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.
Paper cutting, known as “剪纸” (jiǎnzhǐ) in Chinese, is one of the traditional folk arts in China that is beloved for its unique artistic form and rich cultural connotations. This art involves cutting or carving patterns on paper with scissors or knives, creating a distinctive and captivating aesthetic. Paper cutting not only adorns people’s daily lives but also becomes an essential element in various folk activities.
The history of paper cutting can be traced back to the Han Dynasty and has gradually evolved into a unique art form over the years. In China, paper cutting enjoys a broad social base and is deeply cherished by people of all ethnicities. It serves not only as a means of artistic expression but also as an art form closely connected to folk customs. Paper cutting is widely applied in festivals, weddings, sacrificial ceremonies, and other occasions, using its unique visual imagery and stylistic formats to express people’s social cognition, moral values, practical experiences, life ideals, and aesthetic tastes.
The preservation and development of paper-cutting art are of paramount importance. It is not merely a cultural heritage but also the inheritance of cultural legacies. Through the inheritance and promotion of paper-cutting art, we can gain a better understanding of China’s traditional culture and history. Furthermore, it can facilitate international cultural exchange and strengthen cultural communication between different ethnic groups.
As a profound reflection of Chinese culture, paper cutting conveys a sense of beauty, symbolism, and cultural identity. It embodies the wisdom and creativity of the Chinese people throughout history. Its intricate designs, skillful execution, and profound meanings have made paper cutting an enduring and cherished art form in China, appreciated and admired both domestically and internationally.
what is paper-cutting art called?
Paper cutting is a traditional folk art in China, known by different names such as “刻纸” (kèzhǐ) and “剪画” (jiǎnhuà). It involves using scissors or knives to cut or carve patterns on paper, creating a unique sense of beauty. Paper-cutting art originated in the Han Dynasty and gradually developed into an independent art form. It is widely used in the social life of people of all ethnicities in China, serving not only as a means of artistic expression but also as an art form closely connected to folk customs.
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.
The symbolism and meaning of paper cutting vary depending on the region, culture, and era. However, overall, paper-cutting artworks can express people’s aspirations for a better life, their hopes, and various beautiful ideals and symbols.
For example, in traditional Chinese culture, different objects have different meanings, and people carve these objects into paper cutting works to give them unique symbolism. For instance, people living near the sea may carve the image of Mazu, the goddess of the sea, on paper cutting, symbolizing her protection for fishermen. Inland areas may feature carvings of Buddha and Guanyin, symbolizing family safety. For weddings, paper cuttings of mandarin ducks and lovebirds are used, symbolizing marital harmony, while carvings of melons and jujubes symbolize the wish for early childbirth. When celebrating their parents’ birthdays, people may create paper cuttings with patterns like “fulu” (happiness and prosperity), “wufu” (five blessings), “shouxing” (the God of Longevity), and peaches, symbolizing the parents’ longevity and prosperity of the family.
Furthermore, paper cutting can also symbolize life and hope. In traditional Chinese culture, red paper cuttings are often seen as symbols of life and good fortune, while scissors are seen as symbols of women and family.
Here are some symbolic meanings of specific paper cutting patterns in Chinese culture:
Lotus flower represents purity and rising above difficulties.
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.
types of paper cutting art
Paper cutting is one of the traditional folk arts in China, known by various names such as “刻纸” (kèzhǐ) and “剪画” (jiǎnhuà). It involves using scissors or knives to cut or carve patterns on paper, creating a unique sense of beauty. The art of paper cutting originated in the Han Dynasty and has gradually evolved into an independent art form. It is widely embraced in the social life of people of all ethnicities in China, serving not only as a means of artistic expression but also as an art form closely connected to folk customs.
Paper cutting can be classified into different categories based on geographical regions, artistic styles, and purposes:
Geographical Regions: Paper cutting can be categorized into three schools – Southern, Northern, and Jiangsu-Zhejiang schools.
Artistic Styles: Based on the artistic styles, paper cutting can be divided into three major types – monochrome paper cutting, colored paper cutting, and three-dimensional paper cutting. Monochrome paper cutting includes silhouette cutting, torn paper cutting, and folded paper cutting.
Purposes: Paper cutting can also be classified based on its use, such as for decoration, display, embroidery patterns, and printing purposes. Some examples include window flowers, wall decorations, and embroidery templates.
Furthermore, paper cutting can also be classified based on the patterns and symbolism they represent. The art of paper cutting exhibits a unique aesthetic appeal and cultural significance, making it an integral part of traditional Chinese culture.
Types of Paper Cutting
Window Flowers (窗花)
Used for decorating windows in the northern regions. They are made to fit the wooden lattice windows commonly found in northern rural homes. Window flowers come in various forms, such as corner flowers for window frames, branch flowers, and free-form designs depicting animals, plants, characters, or even continuous sets of plays or legends. They are changed with new designs on special occasions to symbolize welcoming the new and bidding farewell to the old. In Shandong, there is a special type called “Chuanyue,” which spans across the window frames.
Joy Flowers (喜花)
Used to adorn various objects and interior settings during weddings and celebrations. They are often placed on tea sets, soapboxes, basins, and even dressing mirrors. The patterns on joy flowers emphasize auspicious and joyful meanings. The color used is predominantly bright red. The shapes include circular, square, rhombus, peach-shaped, and pomegranate-shaped, decorated with various auspicious patterns such as dragons, phoenixes, mandarin ducks, flowers, and peonies. The composition often uses the method of “flowers nested within flowers.”
Gift Flowers (礼花)
Affixed to cakes, longevity noodles, eggs, and other gift items. In Chaozhou, Guangdong, they are known as “cake flowers” or “fruit flowers,” while in Pingyang, Zhejiang, they are called “circle pot flowers.” Gift flowers usually feature auspicious and joyous patterns. In Shandong, for example, “happy eggs” are decorated with paper-cut patterns, or the eggs are dyed red to reveal white floral patterns. In rural areas of Fujian, they use turtle patterns to symbolize longevity. There are both cake-shaped and paper-cut turtle patterns.
