Chinese paper-cutting: Diaries of life cut out by heart

Chinese paper-cutting  was put on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list as a folk craft in 2009, presenting the unique Chinese beauty to the people of the world.

Chinese paper-cutting

Confucius Institute Reporter
Zhang Rui
 A pair of scissors, a sheet of red paper – in less than 5 minutes of the scissors dancing and pieces of the paper falling, a vivid human silhouette appeared in the hands of a Chinese paper-cutting craftsman. Such wonderful dexterity inspired French director Rémi Gandrille, who created a magic lantern show of Chinese paper-cutting and brought it to a Parisian stage. The show became a local sensation and ran uninterrupted for more than 300 times, each time drawing a packed house.

France is not the only country where paper cutting is popular; indeed, an increasing number of people in and outside of China are fascinated with this craft. At last year’s Frankfurt Book Show, the Chinese paper-cutting booth was often jammed with a watertight crowd. Visitors from all over the world shared their admiration: “Chinese paper-cutting is so wonderful!” Some visitors were so curious as to ask if such precise craftsmanship was due to some kind of a computer chip that had been installed in a plain-looking pair of scissors.

In 2009, Chinese paper-cutting as a folk craft was put on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list, presenting the unique Chinese beauty to the people of the world. In the British Museum, there is a Tang Dynasty (618-907) paper flower that originally came from Dunhuang. This is one of the oldest paper-cuttings discovered so far. In fact, Chinese paper-cutting can be traced back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), when paper was invented. As paper production became common, this paper-cutting craft gradually became widespread.


Chinese paper-cutting
An exhibition of Chinese paper-cutting held at the National Grand Theater in Beijing attracted many visitors.

Today, paper-cutting is still a very popular craft in China, especially in the vast rural areas. When there is no farm work to do, the women sit around and cut the plainest paper into all kinds of fine patterns.

Most paper-cutting themes come from real life. People present ancient legends, childhood memories and stories that happen around them in the form of paper-cutting, in order to express their veneration for the symbols of remote antiquity and yearnings for a beautiful life.

On holidays and on days of festivity, beautiful paper-cut artworks are often seen decorating the window panes in Chinese cities. Li Na, who has been working in the US for many years, receives from her mother a window pane paper-cut piece of the character for “blessing” every spring festival. Li Na never looks at it without remembering her childhood, when her mother and her grandmother would sit on the side of the kang [heated adobe bed] cutting paper patterns and humming folk tunes. In the past, paper-cutting was one of the important crafts of women. As such, it was a key measure of a bride’s worthiness. Now, however, paper-cutting is more of a folk art enjoying widespread popularity.

In the past, paper-cutting was one of the important crafts of women. As such, it was a key measure of a bride’s worthiness. Now, however, paper-cutting is more of a folk art enjoying widespread popularity.

Professor Jin Zhilin of China Central Academy of Fine Arts has studied Chinese paper-cutting for more than 30 years. In his view, paper-cutting as a Chinese way of invoking and giving blessings speaks eloquently of people’s yearnings for good living and a happy life despite its appearance of childish clumsiness. In lightness of material and weight of expressiveness, it is unparalleled among all art forms. To pass down the paper-cutting craft is to preserve Chinese people’s collective memory.

In 1972, paper-cutting craftsman Li Tianhua cut a silhouette for former U.S. President Nixon, who called him “The Word’s Number One Cutter”. Now he goes on lecture and exhibition tours carrying his works, visiting more than 300 universities and colleges during the past 6 years, in the hope also to find someone who can inherit his craft. He already has over 300 students.

Chinese paper-cutting

Li Tianhua is pleased to see that more and more young people are beginning to be interested in Chinese paper-cutting. What’s more, a few of these people have done a good job incorporating elements of modern technology into this ancient craft, giving it a new vital force. Wang Ziyue, a girl born in Shanxi Province in 1990, uses a special magnetic material instead of paper, so that her works can easily stick to iron and glass surfaces. This material is also environment-friendly and can be recycled. During the Beijing Olympics, Wang Ziyue brought her invention to the Xiangyun Huts in the Olympic Park, where she introduced Chinese paper-cutting to athletes and tourists from all countries of the world.

Like any other intangible cultural heritage, with the rapid economic development and changes in our ways of life, ancient crafts whose inheritance depends on an oral tradition face the problem of a dwindling social basis. In the view of Wang Wenzhang, Deputy Minister of China’s Ministry of Culture, the most important thing is to search for points where traditional crafts such as paper-cutting and New Year paintings can be connected to contemporary life, so as to “keep them as a part of our way of life”. The invention of magnetic paper-cutting material is a good model in this regard. Better preservation will have to be based on proper development.

We believe that Chinese paper-cutting will prosper on the rich soil of life, like an ivy vine, ever radiating with its artistic charm.

Chinese paper-cuttings
On festive occasions, exquisite Chinese paper-cuttings can be seen everywhere both in urban and rural areas on windows in Chinese cities.

Confucius Institute 10

pdfPublished in Confucius Institute Magazine
Magazine 10. Volume V. September 2010.
View/Download the print issue in PDF


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