Yoshizawa developed a system of notation for origami designs called “Yoshizawa-Randlett notation.” This notation system is a graphical way of representing origami diagrams and the folding sequences using a set of symbols and lines. It allows for origami artists to document and share their designs in a standardized format thus making it easier for others to replicate the folds and create the same model. He also pioneered techniques for folding complex and intricate designs such as wet folding and organic folding.

The vibrancy of modern origami owes much to the contributions of contemporary origami artists who have been influenced by Yoshizawa. Artists Robert J. Lang, Erik Demaine, and Satoshi Kamiya have reimagined the art form. They have taken the craft to new heights with their intricate and amazing origami designs while adhering to the traditional principles of origami. These artists are known for using advanced mathematical principles and computer algorithms to create multiple complex origami folds that were once considered impossible.

Folding Technology and Innovation

diagram of airbag using origami folding techniques to fit into

Modern technology has created a new era of possibilities in Origami. Advancements like laser-cutting machines and 3D printers have enabled artists to create precise, intricate patterns that were once considered impossible or extremely time-consuming to achieve by hand. Lasers can be used to create advanced folds on paper that would otherwise be impossible to achieve by hand. Origami software allows artists to visualize and simulate their designs before even picking up a sheet of paper.

Beyond the Traditional: Applications in Science and Design

Modern origami has extended its reach far beyond the that of the arts. Scientists, engineers, and designers have embraced its principles to find innovative solutions to real-world problems. You will be surprised to learn of some of the inventions that stem from origami design, many of them are in fact life-saving!

  • Airbag Designs that explode/expand quickly.
  • Medical Devices and surgical instruments that fold once inserted into the body.
  • Retractable shelters and roofs for buildings
  • Foldable Solar panels
  • Aerospace engineering


As we unfold the pages of history, origami emerges as a testament to human creativity and adaptability.

Origami’s legacy persists — figures like Sadako Sasaki remind us of its power to convey wishes, heal wounds, and advocate for peace.

In today’s digital age, origami continues to evolve having a mutual relationship with technology. Origami’s principles have helped solve modern-day technological problems in a unique way. Technology has made it possible to create Origami art which was once considered impossible.

The best part is, if you are new to origami and are interested in learning it, it has never been an easier time.