Shoe Flowers (鞋花)
Used as embroidery templates for fabric shoes. There are three main forms: small cluster flowers or scattered flowers for the toe of the shoe, known as “toe flowers”; crescent-shaped flowers suitable for the vamp, called “vamp flowers”; and flowers that extend from the vamp to the shoe collar, known as “collar flowers.” Additionally, there is a type called “sole flower,” which was used in olden times for “longevity shoes” or embroidered on the soles of cloth socks. Shoe flower compositions are generally sparse and include themes such as flowers, plants, and small birds. Some shoe flowers are cut without creating holes, known as “hidden knives,” which serve as guidelines for changing colors while embroidering.
Door Pennants (门笺)
Also known as “hanging pennants,” “hanging coins,” “red pennants,” “joyous pennants,” “door decorations,” or “sacrificial plaques.” They are typically used above door lintels or on the two beams of the main hall. The pennants often have a flag-like shape with a larger top and wider sides, hanging with tassels at the bottom. They are usually made of red paper, but other colors or layered colors are also used. The designs mostly feature geometric patterns or incorporate figures, flowers, dragons, phoenixes, and auspicious words, such as “universal celebration,” “national peace,” “abundance year after year,” “smooth weather,” “abundance of wealth and honor,” “magpies on a plum branch,” “happiness, emolument, longevity, joy, and wealth,” and “prosperity in all five trades.” They are displayed in sets, with five pennants being the most common. The purpose of posting door pennants is not only to welcome the arrival of spring and dispel evil but also to pray for blessings and drive away misfortunes.
A type of multicolored paper cutting used for decorating during folk activities such as ancestor worship ceremonies. In traditional ceremonies, incense is often in thin strips known as “incense threads,” and they are sometimes wrapped into various patterns resembling seal characters, known as “incense seals” or “fragrance seals.” These incense seals are then placed on a base shaped like a bucket and supported by bamboo sticks. Colored paper cuttings are applied to the base and bamboo sticks, creating what is known as “incense boat flowers.” The themes of incense boat flowers include auspicious figures and immortals, such as the Eight Immortals, Hehe, and Shouxing (the God of Longevity). They are mostly made of waxed paper and usually come in sets of about ten sheets.
Cluster Flowers (剪纸团花)
A layout format in paper cutting, presenting a circular pattern with all four sides being symmetrical. This decorative format demonstrates the excellence of paper cutting, as the paper can be folded diagonally two, three, or four times to create symmetrical cluster flowers on all four sides. The oldest known paper cutting artifacts from the Northern Dynasties excavated in Xinjiang are in the format of cluster flowers, such as “paired bird cluster flowers,” “paired monkey cluster flowers,” “eight-sided cluster flowers,” “honeysuckle pattern cluster flowers,” and “chrysanthemum pattern cluster flowers.” Thus, the cluster flower format is one of the oldest formats in paper cutting.
Paper Cutting Pennants (剪纸旗幡)
Paper cuttings shaped like flags used for various folk activities. For example, during the Double Ninth Festival, triangular flags made of colored paper are inserted into Double Ninth cakes, making them look attractive. In the old customs of Zhejiang during the Song Dynasty, paper-cut dragon and tiger flags were used by shamans to drive away evil and disasters for sick patients. For funerals, there were “flower flags” made of plain paper. In memorial ceremonies for the deceased’s anniversary, there were “soul-calling paper flags,” as well as “shu” (similar in shape to a flag) hanging on the beams in the memorial hall. The paper-cutting pennants are related to the banners held by guiding Bodhisattvas in Buddhism.
Distribution by Region
Zigong Paper Cutting
Zigong paper cutting is an ancient traditional folk art that originated in the early 1940s. Its works are simple, rustic, vivid, and combine the techniques of movement and stillness, yin and yang, block and line, sparse and dense. It integrates various folk arts into paper cutting works, forming a unique artistic style that is plain, rich, fresh, clever, extraordinary, and with a strong artistic taste, appreciated by both refined and popular tastes.
Ruichang Paper Cutting
Ruichang folk paper cutting has a long history, and according to scholars’ research, it originated in the Han Dynasty in China when “paper” had not yet appeared. The art of “cutting” already existed, but it was mainly expressed in cutting patterns on silk, brocade, metal, and foil decorations. When paper appeared in Ruichang, folk paper cutting also emerged, and it now has a history of about 1900 years.
Folk paper cutting art is a passing art, and its long-lasting tradition is mainly based on “inheritance.” The previous generation passes down folk cultural concepts, artistic symbols (i.e., patterns), and their own innovations and experiences in paper cutting to the next generation. This transmission can be within one’s own family or to others, without expecting any compensation. It is completely open and continuously passed down from generation to generation through rural women.
As a folk art form, Ruichang paper cutting has survived for thousands of years due to the support of various folk customs and the social respect it receives in the rural areas of Ruichang. Ruichang has a tradition of valuing the importance of human relations, which has led the laboring masses to view paper cutting as a precious art form, used to express good wishes for the New Year, auspicious events, prosperity, and various celebrations, as well as for respecting ancestors, expressing condolences, and pursuing future ideals. Its extensive application is closely related to various folk customs.
Festival customs: During the Spring Festival and other traditional festivals, there are many joyful activities that lead to the widespread use of paper cutting. Every household decorates their rooms with paper cuttings like “plum, orchid, bamboo, and chrysanthemum,” “rooster announcing dawn,” “fish leaping over the Dragon Gate,” and more to express good wishes for the New Year, good luck, abundance, and peace throughout the year.
Wedding customs: Before proposing a marriage, the matchmaker would first assess the woman’s paper cutting and embroidery skills. If a man is chosen, the woman would give him a pair of exquisitely made embroidered socks or cloth shoes as a token of love. Paper cutting and embroidery are commonly used in weddings to symbolize good luck, harmony, and blessings for a happy marriage and healthy children.
Birthday customs: Celebrating birthdays is popular in Ruichang, from celebrating birth and full moon to every ten years after turning thirty. On these occasions, paper cuttings are used to decorate clothing, hats, shoes, birthday halls, and tents to celebrate and express good wishes for longevity and happiness.
Funeral customs: Celebrating the death of an elderly person is considered a “white auspicious event” in Ruichang. The arrangement of the mourning hall, the production of paper cranes for the spirit house, the clothing of the deceased, and various symbolic burial items involve a large number of paper cuttings.
