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Chinese paper cutting, or Jian Zhi in Chinese pinyin, is a traditional Chinese art form that has been practiced since at least the 6th century BC. It is one of the most popular decorative handicrafts in China, with artistic values and cultural implications. Red, which is the symbol of happiness and blessing in Chinese culture, is the most commonly used color. The paper cutting can be made with various materials, such as paper, silver foil, gold foil, bark, cloth, leather or hide. In May 2006, the art of Chinese paper cutting was enlisted into the first batch of intangible cultural heritage by the Chinese State Council.
The history of paper cutting should begin with the invention of paper, which happened in the western Han Dynasty (202BC-9AD). However, the technique of paper cutting appeared long before the invention of paper. People used thin and sliced materials such as foil, leather and silk to cut, carve, engrave, trim or scrape out images. They even cut out patterns on the tree leaves. As early as the Warring States Period (475BC-221BC), there had been ornamental engravings made on leather and silver foil, which might be the earliest form of paper cutting. The invention of paper in the western Han Dynasty greatly promoted the development and popularization of paper cutting.
Paper cutting developed very fast during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). There began the tradition of using paper cuttings to call back the spirit of the dead in some sacrificial ceremonies. People also used paper cuttings and dyes to print patterns on fabrics. The development of papermaking in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) enabled the popularization of paper cutting, which was gradually used as decorative handicrafts on windows, lanterns, teapots and so on. In Jiangxi Province, people used the images of paper cutting through glazing and firing to make porcelains even more beautiful. Paper cutting was also used in making shadow plays by engraving the figures on animal hides. During the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1636-1911) dynasties, the art of paper cutting reaches a peak level. It was widely used as decoration among the common people, on lanterns, fans, silk, embroidery, doors, closets and so on. Women in rural areas are the main force of making paper cuttings. Nv Hong, translated as Needlework, is an important criterion for judging women in ancient China, while paper cutting, as an important aspect of needlework, is a skill they are are supposed to master from an early age.
Uses and Cultural Implications
The reason for the widespread of paper cutting is its symbol and expression for bringing blessing and happiness. Due to the limited knowledge and intrusion of natural disasters, people expressed their wish for a healthy, happy and long life through paper cutting. Paper cuttings were mainly used in religious rituals. Some people used it in sacrificial ceremonies to call back the spirit of the dead, while some cut the paper into images of people or stuff (like money, clothes and houses) and bury the paper cuttings with the dead or burned them at the funerals. This is the superstition which is still prevalent nowadays, where people believe that things burned or buried can accompany the dead and be used in another world.
Today, paper cuttings are mainly used as decorations, and they are usually made with red paper, which is the most auspitious color in Chinese culture. The red paper cuttings decorate doors, windows, tables, lanterns, mirrors, columns, entrances and eaves. This is especially popular during traditional Chinese festivals, such as the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) and Lantern Festival. They are also used as the mold pattern for making porcelains and embroideries.
In Chinese culture, paper cuttings can reflect people’s wish for happiness, harvest, health and prosperity. For example, the paper cutting of Chinese character “福 (blessing)” is often pasted upside down on the entrance door during the Chinese New Year, expressing the people’s welcome and wish for blessing for the whole family in the coming year. The paper cutting of Chinese character “寿 (longevity)” is often sent as a gift or pasted on the door at the birthday of an elderly, to express the wish for the elderly to live a long and healthy life. The paper cutting of “囍 (double-happiness)” is an essential decoration at a wedding ceremony, and paper cuttings with images of gourds or lotus are also pasted as a symbol for fruitful offsprings.
Process of Paper Cutting
Learning how to make paper cuttings is quite simple, because it only requires two equipments: scissors or knives, and paper. However, to master this technique it requires imagination and a long time of practice.
There are two methods of making paper cutting: using scissors or using knives. By scissor cutting, several paper cuttings (usually no more than 8 pieces) are fastened together at one time, and then the motif is processed and cut by very sharp scissors. By knife cutting, a piece of paper is folded into several layers and put onto a relatively soft foundation made by mixture of ashes and animal tallow, and then cut with the knife. The difference of the two manufactures is that scissor cutting can make several pieces at one time, while knife cutting can only make one piece at one time. Skilled paper cutting crafters can cut out different images freely without stopping.
Chinese paper cuttings can be generally divided into three schools: South School, Jiangzhe School and North School.
Foshan paper cutting in Guangdong Province and Fujian Province paper cutting are the two representatives of South School paper cutting. Foshan paper cuttings use brass, silver, paper, copper or wood as the material, and adopts techniques such as cutting, carving and chiselling to make contrasted colors and resplendent paper cuttings. Fujian Province paper cuttings usually adopt animals, fruits and marine lives as the images of paper cutting.
Jiangzhe paper cuttings are those made in Jiangsu Province (short for Jiang) and Zhejiang Province (short for Zhe). Yangzhou City located in Central Jiangsu Province is considered to be the earliest place with paper cuttings. Since ancient times, people make paper cuttings to greet the coming of spring by hanging them on the trees. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, paper cuttings were used as the basic pattern for making shoes, pillowslips and bedsheets. Many folk artisans made a living by making paper cuttings. They made images symbolizing auspicious meanings such as happiness, fortunes and logevity by using only a pair of scissors and several pieces of paper. The most commonly seen images are about fruits, fishes, animals, and even about fairy tales.
Paper cuttings found in Shandong Province, Shaanxi Province and Shanxi Province are considered to be the most representative of North School paper cutting. For Shanxi paper cutting, the most common ones are Chuanghua (literally translated as window flower), which are paper cuttings pasted on the windows. Generally speaking, Shanxi paper cuttings are the simplest and most concise among the three. Shaanxi paper cuttings are featured with unsophisticated patterns, straightforward patterns, various forms, skillful technique and interesting connotations. Paper cutting takes up a very important role in the folk art. In the past, women were even judged by their skill of making paper cuttings. Shandong paper cuttings are characterized by rich patterns, full-bodied colors and unrestrained styles. They are usually made to decorate the windows, ceilings and household utensils.
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