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The Chinese art of paper cutting
The Epoch Times

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Paper cutting is one of the most popular traditional decorative arts in China, and an expression of people’s desire for beauty. Its popularity may be due to several factors—the materials are easily accessible, they cost little and the results of the art are dramatic. It is a popular hobby for women in rural areas as it is both decorative and can be used to make useful items. There are many different regional styles of paper cutting, and as one of China’s most significant art forms, it is definitely worth a closer look.

The earliest discovery of paper cutting was found in tombs in the Nan Bei Dynasty (420-589 A.D.), in the form of plants and animals. Scholars claim that paper art can be traced to the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.), when thin sheets of gold and silver were cut into squares and worn in the women’s hair near at the temple. Even though there is evidence that paper existed before the Han Dynasty, paper cutting as an art form cannot be traced beyond the Han dynasty. Historically, paper cutting was probably related to Taoism, as it was a common practice to provide offerings to god and to summon souls. Dufu (712-770 A.D.), a famous poet from the Tang Dynasty, wrote that one would be satisfied with warm soup to drink, but paper cutting is so satisfying that it can draw one’s soul. In the Miao tradition, the shapes of god and spirits are cut out of paper and pasted on fences or doors as a form of Shamanism. (The Miao people are one of the largest ethnic minorities in southwest China).

In ancient funeral rites, paper would be cut into the shapes of people and other objects, and would either be buried with the dead or burnt during the funeral procession. This practice is still observed in some parts of China. Traditionally, paper cutting was symbolic and often used as offerings to ancestors and gods. Nowadays, paper cutting is more likely to be used for decorative purposes, such as decorating walls, doors, windows, mirrors, lights and lanterns. It is often used as decorative gift-wrap or even presented as a gift itself. Paper cuttings are also used as templates for embroidery or spray paints.

Paper cutters usually draw a draft shape first and then cut it out. Professionals use engraving knives to engrave the shape onto a wax board. The entire process involves preparing a draft, engraving the desired shapes, placing this mould onto stacks of paper to cut out the shape, and finally removing the mould to touch up the cuttings.

Since paper is a flat material, the presentation captures three-dimensional objects in a two-dimensional layout. Human or animal figures are often rich with decorative details. Usually the artist tries to avoid large blocks of black or white. Once the paper shapes have been fixed onto the artwork, additional patterns can be added to enhance the art piece. One artist cleverly portrayed the scene of a cat’s successful capture of a rat with the image of a rat inside the cat’s stomach. Another form of paper cutting uses several interlocking pieces of paper to form an art piece. This method lets the artist use a wide range of colors, which in turn gives a strong folk accent. Most paper cuttings do not follow the exact proportions of the object or figure depicted, but are more likely to be created based on the artist’s perception of how the shape should be portrayed. For example, a paper cutting of a cow in Shaanxi Province emphasizes and elaborates the cow’s fur and uses delicate paintings to visually enhance the image.

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