Shamanistic customs: Ruichang was once a place where shamanism was prevalent until the mid-1950s. Shamanistic activities aimed to cure various diseases since modern medicine was not advanced enough. Shamans would instruct artisans to create paper figures, paper boats, and other paper cutting works, and through shamanistic rituals, they would use these paper cuttings to perform healing and blessing ceremonies.
Agricultural customs: Two agricultural activities in Ruichang are closely related to paper cutting. During tea-picking season, female villagers dress up with various paper cutting decorations for socializing and entertainment while picking tea. For rice planting, paper flowers are inserted into the field as a symbol of celebration.
In Ruichang, “skill” is highly respected, and the skill of paper cutting is not monetized. Thus, paper cutting artists are highly admired and loved. Therefore, paper cutting and embroidery have become essential skills for unmarried girls in rural areas, especially during marriage, where women are assessed based on their paper cutting skills.
Regarding paper, there are no specific rules for the type of paper used. For ordinary female paper cutting artists, regular scissors are used. However, professional male paper cutting artists use specialized chisels made by blacksmiths to create various patterns on the paper. The choice of paper color is based on the needs of the occasion and may include black, red, white, or blue paper.
Nanjing Paper-cutting is one of the ancient folk arts and is recognized as world intangible cultural heritage. It is a form of hollow-out art that provides a sense of transparency and artistic enjoyment. According to historical records, it has been passed down among the folk since the Ming Dynasty.
In the past, during wedding and festive occasions in Nanjing, artists were often hired to create various red paper-cut decorations, such as auspicious flowers, which were used to embellish dowry items like chests, cabinets, quilts, and pillows. Other types of paper-cut designs, such as “Douxianghua” (a type of paper-cut flower) and shoe flowers, had distinct local characteristics. The artistic features of Nanjing Paper-cutting include “flowers within flowers, themes within themes, coarseness with finesse, and ingenuity within simplicity.” For example, auspicious flowers are typically designed with specific themes surrounded by scattered flowers and leaves, harmoniously forming complete patterns that are auspicious and rich in meaning.
Representative Artists: Wu Laotai, Ma Zhihong, Zhang Jigen, Zhang Fanglin
Included in the second batch of the national intangible cultural heritage expansion project list.
Among Nanjing Paper-cutting, “Xihua” (喜花) and “Douxianghua” (斗香花) are particularly famous. During weddings and celebrations in Nanjing, various auspicious flowers were used to decorate dowry items like chests, cabinets, quilts, and pillows. The designs were filled with auspicious patterns such as flowers and leaves according to the specific shape of the paper-cut. It can be described as having flowers within flowers, themes within themes, coarseness with finesse, and ingenuity within simplicity. The themes of “Douxianghua” include opera stories, historical legends, folk tales, auspicious patterns, and flowers. The colors are usually composed of gold, dark red, pink, green, blue, orange, light yellow, and black, creating a strong visual impact. While most of the auspicious flowers are created with scissors, “Douxianghua” and “Menjian” (门笺) are often made with knives.
Other Regional Paper-cutting Styles in China:
Pizhou Paper-cutting (邳县剪纸) from Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, is known for its two types: colorful Menjian made of wax-coated paper and window flowers, which depict various scenes of daily life, domestic animals, historical stories, auspicious symbols, and flowers.
Gaomi Paper-cutting (高密剪纸) from Shandong Province features decorations on doors, windows, cupboards, and roofs. The style combines sawtooth patterns with straight lines to create distinctive images.
Foshan Paper-cutting (佛山剪纸) from Guangdong Province has a long history, dating back to the Song Dynasty and flourishing during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. The technique involves cutting, engraving, carving, printing, writing, and backing. The most characteristic is the use of copperplate writing, which combines painting, engraving, and writing techniques to create magnificent artworks.
Luanzhou Shadow Puppetry (滦州布影) has two meanings: one refers to the shadow puppetry from Luan County in Hebei Province, and the other refers to the shadow puppetry from Shandong Province. Both have their unique styles, showcasing mythological legends and local historical stories.
An’sai Paper-cutting (安塞剪纸) from northern Yan’an in Shaanxi Province is known for its various forms, including window flowers, wall decorations, tablecloths, and more. The themes cover a wide range, from auspicious images to traditional beliefs.
Longdong Paper-cutting (陇东剪纸) from Qingyang and Pingliang in Gansu Province has a long history and is characterized by its bold and exaggerated style. Different areas within Longdong have varying styles, with eastern regions being simple and rustic, central regions being elegant and well-structured, and western regions being concise and lively. Themes include birds, animals, folk stories, and seasonal flowers.
Fushan Paper-cutting (浮山剪纸) in Shanxi Province is known as the “hometown of paper-cutting.” It is widely used for clothing, pillows, pouches, skirts, wallets, shoes, hats, handkerchiefs, and more.
Binzhou Paper-cutting (滨州剪纸) from Huimin in northern Shandong Province features window flowers and embroidery patterns with a more robust style compared to other regions. It is particularly known for its symmetrical human figures.
Weixian Paper-cutting (蔚县剪纸) from Hebei Province has a history of over two hundred years. It excels in window flowers, and its unique style lies in the combination of engraving and coloring.
Shanxi Paper-cutting (山西剪纸) adopts diverse formats and styles according to the local customs and practical needs. The most common type is window flowers, which vary in size and design based on the shape of the windows. The styles differ among regions, showcasing robust, majestic, concise, and rustic features.
According to the technical classification, Chinese paper cutting can be categorized into the following forms:
Monochrome Paper Cutting
Monochrome paper cutting is the most basic form of paper cutting, made from various colors such as red, green, brown, black, and gold. It is mainly used for window decorations and embroidery patterns. There are three main techniques: negative cutting, positive cutting, and a combination of both. For embroidery patterns, a combination of cutting and poking techniques is commonly used. Folding paper cutting, silhouette cutting, torn paper cutting, etc., are all forms of monochrome paper cutting.
Folding Paper Cutting
Folding paper cutting is the most common technique in folk paper cutting. It involves folding the paper in different ways before cutting. Some traditional designs like “dui ma” and “dui hou” are created using this technique. Folding paper cutting is concise, convenient, time-saving, and suitable for symmetrical shapes and patterns, such as humans, frogs, butterflies, turtles, reflections, fish pairs, etc. It is also used for geometric patterns, flowers, scenery, and objects.
