Although paper had been known as a wrapping and padding material in China since the 2nd century BC, the first use of toilet paper in human history dates back to the 6th century AD, in early medieval China. In 589 AD the scholar-official Yan Zhitui (531–591) wrote about the use of toilet paper:
"Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from Five Classics or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes".
During the later Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD) a Muslim traveler to China in the year 851 AD remarked:
"They (the Chinese) are not careful about cleanliness, and they do not wash themselves with water when they have done their necessities; but they only wipe themselves with paper."
During the early 14th century (Yuan Dynasty) it was recorded that in modern-day Zhejiang province alone there was an annual manufacturing of toilet paper amounting in ten million packages of 1,000 to 10,000 sheets of toilet paper each. During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 AD), it was recorded in 1393 that 720,000 sheets of toilet paper (two by three feet in size) were produced for the general use of the Imperial court at the capital of Nanjing. From the records of the Imperial Bureau of Supplies (Bao Chao Si) of that same year, it was also recorded that for Emperor Hongwu's imperial family alone, there were 15,000 sheets of special soft-fabric toilet paper made, and each sheet of toilet paper was even perfumed.
Elsewhere, wealthy people wiped themselves with wool, lace or hemp, while less wealthy people used their hand when defecating into rivers, or cleaned themselves with various materials such as rags, wood shavings, leaves, grass, hay, stone, sand, moss, water, snow, maize, ferns, may apple plant husks, fruit skins, or seashells, and corn cobs, depending upon the country and weather conditions or social customs. In Ancient Rome, a sponge on a stick was commonly used, and, after usage, placed back in a bucket of saltwater.
The 16th century French satirical writer François Rabelais, in Chapter XIII of Book 1 of his novel-sequence Gargantua and Pantagruel, has his character Gargantua investigate a great number of ways of cleansing oneself after defecating. Gargantua dismisses the use of paper as ineffective, rhyming that: "Who his foul tail with paper wipes, Shall at his ballocks leave some chips." (Sir Thomas Urquhart's 1653 English translation). He concludes that "the neck of a goose, that is well downed" provides an optimum cleansing medium.
In many parts of the world, especially where toilet paper or the necessary plumbing for disposal may be unavailable or unaffordable, toilet paper is not used. Cleansing is then performed with other methods or materials, such as water, for example using a bidet, rags, sand, leaves (including seaweed), corn cobs, animal furs, sticks or hands.