Paper cutting is a long-standing decorative folk art in China. The cutter first draws the designs on a piece of paper and then cuts them out with scissors or a knife. In the countryside, paper cuts are often stuck on windows and doors as auspicious and joyful decorations to mark festivals and happy occasions. Often decorative patterns like a baby, gourd, lotus, etc. can be used to symbolize plenty of offspring and blessings. As a type of folk art, paper cutting highlights distinctive local features: unpretentious and uninhibited as in Shaanxi; graceful and fine as in Hebei; resplendent and orderly as in Sichuan; exquisite and pleasing as in Jiangsu. Paper cuts are also used for decorating gifts or as a gift itself.
There are two chief crafts in performing paper cutting, the scissor-cutting approach and the knife-cutting approach. Just as the terms suggests, with the scissor-cutting approach, the scissors are sued as tool. Component parts of a pattern are cut at first and are pasted into a whole, and then the pattern is clipped with the help of sharp scissors to make a fine finish. By the knife-cutting approach, a paper is folded into several layers and placed on a soft mixture of ash and animal fat, and then cut carefully with a small knife. In comparison with scissor cutting, knife cutting can have more patterns cut at one time.
In terms of skills, paper cutting falls into cut-in-relief, intaglio and mixed carving. The relief cutting process is a development of traditional Chinese linear pattern tracing approach. Works done using such approach are extraordinarily exquisite with the lines cut as fine as hair. With intaglio the images appear more dignified and unaffected with bright spots or white lines incised into dark surface. The mixed carving using relief cutting and incised cutting alternatively, further enriches the paper-cut. With respect to coloring, there are multicolor cutting, dyeing cutting and golden color cutting. In multicolor cutting, more than two polychrome sheets are put together to form a pattern before cutting. By dyeing cutting, dyeing liquid is dripped onto finished paper-cuts. The permeability of water can make the different colors seeping into each other without totally obliterating the effect of each color involved, thus producing a bright and gorgeous effect. By golden color cutting, patterns are cut using golden paper and then set off with all sorts of colored paper so as to appear resplendent and magnificent, suitable for festival decoration.
The art of paper cutting in China came into being during the Han and Wei period before iron tools and paper were invented. Much earlier than that, carving craft had made rapid growth. The unearthed gold and silver thin sheets used as ornaments in the Warring States Period are similar to paper in shape. In the Western Han Dynasty, people started to make paper using hemp fibers. Legend has it that Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (156-87 B.C.) who incessantly missed his favorite concubine Lady Li, gave an order to a sorcerer to carve a figure of Lady Li with hemp paper in order to call back the spirits of the dead lady. That is perhaps the earliest paper-cut. The two round pieces of flower-patterned paper-cut of the Northern and Southern Dynasties unearthed from the old city of Gaochang, Xinjiang, are the earliest paper-cut works in China up to now. They were cut from hemp paper, in folded shape, used as sacrificial offerings, showing excellent craftsmanship of the artists.
Paper making was highly developed in the Song Dynasty. Paper of every description was created one after another, contributing greatly to the enrichment of paper-cut varieties, such as paper cuts for window decoration, for lantern ornament, for teacup adornment, etc. From the time of Song Dynasty paper cutting had also become an applied art. For instance, paper-cut designs were from then on used for ceramics in the Jizhou kilns in Jiangxi Province. The process includes pasting paper-cut works on China wares in the course of glazing before baking in the kiln. This kind of craft has the advantage of making the designs vivid and lively. The application of paper-cut further expanded in the Song Dynasty. It was used to cut shadow play figures out of hides of animals such as donkey, ox, horse and sheep. By that time, professional craftsmen specialized in paper-cutting appeared, each with his own strong point; some good at cutting calligraphic works of all schools; some well versed in cutting all sorts of designs. In the book entitled Zhiyatang Zachao (Miscellaneous Records of Lofty Aspiration Hall) written by Zhou Mi (1232-c. 1298) of the Song Dynasty, a man named Yu Jingzhi was mentioned, and he was the first artisan recorded in the history of paper-cut.
In the Ming and Qing dynasties the art of paper-cut reached a period of full bloom. It was applied on the folk lanterns, covering of fans, embroidered fabrics, etc. For example, the running horse lantern in the Ming Dynasty is a kind of decorative lantern with a revolving circle of colorful paper-cut horses and other figures, which revolves as hot air ascends from the candle burning within it. Paper-cut works are more commonly used for household decoration, beautification of living environment, etc.
Paper-cut artisans are mainly women. Being good at needlework is traditionally an important sign of femininity. Paper-cut is also included in the category of needlework and is a must for girls to learn since childhood. Through imitative cutting, repeated cutting, drawing-and-cutting, starting from familiar objects such as fish, insects, birds, animals, flowers, plants, pavilions, bridges, scenery, etc., they gradually succeed in mastering this kind of art until they are able to cut new designs spontaneously, following their own inclinations.
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