Silhouette cutting is an ancient form of paper cutting that emphasizes representing the shapes of people and objects through their outlines. It is best suited for depicting the side view of characters or objects. Silhouette cutting is done using scissors and carving knives on black or heavy-colored paper. It is ideal for showcasing transparency effects and has a unique artistic style.
Torn Paper Cutting
Torn paper cutting is a new type of paper cutting derived from traditional folk paper cutting. It involves tearing and shaping paper in a freehand manner. This technique results in a rustic and bold style, creating a natural and spontaneous atmosphere in the artwork.
Colored Paper Cutting
As paper cutting forms evolved and developed, colored paper cutting techniques increased in variety, including point dyeing, overlaying colors, splitting colors, filling colors, woodblock printing, spray painting, tracing, and color weaving. Each technique has its own characteristics and uniqueness.
Point Dyeing Paper Cutting
Point dyeing paper cutting involves applying color to the carved paper through point dyeing. It relies more on small-area negative carving, leaving large areas for point dyeing. The colors used in point dyeing are commonly referred to as “brand colors,” such as pink and green, often used in traditional dyeing. The brand colors are dyed onto raw Xuan paper. The dye spreads and diffuses immediately, and one round of dyeing can cover several sheets of paper.
Overlaying Colors Paper Cutting
Overlaying colors paper cutting is primarily based on positive carving, with large areas hollowed out to leave room for overlaying colors. Different color papers are used to fill different parts of the design, such as skin tones, clothing, objects, and flowers. Overlaying colors create vibrant and decorative effects.
Splitting Colors Paper Cutting
Splitting colors paper cutting, also known as collage paper cutting, involves combining two or more monochrome paper cuttings into one composition. It is still based on monochrome paper cutting but uses different colors to create the final artwork. Care should be taken to ensure harmony between the colors and avoid excessive complexity.
Filling Colors Paper Cutting
Filling colors paper cutting, also known as pen-color paper cutting, combines cutting with painting techniques. Black paper is pasted onto white backing paper, and then brushes are used to fill the shapes within the outlines. Filling colors can create gradients and natural shading effects.
Woodblock Printing Paper Cutting
Woodblock printing paper cutting combines printing and carving. It can be done by carving after printing (called “opening the phase”) or directly printing the paper cutting effect on the paper. It is often used to depict characters from operas and mythological stories.
Spray Painting Paper Cutting
Spray painting paper cutting involves using an airbrush to apply dye onto the paper, creating a mist-like effect, such as thin fog, morning dew, frost, and raindrops. Different nozzle sizes can achieve varying effects.
Tracing Paper Cutting
Tracing paper cutting combines paper cutting with drawing techniques. It can involve using scissors to cut the paper after outlining the drawing, or carving the main outline of the design and using brushes to add details.
Color Weaving Paper Cutting
Color weaving paper cutting combines various colored paper strips, cutting, and weaving them into various geometric patterns, flowers, animals, and figures. It serves both decorative and practical purposes and is used in weaving, embroidery, and children’s handicrafts.
Three-Dimensional Paper Cutting
Three-dimensional paper cutting can be monochrome or colored. It uses a combination of techniques such as drawing, carving, folding, and gluing to create a paper artwork that appears almost like a sculpture or bas-relief. It blends realistic and artistic elements, transforming paper cutting from a two-dimensional art form to a three-dimensional one. It is suitable for appreciating the artistry of the form and can be used for children’s crafts and other applications.
Zigong folk paper-cutting has a long history dating back to the Ming and Qing dynasties, with a history of more than 400 years. It is a spiritual and cultural form in which ordinary people pray for a better life. Zigong paper-cutting is characterized by its simplicity, richness, freshness, agility, and modernity. [26-27] It mainly consists of various auspicious and auspicious patterns. In the late 1940s, a person named Yu Manbai from western Hubei settled in Zigong and integrated the essence of paper-cutting styles from the north and south to form the unique cutting method of Zigong paper-cutting. In 1989, Shen Chenglin’s paper-cutting work won the second prize in the first Chinese paper-cutting competition. Compared with other regions in Sichuan, Zigong paper-cutting has a more elegant and delicate overall style, with graceful shapes and intricate lines. Therefore, it is known as one of the two major schools of Sichuan paper-cutting art (Zigong paper-cutting and northern Sichuan paper-cutting). In 2009, “Sichuan Handmade Paper-cutting,” including Zigong paper-cutting, was listed in the Sichuan Intangible Cultural Heritage List. 
Foshan paper-cutting originated in the Song Dynasty and flourished during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Since the Ming Dynasty, Foshan paper-cutting has become a specialized industry with large-scale production. The themes of Foshan paper-cutting mostly include flowers, birds, insects, fish, opera characters, and folk stories, such as “dragons,” “phoenixes,” “carps,” “peacocks,” “Hehe Erxian,” “the Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea,” “Chang’e Flying to the Moon,” and “the Eight Immortals Making Trouble in the East Sea,” among others. It is classified based on materials and methods, such as copper lining, paper lining, copper engraving, silver engraving, woodblock printing, copper chiseling, and pure color, and various patterns are created using techniques such as cutting, engraving, and chiseling with locally produced copper foil and silver foil.
Hubei Mianyang Paper-cutting
Mianyang paper-cutting is a form of folk art created by folk artists carving embroidery patterns (commonly known as “flower patterns”) on a wax tray with a carving knife and white paper, generally overlapping twenty or more layers of white paper. The carving knife used is often made by processing alarm clock springs or surgical knives. The wax tray is made of vegetable oil, white wax, and incense ash and is placed in a small wooden disk. “Flower patterns” are commonly used for embroidery patterns on shoes, insoles, hats, pillows, drool guards, curtains, door curtains, etc., with many auspicious and celebratory patterns, such as “magpies on plum trees,” “dragons and phoenixes presenting blessings,” “mandarin ducks playing in water,” “goldfish frolicking among lotus,” “deer and cranes ushering in spring,” and “carved lions rolling embroidered balls,” among others. Mianyang paper-cutting is in stark contrast to the bold and unrestrained characteristics of northern paper-cutting and appears delicate and meticulous.
