Originating in China, the art of paper cutting has become a tradition of Chinese culture while evolving in many other ways. Delicate and refined, paper cutting art is a production of the precision, skill, and concentration, put into simple materials and tools.
Most known for their intricate depictions of China’s flora and fauna, these hand-made crafts also serve as rich illustrations of Chinese history and culture as many of their subjects have been myths, legends, and religious matter.
While exact dates are often disputed, it is estimated that paper cutting was created around the sixth century A.D. or shortly after the invention of paper which took place during the Han Dynasty in China centuries before.
During the early years after its discovery, paper was still rather scarce and even considered precious. Paper was really only available to a limited number of people, particularly those who were more privileged. As a result, paper cutting as an art form began largely as the pastime of nobility but specifically as that of court ladies. After becoming a more common hobby among royals, the art form soon gained popularity among the more common people. Perhaps with keeping in the tradition of a court lady’s activity, paper cutting also eventually became an essential part of most girls’ upbringing. Required to master this art form, many girls were later judged on their craftsmanship to determine their worth and ability as potential brides.
Later during the Sung Dynasty, as the art of paper cutting continued to spread, professional paper cutting craftsmen emerged. While women could not become professionals, many, nevertheless, attained just as much in skill and talent as these craftsmen. Some of the most gifted of these women also became renowned for their creations of paper cutting scenes that portrayed legends, and stories, and were used for plays and operas.
Aside from elite activities, paper cutting has had many other uses and purposes as well. Based from the literature of early China, paper cuttings have been used as adornments for the hair, as decorations for presents, or even as gifts themselves. Such gift paper cuttings have also been used as finishing touches to celebratory foods such as cakes, noodles, and eggs. These types of paper cuttings would usually come in forms or patterns that meant ‘promising’ or ‘happiness’. Particularly in the Shandong province of China, paper cuttings have been attached onto what is called a “happy egg” for the celebration of the birth of a child. In another province, Fujian, it has also been customary to exchange birthday gifts with paper cuttings shaped in the form of a tortoise, which symbolizes long life.
Paper cuttings have also been common decoration for the home, and particularly for walls, windows, doors, mirrors, lamps, and lanterns. Of these, however, window-decoration is most notable for its popularity and usage. Referred to as “window flowers”, it was common to see red paper cuttings pasted on the thin, paper windows of homes in pre-modern China; this also allowed such windows to appear brighter.
Festive pieces of paper cuttings were also used to decorate other areas and items in the home. For example, such pieces might be placed under teapots, kitchenware, and on furniture. Usually colored red, these pieces often came in the shape of a circle, rectangle, peach, or pomegranate. These types of paper cuttings also served as symbols of auspiciousness and happiness.
Paper cuttings have also been a common sight during New Year’s festivals and have become a holiday tradition for many today. Also referred to as “hanging money”, rectangular-shaped paper cuttings, usually colored red, are placed on gates in a hanging position. Otherwise placed at one’s entrance, this practice is believed to bring good luck and fortune.
With its growing popularity and appreciation for it as an art, paper cuttings were also incorporated into religious ceremonies. One such practice was that of burying various paper cutting pieces with the dead. Another religious custom was to burn certain paper cuttings at funerals for symbolic purposes. On the anniversary of one’s death, it was also customary to use a paper cutting flag that was believed to recover the soul of the deceased. Paper cuttings also served as decorations for many sacrificial offerings to ancestors and gods.
In addition, paper cuttings have been used as patterns for embroidery, clothing, shoes, and lacquer work. Quite unique on their own, the paper cuttings used for shoe embroidery come in three forms. The first type of this paper cutting is tailored for the front of the shoe; the second, almost always cut in the shape of a crescent moon, is tailored for the inner rim of the shoe; and the third is tailored for the outside of the shoe.
Having become more wide spread and practiced for hundreds of years, the art of paper cutting eventually found its way into Europe, the Middle East, and other parts of Asia. In Japan, for instance, the influence of Chinese paper cutting is apparent in some of the designs of early Samurai uniforms which featured paper cutting embroideries. The Polish and several other Eastern European groups have also developed their own form of paper cutting called wycinanki, while the Germans have produced their own version known as scherenschnitte. All originating from Chinese creations, the art of paper cutting has continued to influence cultures all over the world with even American and Mexican styles as some of the newest examples.
Just as the regions of the world have contrived paper cutting styles reflective of their various cultures, the many different regions of China have also developed their own unique styles.
The region of Zhejiang, for instance, is known for the sophistication and intricateness of its paper cuttings. Lines cut as thin as hair, the placement of hundreds of motifs on a small surface-these are just some of the trademark characteristics of this region’s creations. Paper cuttings with fishing themes are also common from this region which is largely a seashore area.
Another province, Hebei, is renowned for its brilliantly colored paper cuttings. Using a special technique, the paper cutting artists of this region have developed a way to produce pieces with multiple dye and ink colors flowing into each other. While animals and flowers are this region’s most common forms of paper cuttings, Hebei is also known for its elaborate paper cutting masks and costumes. New Year’s festivals also hold a particular significance as the paper cutting art of this region is widely displayed during this time.
In the region of Guangdong, a more modern form of paper cutting has developed. In particular, the town of Foshan of the same region is regarded for its copper paper cuttings. As a whole, the region is most known for its production of metallic paper cuttings which are noted for their luminescence and contemporary style.
With all the different uses and styles of paper cuttings, there are still, nevertheless, only two basic ways to produce them: by hand, with scissors or knives.
The preferred method by master craftsmen and artists, the scissor method is best for producing single pieces. This technique involves cutting in a continuous line while shaping into the form desired.
The knife method is best for creating multiple pieces as several layers of paper can be cut at once. Under this method, the knife is held vertically while the artisan follows a previously made pattern. The knives used, however, can actually be a number of similar tools which can include split bamboo, metal, or razor-like pieces; chisels may also be used for other purposes. Because this method is used mainly for creating several pieces at once, a particular soft surface is also required. Such a surface is typically made of tallow, ashes, bees wax, or a mixture of these. This type of surface also allows for an easier way to penetrate several layers of paper. Another tool used with this particular method is a wooden box or frame which can hold several layers of paper in place in addition to the substances.
Despite its simple materials and tools, the art of paper cutting is nothing short of complex. Highly precise, its mastery requires utmost skill, time, and effort. In addition, creativity and experience are essential to becoming a master of this art. Always made as single, unbroken pieces, paper cuttings represent determination, patience, and endurance. Truly symbols of dedication and inspiration, a paper cutting would make a meaningful gift for anyone. Complicated and yet simple at the same time, paper cuttings make beautiful and interesting art pieces for your home or office as well. To own timeless pieces of this traditional art, be sure to visit Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen’s wonderful collection of paper cuttings.
OUR 2003 NEWSLETTERS
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The Mythical of Dragon and Phoenix
The Art of Japanese Cuisine
The History and Art of Tea
A Taste of The Philippines
The Dimsum Experience, Part II
The Dimsum Experience, Part I
The Art of Paper Cutting
Feng Shui for the Home
New Year's in Asia