Artist carves out his own world in paper cutting

With a small knife and a piece of red paper, Zhu Jinhui cuts and carves out his own realm. 

With a small knife and a piece of red paper, Zhu Jinhui cuts and carves out his own realm. The 80-year-old paper-cut artist, who suffers from a paralyzed right hand, can conjure up anything — chubby dogs, landscapes and people’s portraits — with his still nimble left hand.

“As it’s the Year of Dog, I’ve sent more than 100 paper-cut dogs so far to my friends and neighbors,” the Songjiang native says with a smile. “It’s just a small New Year gift for them.”

Zhu’s paper-cutting skills have made him something of a celebrity in his neighborhood and his decorations are indispensable to local wedding celebrations, festival feasts and dinner parties.

It also has been an annual routine that Zhu would cut some auspicious animals and the Chinese character xi (happiness) before every Spring Festival and send them to friends and neighbors.

There is nothing Zhu can't cut — flowers, bamboo, animals, portraits and personal silhouettes.

Patterns of water lilies and mandarin ducks, two emblems for a happy marriage and true love, are always used at wedding parties. Red-crowned cranes and chrysanthemums express wishes for longevity and are often presented to elders.

Fish and sheaves of grain, symbolizing a prosperous new year, are pasted on front doors during the Lunar New Year festival. Five bats are auspicious, meaning five blessings of wealth, kindness, inner peace, long life and a natural death.

"My neighbors and fellow villagers often ask me to cut for them and I'm so happy that they like my works," Zhu says. "For me, it's just a little favor."

In 2004, Zhu found something wrong with his right hand. It lost strength and kept shaking. What was worse, he couldn’t hold a pen to write or a spoon to eat. However, he was undaunted. “If I lost my right hand, I still have the left one,” he says.

Zhu started to practice eating, writing and painting with his left hand, and soon he could use it as well as his right used to be. In 2007, he started paper cutting, which includes the skills to tearing, burning, knife carving and scissor cutting.

As he has only one functional hand, Zhu uses a knife to carve most of the time. It’s still not an easy job. He needs to make a sketch first and then it can be carved little by little. The sketch should be delicately designed and the cuts need to be clean and neat.

Some easy patterns take only a few minutes, while big projects require days.

Take the dog for example. Zhu first designed a total of 11 dogs of different breeds, poses and expressions. It took about six hours to sketch one dog and another five hours to carve.

Zhu began to prepare for the Year of the Dog last September. “I’m 80 years old in the Year of Dog, so it’s also a gift for myself,” he says.

Zhu developed his own way of carving and adapted knives and other implements for his left hand.

He also needs a pen or pencil to sketch, a ruler and paper clips to fasten multiple layers together while he cuts. He chooses his paper carefully — thick, thin, red (for festivals), color-fast or easily faded. Some are sprayed with gold powder.

Zhu’s eyesight isn't what it was and he must wear glasses to work at night. "But my left hand is still powerful and steady," he says. "It doesn't tremble when it comes to cutting the details."

One of his notable creations, and one of which he is very proud, is a series of scenes of Songjiang’s famous sites, such as the Zuibai Pond Park, Fangta Tower Park, Xilin Buddhism Temple and many others. From first sketch to final cut, it took several weeks, working day and night with scarcely any rest — he wanted to maintain his momentum.

“Songjiang is my hometown and it has so many beautiful landscapes and tourism attractions. I would carve the site out each time I take a visit,” Zhu says. “In future I’m going to travel more and capture the beauty of Songjiang with my knife, if my health condition allows.” 

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