Fujian paper-cutting varies in style across different regions. In mountainous areas like Nanping and Hua’an, there are more works depicting mountain birds and domestic animals, showing a more robust and powerful style. In coastal regions like southern Fujian and Zhangpu, aquatic animals are often seen in the artworks, featuring delicate and lively styles. In Putian and Xianyou, the main focus is on gift flowers, leaning towards gorgeous and delicate meanings. Paper-cutting has a wide range of applications, including window flowers, door decorations, lamp flowers, and embroidery patterns for clothes. Craftsmen from Quanzhou use paper-cutting in architecture and furniture, as well as for printing lacquer paintings. The most characteristic style of Fujian paper-cutting is the Putian gift flower. Celebrating birthdays, weddings, or other significant events, people would affix a bright red paper-cutting flower to their gifts. Even pig heads, pig feet, pig stomachs, chicken claws, etc., were adorned with paper-cut flowers. The popular saying “the lighter the gift, the deeper the affection” suggests that the paper-cut flowers on gifts symbolize the giver’s heartfelt emotions. 
Jiangsu and Zhejiang Paper-cutting
Nanjing paper-cutting is mainly popular in Nanjing and its surrounding areas in Jiangsu Province. According to historical records like “Bai Xia Suo Yan” by Gan Xi during the Qing Dynasty, Nanjing paper-cutting was already popular in the early Ming Dynasty. In the 1950s, folk paper-cutting production cooperatives and folk craft factories were established in Nanjing, producing paper-cutting works for export. Nanjing paper-cutting stands out with its distinctive characteristics, combining the boldness of northern paper-cutting and the delicacy of southern paper-cutting. It is full of flowers and patterns, with themes and titles that are harmoniously matched, offering a profound artistic form. Traditional types of Nanjing paper-cutting include happiness flowers, fighting incense flowers, door letter paper-cuttings, and embroidery patterns, including shoe flowers. These fully embody the unique style of Nanjing paper-cutting and enrich the treasure trove of Chinese folk art. Nanjing paper-cutting is created without preliminary drafts, and the lines are continuous as if drawn with a single stroke, demonstrating exceptional craftsmanship.
Yangzhou is one of the regions where paper-cutting was popular earliest in China. As early as the Tang Dynasty, there were customs of paper-cutting to welcome the spring in Yangzhou. On the day of the Beginning of Spring, folk paper-cutting works such as flowers, spring butterflies, and spring coins were hung above the heads of beauties or arranged under flowers and trees to bring joy and happiness. It is said that during the Jiaqing and Daoguang reigns, the famous artist Bao Jun’s paper-cutting works featured flowers, birds, fish, and butterflies, all lifelike, earning him the title of “master cutter.” After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Yangzhou paper-cutting received attention from the national and local governments. In 1955, a folk craft cooperative was established in Yangzhou. In 1979, the paper-cutting artist Zhang Yongshou was awarded the title of “Chinese Arts and Crafts Master” by the state. His three collections of paper-cuttings, “Myriad Flowers in Full Bloom” from the 1950s, “Hundred Chrysanthemums” from the 1970s, and “Blossoming Flowers and Dancing Butterflies” from the 1980s, are representative works of Yangzhou paper-cutting. Yangzhou paper-cutting covers a wide range of subjects, including figures and flowers, birds, beasts, insects, fish, and various landscapes and cultural relics. It is particularly skilled in depicting seasonal flowers.
According to the “Wulin Fanzhi,” during the Five Dynasties period, “Wuyue King celebrated the auspicious day… Outside the city, all households did not hang silk or satin, but instead used colored paper to cut people, horses, and other items as substitutes.” This depicted a grand paper-cutting scene that once appeared in the old Wuyue region. Window flowers of paper-cutting are widespread in various regions of Zhejiang, with many varieties found in Yongkang, Pujiang, and Pan’an in Jinhua, Yueqing and Pingyang in Wenzhou, and Putian and Xianyou in Quanzhou. They all have different styles and uses. In the Jinbei area, window flowers and lamp flowers are common, while in Leqing, intricate engraved paper-cuttings are mainly used to decorate dragon-pan lamps. The most characteristic feature of Pingyang is the “circle basin flower” affixed to gifts. In each region, paper-cuttings are also used for clothing, shoes, hats, and more. Zhejiang paper-cutting is particularly distinctive in its operatic window flowers, which take typical scenes and plots from operas, fully demonstrating the beauty of characters. It uses fine shading lines in large silhouette contours, adding color to the images.
Hebei Weixian paper-cutting, also known as “Living Fossil,” has a unique way of preserving the Yin and Yang philosophical thinking and the worship of reproduction and reproduction in Chinese culture. Ancient patterns like “fish body and human face” and “lion body and human face,” “clawing hair dolls” similar to the Zhou culture, and “plowing cattle pattern” similar to Han portraits have been passed down in various regions of Weixian. These folk paper-cutting patterns have extremely ancient symbols, and many of the folk paper-cutting patterns are called the reproduction of the art images of the source of Chinese culture. They are “living fossils” of Chinese folk culture history.
Shanxi paper-cutting can be roughly divided into two categories based on its style. One is the bold and unrestrained style of the Bohai Bay region, which is inherited from the other provinces in the Yellow River Basin. The other is the more distinctive style of Shandong’s Jiaodong coastal region, where the main elements are lines, and the combination of lines and surfaces forms delicate paper-cutting works. The latter style seems to be in line with the intricate and elaborate style of Han portrait stones in Shanxi, and the dense decorative means make the simple and refreshing appearance fuller and more abundant. Shanxi Jiaodong proudly calls skillful women “tricksters,” and it is an honor for a village to have a “trickster.” They split large compositions into small pieces to fit the slender-shaped window grilles. They then cut them out individually and paste them on the window to form a complete picture.
type of paper cutting
Looking at the lantern flowers passed down from modern folk traditions, their production mainly involves paper pasting, paper tying, and paper cutting. The lantern frame is made of softwood, and intricately cut paper is pasted on it. Candles are placed inside to provide illumination. This type of paper cutting often utilizes the technique of negative cutting, making the most of the interplay of light and shadow to create a contrast between the inside and outside, with the “shadow” complementing the “image.” The lantern flowers often adopt a “four dishes and one soup” style, with corner flowers adorning the four corners of the lantern and a central cluster flower design. Some lantern flowers use “pasted flower” techniques in the corners while retaining a hollow cluster flower design in the center. This style was widely applied in later pattern designs, and people gave it a vivid professional name – the “enlightenment style.”
