Who knew it just takes one scissor and some paper to create amazing art? I have seen a lot of Chinese paper cutting pieces. Sold in different shops to tourists, hung on windows and walls in small Chinese villages, printed on different objects; the uses are limitless. But, I was always wondering how it was possible to cut out those detailed pictures? What did they mean? Where did they come from?
Last weekend I got the chance to get some of my questions answered by a real expert in the field.
Chinese Paper Cutting or Jianzhi 剪纸
The art form of Chinese paper cutting is said to exist since Cai Lun 蔡伦 (50 – 121 AD) invented the paper in the second century AD during the Eastern Han Dynasty 东汉 (25 -220 AD). Since then this art form has spread throughout China and around the world, with different regions adopting their own cultural styles.
Traditional Chinese paper cutting employs two different methods to get the desired results. One is using scissors, the other is using knives. Both are called jianzhi 剪纸, but the first one uses a cutting technique 剪 jian, whereas the other employs carving 刻 ke out the pieces in the paper.
In the scissor method paper is folded over a proportioned crease, and then shapes are cut out with a sharp, pointed scissor. When unfolded the paper forms a symmetrical design, where objects (like flowers, or butterflies) usually appear in even numbers of 2, 4, 6, 24, etc.
For the knife carving method several layers of paper are put on a relatively soft foundation mostly consisting of a mixture of tallow and ashes. A motif is drawn on the first layer and then meticulously carved out with a sharp knife which is usually held vertically. Works made with this method usually are extremely detailed, and some of the very big works can take the artist several years.
No matter the region or the styles, paper cutting crafts are mostly used as a decoration. However, every paper cut incorporates different meanings and can be an aesthetic way to express wishes, hopes, gratitude or other emotions.
The meaning of the most popular Chinese paper cut symbols
The most commonly used Chinese character in paper cutting is 福 fu, which means ‘luck’. Until today this character has not lost any appeal. Chinese people love to hang paper cuttings of this character on doors, windows and walls. Now with the Chinese New Year approaching you will see different versions of the ‘Luck Symbol’ all over China.
Another popular character is “囍” xi, meaning happiness. This traditional character is a must on the door of every newlywed in China and get also be pronounced shuangxi, symbolizing double happiness.
The character 寿 shou, representing longevity, is commonly used as decoration for birthday parties of a senior.
Chinese paper cuts don’t just make use of Chinese characters, but also imaginary. Plump children cuddling fish, for example, symbolize the wish for abundant wealth. Cuttings of a harvest or domestic animals can express the wish for a wealthy life or good fortunes; a carp jumping over a dragon gate can indicate a leap towards a better life; etc.
Illustrations of legendary figures or scenes from traditional myths are also very common. In general, Chinese paper cuts make use of symbolism and the homophony of characters. I have had the chance to learn two of China’s traditional paper cuts and their meaning.
The first paper cut is called 蝶恋花 die lian hua, and literally means “butterflies loving flowers”. It consists of several butterflies surrounding a peony flower. It symbolizes the strong admiration for each other, and the difficulty for loved ones to part. It is a very romantic paper cut in that sense, and I really love the beauty of the butterflies.
The second paper cut I got introduced to is called 多子多福 duo zi duo fu,, symbolizing a happy family. This paper cut represents the character 福 fu, for luck, pictorially as a bat because ‘bat’ in Chinese is also called fu (蝠 -> 福). The other symbol using the same technique of depiction is the pomegranate, called 石榴 shiliu in Chinese. A pomegranate has lots of seeds 籽 zi, which are phonetically the same as 子 zi, meaning ‘offspring/child’ (籽 -> 子). Thus, this paper cut is an auspicious symbol for a happy and joyful family.
Meet Chinese paper cutting Master Wang Binghua 王炳华
Living in China, and especially living in Bozhou, a city full of old traditions, I had the chance to meet with one of the last masters of China’s traditional paper cutting art.
Wang Binghua, was rated on national level as the successor for Non-material Heritage “非物质文化遗产“传承人, is a member of China’s Paper Cutting Association, and the chairman of Bozhou’s Paper Cutting Society. His paper cutting technique looked like magic to me. With simple scissors he is able to give life to any work he makes. I have been fascinated by his lifelike crafts. Using dots and lines, he can create perfectly matching, fully detailed paper cuts, which have found admirers all over the world.
Master Wang was born in Gujing, a village belonging to the city of Bozhou in Anhui province. His love for paper cutting has come early. Influenced by his parents, who both are artists making handmade paper festoons, he went off to find a teacher.
He told me:
后来我听说我外婆庄上，有个人纸剪得很好，第二天我就去拜访这位民间艺术家吕凤毛，当看到他的剪纸时，我傻眼了，他的作品怎么能剪得这么细！原来，他不是用剪刀剪出来的，而是拿刀刻出来的。后来，我就放下剪刀，拿起刻刀，在老师的指导渐渐走上创作道路。 When I heard that in my grandmother’s village was someone who was very good at paper cutting, I decided to go and see him. His name was Lu Fengmao, and when I saw his paper cuts, I couldn’t believe my eyes. How could his work be so detailed? When I found out that he used a knife to carve his works not scissors to cut, I gave up the scissors, took up the knife and started learning under his guidance.
1976 Wang Binghua was transferred to the County Culture Gallery to continue his work, a year later 1977 he was send to Fuyang’s District Cultural Affairs Bureau. By 1979 his works had become famous and he was invited for exhibitions in Beijing in Shanghai.
Today, Wang Binghua has over 40 years of experience, and during those 40 years he has produced hundreds of amazing works, some of which have been cited in several books about China’s traditional paper cutting art. Many of his works have been sold outside of China. For me the most astonishing was to hear that a lot of his works have been giving away to Japan for display in 1980.
Wang Binghua has contributed to the preservation of a part of China’s traditional folk art, and in my eyes he is one amazing teacher. I will be continuing to learn more about Chinese paper cutting under his guidance. During my talks with Master Wang, I have learned a lot, he is a very patient teacher and generous man.
Wang Binghua says:
剪纸，是在平面纸质上显示花鸟人物等的形状，物体线条的精细，是个细活，需要极大的耐心。 Paper cutting is the ability to make create pictures of flowers, birds and people on flat paper, using fine lines to create detailed objects. It’s an art that requires meticulous care and a lot of patience.
I love details, I need to learn more patience, and I am fascinated by the symbolism. I have found a new art form; I really want to explore more.
Do you like Chinese paper cutting? Would you like to learn how to make your own beautiful paper cuts at home?
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