Culture Insider: The evolution of bookmark in ancient China

During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), hardcover and paperback book gradually replaced thread-bound book. New kinds of bookmarks are used to adapt the new form of books, and remain so till today.
PHOTO: The Straits Times


For centuries China has been associated with learning, innovation and rich culture. With emphasis on knowledge so deeply interwoven in the country's history, it's no wonder that there's no shortage of books.

But that raises another problem: How do you find the book you want?

It is said that the books housed in Tang Dynasty (618-907)'s Jixian Palace were distinguished by their colors: red, green, blue and white.

When looking for certain books, the colour code was the first thing the reader looked for. The method used during the Tang Dynasty was very different from today's.

At that time the books were made of bamboo and wooden chips, with different chips being tied together with strings to compose the book.

After somebody finished reading a book, they would roll the book from the tail end and the top end will be left outside.

Usually, two empty chips will be put in the top end and the chapter name will be written on the back of the empty chips.

So when somebody took the book, they would know the content without opening it.

This became the embryonic form of the earliest bookmark.

Bamboo and ivory bookmark

During the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), silk books gradually replaced bamboo chips.

People wrote on the silk book or pasted the paper with written characters on the silk scroll, and then twined them on the wooden or bamboo roller.

To make it easier for readers to find the book, people would tie a small plate at one end of the roller marked with the book name, the volume number or other information, making it a precursor to the current "bookmark".

The bookmark during that time was always made with bamboo, and engraved with orchid or flower patterns on the bamboo as decoration.

Wealthy families used ivory as bookmark, and some families hanged the ivory bookmarks on the bookshelves.

Bookmark for paper books

After the emergence of printing, paper books became popular.

The early paper book was made in the form of binding pages together using paper.

The silk strip written with book name was used as bookmark and pasted on the book cover.

To distinguish with the bookmark of scroll, the bookmark was called "floating mark".

The book pages were shorter in length then, and the bookmark didn't have to be inserted into the book to mark the reading process.

During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), hardcover and paperback book gradually replaced thread-bound book.

The book became thicker and the name began to be printed on the cover instead of pasted on the cover.

So people began to place the bookmark inside the book to mark the reading process.

The bookmark functioned in the same as we use today.

The bookmarks we currently use come in various shapes and materials and are creatively designed.