The content of lantern flowers includes characters from operas, plants and fruits, domestic animals and poultry, flowers, birds, fish, insects, as well as auspicious symbols like “Fu” (fortune), “Lu” (prosperity), “Shou” (longevity), and “Xi” (happiness), adding to the festive atmosphere.
Paper cutting also plays an important role in life rituals. Taking “Xi Hua” (wedding paper-cut flowers) in wedding customs as an example: “Xi Hua,” also known as “Li Hua,” “Xi Zi Hua,” or “Jia Zhuang Hua,” is an essential decoration in wedding ceremonies, typically crafted from red paper cuttings.
In traditional customs, “Xi Hua” is ubiquitous in various aspects of wedding celebrations. Anything related to the newlyweds, such as food, drinks, clothing, belongings, and accommodations, should be adorned with “Xi Hua.” It is commonly placed on the door, as well as on items like camphorwood trunks, cosmetic boxes, dressing mirrors, jewelry boxes, the car or sedan used by the bride, tables, chairs, kitchenware, furniture, flower vases, teacups, and bowls in the new home. The bride wears the “Double Happiness Colored Flower” on her head, while the groom wears the “Double Happiness Gift Flower” on his chest. Female guests wear a string of red “Xi” characters as headdress, symbolizing congratulations upon arrival and hopes for joy throughout their journey.
“Xi Hua” comes in various sizes, ranging from several feet long, such as the roof decorations for weddings, and large floral displays for the ceremony, to small ones less than an inch, like the delicate ones placed on tea trays.
The most typical form of “Xi Hua” (wedding paper-cut flowers) is various clustered flowers centered around the “Double Happiness Union.” Examples include the “Dragon and Phoenix Auspicious,” “Magpies on Plum Blossoms,” “Mandarin Ducks Playing in Water,” “Phoenix Among Peonies,” “Melon Butterflies in Abundance,” and others. The composition often places the “Double Happiness” characters at the center, with dragons, phoenixes, birds, peonies, lotus flowers, and other elements symmetrically positioned on either side. Blessing phrases like “Dragon and Phoenix Auspicious,” “United in Heart,” and “Happiness in Marriage” are inscribed above the clustered flowers to convey good wishes.
Legend has it that the joined “Double Happiness” characters were invented by the Song Dynasty literary figure Wang Anshi. While Wang Anshi was on his way to the capital for the imperial examination, he coincidentally met the daughter of the current Minister of Rites. They privately pledged to be together and decided to inform their parents and get married after the exams. After passing the exams with flying colors, Wang Anshi became the top scholar. On their wedding night, with his newly-wed wife before him, Wang Anshi was delighted with both his successful career and marriage. Feeling jubilant, he added another “Xi” character next to the “Xi” character already pasted on the front door, creating the “Double Happiness” symbol we see today.
In addition to seasonal customs, folk paper cutting plays an essential role in daily life, especially in the processing of clothing accessories like embroidery and picking flowers. Traditional clothing items such as embroidered robes, skirts, stomach covers, embroidered shoes, and handkerchiefs were made using “flower pattern” paper cuttings as templates.
For example, shoe flower paper cuttings include the vamp, the shoe tongue, the sole, and the shoe pad. Embroidery styles include “full bottom,” where the design covers the entire vamp; “symmetrical,” with the same pattern separated on the left and right sides; and “corner,” where decorations are applied only to a corner of the vamp. Additionally, there are styles like “follow,” “scatter point,” and “freehand,” where the paper cutting is first done to create a template that is then applied to the actual material.
In the past, in rural areas of Shandong and Shanxi provinces, shoe flowers were also used as a medium for expressing emotions and conveying love among young women. The craftsmanship of “Three-Inch Golden Lotus” embroidered shoes, often seen today, is skillful and has become one of the sought-after categories by museums and collectors. Shoe flowers also served as evidence of filial piety and spousal education in the past: “One pair for father-in-law, one pair for mother-in-law, one pair for the groom, one pair for me, and another pair to be kept for future use.”
In the long process of development, folk paper cutting has developed its own unique artistic language. With just a piece of paper and a pair of scissors, rural women can instantly create exquisite works of art.
Paper cutting is divided into two major categories: single-colored and multi-colored. Single-colored paper cutting includes red, green, blue, black, white, brown, gold, silver, and others, which are the most widely used and numerous types in folk paper cutting. Multi-colored paper cutting includes split-color paper cutting, dyeing paper cutting, overlay color paper cutting, pieced color paper cutting, background color paper cutting, outline paper cutting, woodcut paper cutting, smoking paper cutting, and hair-raising paper cutting.
Among multi-colored paper cutting, split-color and dyeing paper cutting are the most representative. Split-color paper cutting involves using different colors of paper to create different elements within the same picture. It often employs the technique of layering, where colors are “borrowed” between elements to make the most of the limited color palette. One of the most skilled artists in this technique is Kusulan, an elderly woman from Xunyi County, Shaanxi, who is often called the “Paper-cutting Lady.” Dyeing paper cutting, also known as dot-color paper cutting, involves using white alcohol to dye the paper after carving. Artists use Xuan paper or Liang paper and mix it with white alcohol to create the color. Due to the way the color sinks without overflowing when mixed with white alcohol, the artist can dye 20 to 30 sheets at once. This type of paper cutting is most famous in Weixian County, Hebei.
Paper cutting can be classified into positive carving and negative carving. Positive carving involves cutting off the parts outside the image’s outline, similar to “red text” in seal engraving. Negative carving, on the other hand, is the opposite, where the image is displayed through the blank spaces left after cutting, akin to “white text.” Positive carving and negative carving are the two fundamental techniques in paper cutting, and some artworks combine both. For example, Shandong Gaomi paper cutting uses this technique with positive carving for the figures’ heads and negative carving for the clothing patterns, achieving a balanced and rich effect.
Not all paper cuttings are done with scissors. In folk paper cutting, the “patterns” (designs) are generally cut directly with scissors, while the mass-produced “clones” are carved using specialized knives. Most paper cuttings sold in the market belong to this category.
The rich folk life provides the fertile ground for nurturing paper cutting art. Even within the same province or region, the artistic styles differ. Taking Shaanxi as an example, the paper cuttings from Yan’an, Luochuan, Ansai, and Yongshou in the northern part of the province are bold, simple, and concise, while the ones from Chaoyi, Fengxiang, Qianxian, and Wugong in the southern part are exquisite, elegant, and decorative.
