Paper-cut art: from ancient times to modern technology

Paper-cut is an integral part of Chinese life and culture and expresses the moral principles, philosophies and aesthetic ideals of its exponents.
Paper-cut art: from ancient times to modern technology

In early years, paper-cut was a pastime for rural girls and women. Today, paper-cuts may also be mounted or framed just like artworks of calligraphy or traditional paintings.

When Chinese paper-cut was added in 2009 to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, the world organization pointed out that paper-cut is a “popular art integral to everyday lives” in China.

It also emphasized that as a key part of Chinese social life in all ethnic groups, “paper-cut expresses the moral principles, philosophies and aesthetic ideals of its exponents.”

People usually presume that paper-cut came into being after paper was invented. Actually, the embryonic form of paper-cut appeared in China much earlier.

Chinese historical records show that even in early years of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BC), people already began to cut tree leaves into various art forms and gave them out as presents.

In tombs from the Warring States Period (476-221 BC), people also made artistic cuttings of leather and silver foil.

Such findings indicate Chinese used various materials to create artistic cuttings way before paper was invented.

According to archaeological discoveries, people living in the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-25 AD) produced a primitive form of paper from hemp.

But it was not until Cai Lun, a eunuch in the imperial court of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220), found the right formula to produce the light, thin, strong and inexpensive material we call paper today that the invention was officially born.

In its early years, paper-cut was just a pastime for rural girls and women after a day of sewing and household chores. They tended to use bright-red paper and pasted their cutting works on windows, doors, ceilings, furniture, stoves and utensils as cheery decorations  in their usually sparsely furnished homes.

Later, such paper-cuts were also used as decoration for festivals, such as weddings, birthdays, ritual ceremonies and particularly Spring Festival or Chinese New Year.

The motifs of their works varied greatly, but most were traditional subjects, such as flowers, animals, deities and Chinese characters. And like many other forms of art in China, they were full of symbolic meanings.

For instance, lotus flower and plum blossoms were signs of purity and moral excellence; pines, cranes and peaches symbolized longevity; peony and fish for extravagance and well; lotus seedpods and pomegranates for fertility; mandarin ducks for love and fidelity; and roosters, hens and chickens for auspiciousness.

Paper-cut art: from ancient times to modern technology

One of the most popular Chinese characters in paper-cuts is the concocted character 囍, a combination of two xi 喜, meaning double happiness.

The favorite Chinese characters in paper-cuts include fu or good fortune, xi or happiness and shou or longevity. And the most common one was and perhaps still is the concocted character 囍, a combination of two xi 喜, meaning double happiness.

By the Tang Dynasty (618-906), paper-cut had developed from a simple and oblivious handcraft into art in its own right. They began to appear in noble homes and temples. Even Du Pu (712-770), one of the greatest poets in Chinese history, mentioned paper-cut in his poems.

In the following centuries, paper-cut had also been copied onto stencils to print usually quite complicated and symmetrical patterns on cloth, silk, pottery and porcelain products as well as wooden furniture for carvings.

Paper-cut was also used for embroidery. Embroiders would first tack paper-cuts to the fabric and then oversew them with colored silk thread.

And the motifs also developed. Paper-cut craftsmen began to introduce new variations in their works, including figures from popular Chinese operas, fairy tales, legends and famous novels, such as “Journey to West,” “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” and “A Dream of Red Mansions.”

Paper-cut art: from ancient times to modern technology
Dong Jun / SHINE

A 17-meter-long paper-cut by local artists depicts 39 Shanghai nursery rhymes, featuring 152 children, 46 animals and 1,757 Chinese characters.

In modern days, paper-cut artists in China even create works depicting skyscrapers, beautiful landscapes of famous scenic spots around the country and the terracotta warriors unearthed near the ancient capital of Xi’an.

The tools to produce paper-cuts are very simple: a pair of pointed scissors or an engraving knife. And the skill of making paper-cuts may also seem deceptively simple. But through so many generations, the Chinese paper-cut craftsmen have developed many plexiform techniques and methods.

One common method is to fold a piece of paper in various ways to create chains of identical or symmetrical images, such as flowers, fish, butterflies, animals, figures and other geometrical patterns. Depending on the number of folds and the ways of folding, such paper-cuts could be extremely intricate and elaborate.

The other way to create a paper-cut is silhouetting, which is produced on a piece of single-color paper, usually black or red. This method is often employed to depict figures and structures.

Also, craftsmen sometime use engraving knives to work on a stack of several layers of paper to product a number of identical designs at the same time.

By combining the techniques of painting, paper-cutting and paper-folding and sometimes even with computer-aided designing, craftsmen today can also produce 3D paper-cuts, also called paper sculpture or reliefs.

Modern paper-cut artists also use more sophisticated coloring techniques such as chromatic printing, woodblock printing and air brushing to create more dynamic works.

Now, paper-cuts may also be mounted or framed just like artworks of calligraphy or traditional paintings.

Through centuries, Chinese paper-cut, its techniques and applications have also been introduced into many other countries in Asia and Europe.

And in China, thanks to government support and the reinvigoration of traditional culture, paper-cut “continues to provide an outlet for emotion and is experiencing an unprecedented revival,” says UNESCO.

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