As a child, you must have enjoyed arts and crafts when you were taught how to cut out strings of paper snowflakes and other interesting shapes. The art of paper cutting can be a fun activity even for adults. In China, however, paper cutting isn’t just a fun DIY but a serious art form with a long history. Like many things in Chinese culture, paper cutting carries a lot of symbolism and is a very useful art.
But where did the Chinese paper cutting art originate from? What does it symbolize and why is it so important? In this post, we will answer all these questions as well as show you how Chinese paper cutting is done in simple steps.
What Is Chinese Paper Cutting Called?
The term paper cutting in Chinese Mandarin is said to be Jian Zhi. According to Mandarin, Jian directly translates to “cutting” and Zhi directly translates to “paper”. The Japanese form of the word is Kirigami.
Jian Zhi is among the oldest and most popular art in China. They are usually symmetrical and in an even number series of 2, 4, and so on. Today, there are two distinct styles of Chinese paper cutting. One of them is the northern style, which is characterized by vivid depictions, exaggerated shapes, and diverse patterns. The other is the southern style, which is characterized by beautiful designs and carvings of interesting shapes.
There is also the window paper cut style, whose design is usually free except always includes a flower pattern at the corner. There are also wide ranges of window paper cut themes with the most popular one inspired by the Chinese opera.
In the past, traditional Chinese Jian Zhi was used for both ceremonial and decorative purposes. They would be used on walls, mirrors, windows, lanterns, and doors among other places. That is why some people call them Chuanghua which translates to ‘Window flower’. Today, cuttings are majorly used for decorative purposes. They are normally used in special celebrations like Chinese New Year, weddings, and the like.
Unlike the traditional cuttings, today artisans use other materials like paint and lightboxes to enhance the appeal of the Jian Zhi and added effects. There are even 3D paper cuts that exist today. What remains the same, however, are the elaborate patterns and creative use of positive and negative spaces, done by the artist’s bare hands.
Chinese Paper Cutting History and Origin.
There is no clear and conclusive proof of when the art of Jian Zhi originated from. Despite being called Chinese paper cutting, art existed long before paper was invented. During that time other materials were used including, large leaves, leather, gold and silver sheets, and tree barks among others. The art dates as far back as the Zhou dynasty, where leaves were mostly used by commoners. The rich would use the gold and foil sheets. Women would paste the foil on their hairs while men would use the cuttings for sacred rituals.
During the Han dynasty, when Cai Lun invented paper, it became the most widely used material for art. This was because people realized that paper was an easier material to cut, preserve, and dispose of. By the Tang dynasty, paper cutting became widespread. Men, around this time begun using paper cuts as the hair decorations. By the Ming and Qing reign, the Jian Zhi experienced the peak of its development.
From there, the art of paper cutting was spread to West Asia by the eighth and ninth centuries. By the 16th century, art had been introduced to Turkey, Germany, and Switzerland. It then reached Middle Europe a century from there. By the eighteenth century, it reached Colonial America. Today many countries practice paper cutting as an art form and
What Does Chinese Paper Cutting Symbolize?
The Jian Zhi, as mentioned earlier is highly symbolic in Chinese culture. Over time many patterns have come up, aside from the Chinese zodiac signs. Each of these patterns holds a certain meaning. Some are considered to represent happiness, while others represent successful business and so on.
A cutting of the Chinese roaster is seen to represent prosperity. In Chinese culture, it is believed that their crowing dispels evil and bad luck. Therefore, decorating your door or home with paper cuttings of the roaster is said to invite good fortune.
Overall, the Chinese Paper cuttings are considered a source of good luck. Many of them are done using red paper because the color red is said to symbolize happiness, good luck, and fortune. That is why at weddings and during festivals like the Chinese New Year, you are likely to see many red paper cuttings of patterns that symbolize good luck. That’s however not to say that other colored papers aren’t used in this art form.
Generally, you can say, that while to the rest of the world paper cutting is simply a form of art, to the Chinese it is more than that. People in China find hope and comfort in expressing their wishes through Jian Zhi. It is therefore an integral part of Chinese beliefs and traditions.
How To Do Chinese Paper Cutting.
The art of Jian Zhi requires practice, although it doesn’t need any complicated tools or materials. To be able to practice Chinese paper cuttings, all you need is paper, scissors, and/or a scalpel or engraving knife. Other than that, what’s left is your imagination and creativity.
When using scissors, you need to first stack and fasten several pieces of paper together. Once that’s done, using a pair of sharp and pointed knives, you can then cut out the desired pattern. When using a knife, you need a soft foundation like a waxing board or a mixture of tallow and ashes, to place the several layers of paper. This protects the knife from getting spoiled.
While holding the knife vertically and ensuring it is sharp you can then cut out your pattern. Knives are easier to use for intricate patterns and small details. The more skilled you are the easier it is for you to cut out the patterns in a fluid motion without stopping.
Jian Zhi is a great activity to try out and bond over with family or a group of friends. In China during the coldest months of the year, families remain indoors taking part in this simple yet captivating form of art and later paste their work on their windows and doors as decorations. Chinese women especially enjoy the art and ensure that they pass on the skill to their children. This ensures that Jian Zhi will remain an important art form in China for many more years to come.