From a national perspective, the situation is similar. Northern paper cutting is known for its ruggedness, boldness, and concise forms, while southern paper cutting is renowned for its lush composition, delicacy, and beauty. Apart from Shaanxi, Gansu, Ningxia, and other areas are also significant regions for paper cutting in the northwest. The style of their paper cuttings often features the distinctive bold and unrestrained traits of northwestern people. In Northeast China, Jilin, Hailun, and other places have larger paper cuttings that are hearty and simple, with lively and unpolished character images. In addition to cutting flowers from red paper, they are often smoked to darken the back of the paper cutting. Then, bright colored paper, wax paper, gold and silver foil, and other materials are applied to the back, creating vibrant colors and a strong local flavor. Fushan paper cutting in Shanxi integrates the rugged and lively characteristics of northern paper cutting. Apart from window flowers and ceremonial flowers, it connects twelve months’ “bridge flowers” to celebrate children’s birthdays, giving it a distinct local style. The paper cuttings from Fuyang and Bozhou in Anhui province are skilled at combining thick and thin lines, alternating positive and negative carving, and integrating the boldness of northern paper cutting and the delicacy of southern paper cutting. As a result, they display a harmonious and graceful artistic style.
The southern regions, such as Guizhou, Nanjing, Yangzhou, Jintan, and Foshan, are also famous paper-cutting areas in China. Among them, the Dong ethnic paper cutting in Guizhou mainly focuses on the embroidery patterns of clothing, such as shoe flowers, sleeve flowers, strap flowers, and hat flowers. The artistic expression emphasizes the outline of the pattern, which is then detailed with needlework, with minimal cutting. The production process involves first cutting the outline of the pattern and then using a needle to add details, resulting in delicate and flexible patterns. This type of needlework paper cutting is most representative in the Dong and Miao inhabited areas of Taijiang County, Guizhou. The “Xi Hua” pattern in Nanjing paper cutting incorporates traditional pattern characteristics with “flowers within flowers, flowers nested within leaves, roughness combined with delicacy, and cleverness within simplicity,” revealing the lingering charm of the Tang Dynasty’s “Treasure-like Flowers.”
Each region’s paper cutting has its unique features: Yangzhou’s paper cutting is refined and delicate; Jintan’s paper cutting is flowing and elegant; and Foshan’s paper cutting is vigorous and unrestrained. Additionally, paper cuttings from Quanzhou and Chaozhou regions are also well-known.
“Different winds in ten miles, different customs in a hundred miles.” It is precisely because of the diverse folk customs and traditions that various regions have developed rich and colorful artistic styles of folk paper cutting, demonstrating their vibrant vitality. Without this diversity, folk paper cutting would lose its foundation and brilliance.
Chinese paper-cutting history
Folk paper-cutting is an ancient traditional folk art in China. It has a long history and a unique style, loved by people both domestically and internationally.
The main material for paper-cutting is paper, which is one of China’s Four Great Inventions. The invention of paper is traditionally credited to Cai Lun around 105 AD. However, archaeological findings in Shaanxi Province, such as paper from the Western Han Dynasty, suggest that paper might have appeared even earlier, possibly during the reign of Emperor Xuan (73-49 BC). Before the invention of paper, there might have been other thin materials used for cutting and carving, but true paper-cutting as an art form likely emerged after the introduction of paper.
Historical records of early paper-cutting:
During the excavation of the Warring States period site in Guyi Village, Huixian County, Henan, archaeologists found silver foil decorations with hollowed-out flower patterns.
Jin Dynasty gold foil decorations were unearthed in Changsha, Hunan, which were also hollowed-out designs and can be considered the predecessors of paper-cutting in terms of carving techniques and artistic style.
During the Northern and Southern Dynasties period, several sets of paper-cutting called “团花剪纸” were unearthed near Flaming Mountain in Turpan, Xinjiang. These paper-cuttings depicted various designs, including horses, monkeys, chrysanthemums, and more.
During the Tang Dynasty, paper-cutting patterns were applied to other crafts, such as leather hats with hollowed-out patterns and gold and silver inlay techniques for decorating lacquerware and bronze mirrors. Gold and silver foil were pasted on the back of these objects, and the intricate patterns were revealed after filling with lacquer. In addition, the practice of creating paper-cut designs for leather shadow puppetry was already seen during this period.
The Song Dynasty saw various mentions of paper-cutting, with examples of using it as decorative elements for gifts, windows, lamps, and more. Professional artists skilled in paper-cutting emerged, some specializing in cutting characters, while others focused on various floral patterns. The art of shadow puppetry also continued, with some puppets made using thick paper.
During the Ming Dynasty, “夹纱灯” (jia sha lantern) became famous, which involved placing paper-cut designs between layers of gauze and using candlelight to project the patterns, similar to modern “走马灯” (carousel lantern).
There are fewer surviving examples of paper-cutting from the Qing Dynasty, but some can be found in places like the Kun Ning Palace in the Forbidden City in Beijing, where black paper-cut designs of dragons, phoenixes, and double happiness symbols are displayed on white paper backgrounds.
The art of paper-cutting has evolved over the centuries and remains an important part of Chinese culture and folk art.
In the Tang Dynasty, there are poetic verses mentioning “宜春帖子” (Yichun characters), which refer to the familiar “paper-cutting art pieces” in modern times. The poet Li Shangyin wrote in his poem “人曰” (“People Say”): “镂金作胜传荆俗，剪彩为人起晋风” (“Carving gold creates a victory, passing on the custom of Jing, cutting colors to initiate the Jin style”). This also refers to paper-cutting.
There are records in “酉阳杂俎” that on the day of “立春” (the beginning of spring), in the homes of scholars and officials, they would make paper-cuttings resembling “小蟠” (a type of design), which were hung above the heads of beautiful ladies or attached under flowers, and also paper-cuttings of “春蝶” (spring butterflies) as a playful expression of spring.
Southern Song Dynasty:
In “志雅堂诗杂钞” (“Zhiya Hall Miscellaneous Poems and Notes”), it is written that in the old capital, there were skilled paper-cutting artists who were extremely ingenious in cutting various floral patterns. It also mentioned a person named 余承志 (Yu Chengzhi) who specialized in cutting characters from various scripts. Another young artist mentioned in the text was skilled in cutting characters and flower patterns on sleeves with great precision.
In the “建德县志” (“Jiande County Annals”), it mentions 林文辉 (Lin Wenhui), a paper-cutting artist known for his craftsmanship. The text describes his paper-cutting as “飞动如龙蛇” (“moving like dragons and snakes”) and that he used it for home decoration and to make a living. He was highly regarded for his skill and was called “剪” (Jian), which means a paper-cutting artist.
In the “杨诚齐集子” (“Yang Chengqi Anthology”), there is mention of a “剪字道人” (“Jianzi Dao Ren”), who cut characters from the poems of “远公” (Yuangong) on blue paper with exceptional accuracy, creating realistic artworks.
Timeline of Paper-Cutting Art in China
Early Tang Dynasty
The invention of paper is attributed to the Western Han Dynasty, before which paper-cutting art could not have existed. However, people used other thin materials and employed techniques like carving, engraving, peeling, and cutting to create artworks. Before the appearance of paper, they were already popular, including the use of gold foil, leather, silk, and even tree leaves to cut and engrave patterns.
Southern and Northern Dynastie
The earliest known paper-cutting artwork is from the Northern Dynasties period (386-581 AD), discovered near the Huoyanshan in Turpan, Xinjiang. These paper-cuttings employed repeated folding techniques and non-overlapping treatment of images.
During the Tang Dynasty, paper-cutting art was in a period of significant development. Poet Du Fu mentioned the custom of using paper-cuttings to summon spirits in his poem “彭衙行” (“Pengya Xing”). Surviving Tang Dynasty paper-cuttings, such as those housed in the British Museum, reveal a high level of craftsmanship with complete compositions, expressing an ideal realm of heaven and earth. Paper-cutting patterns were also used in ceramics, leather shadow puppetry, and in the creation of blue print cloth.
During the Southern Song Dynasty, paper-cutting had become a profession with specialized artisans in Hangzhou known for cutting characters and various floral patterns.
Ming and Qing Dynasties
Paper-cutting art reached maturity during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, becoming a widespread art form among the people. It was used to decorate various aspects of daily life, including lamps, fans, embroidery, and home decorations such as doorways, windows, cabinets, and roofs.
In the early 20th century, during the “May Fourth” New Culture Movement, scholars and artists began to collect folk art, including paper-cuttings. In the 1940s, artists like Chen Zhinong in Beijing started to study and create paper-cuttings based on real-life themes. During the Yan’an period, artists from Lu Xun Art Institute also studied and incorporated folk paper-cutting, creating works depicting the life and struggle of the people.
After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, artists continued to create new paper-cutting works, reflecting socialist themes and the new era. The art form expanded to include various subjects, including children, sports, acrobatics, and dance. The creation of new paper-cuttings enriched Chinese folk decorative art forms and content.
Due to the nature of paper-cutting as a folk art form and the difficulty in preserving materials, very few genuine artworks representing different historical periods have been passed down to us. However, we can find some traces from historical records and the writings of literati from various dynasties.
The stability of Chinese folk customs and the cultural isolation in some remote areas have allowed certain paper-cutting patterns to maintain their original forms over time. For example, the “招魂剪纸” (paper-cutting to summon spirits) mentioned in a poem from the Tang Dynasty is still visible in some areas of Shaanxi province.
Some say that folk art is the living fossil of Chinese culture, and there is some truth to it. Due to regional cultural differences and the relatively stable nature of certain folk paper-cutting styles, present-day folk paper-cuttings still retain different levels of ancient Chinese culture. By appreciating these works, we can glimpse the mystery of early ethnic art, the grandeur of its rising period, and the charm of its mature period, and gain insights into history through the creations of laborers.
As a companion to folk customs, folk paper-cutting has persisted in Chinese folk culture to this day, showcasing its enduring vitality. It is the skilled hands of those living at the grassroots level in rural areas, their ancestors passing down the silent chapters of the history of ethnic art.
Chinese paper-cutting origin
The origin of paper-cutting can be traced back to the Western Han Dynasty. During this period, paper was invented, laying the foundation for the emergence of paper-cutting. Before the invention of paper, people would typically engage in cutting and carving on leather or tree leaves, using techniques similar to paper-cutting, which also laid the groundwork for its development.
During the Tang and Song Dynasties, the art of paper-cutting gradually matured, and there were even professional craftsmen specializing in paper-cutting. The craft of paper-cutting experienced significant development during this time. In the Tang Dynasty, the skill level of paper-cutting was already quite high and expressed the ideals and wishes of the people at that time. In the Song Dynasty, papermaking had become well-established, leading to the widespread popularity of paper-cutting. It was used as decorations on folk gifts, window decorations called “窗花,” and embellishments on colored lanterns, and even evolved into shadow puppetry.
In the Ming and Qing Dynasties, paper-cutting reached its pinnacle and became a mature art form. It was extensively used in various folk applications, such as adorning colored lanterns and creating patterns for embroidery. The influence of paper-cutting could be seen in a wide range of decorations and crafts during this period.
who invented Chinese paper cutting?
The inventor of paper-cutting is difficult to ascertain, but based on historical records and expert research, paper-cutting art originated in China. The earliest paper-cutting works appeared in the Han Dynasty during the 4th century when people used hemp fibers to make paper. Legend has it that after the death of Emperor Wu of Han’s beloved concubine, Lady Li, he missed her dearly and asked a sorcerer to cut out her image using hemp paper, which might be one of the earliest paper-cutting works. Before the invention of paper, people were already engaged in cutting and carving on leather or tree leaves using techniques similar to paper-cutting, laying the foundation for its development.
During the Tang and Song Dynasties, the craft of paper-cutting gradually matured, and there were even professional craftsmen specializing in paper-cutting, leading to significant development in this art form. In the Ming and Qing Dynasties, paper-cutting had reached its pinnacle, and its history continued to evolve.
The history of paper-cutting art can be divided into the following stages:
Han Dynasty: Paper-cutting art appeared during the Han Dynasty, using hemp fiber to make paper.
Tang Dynasty: The craft of paper-cutting matured, expressing the ideals and wishes of the time.
Song Dynasty: Paper-making became well-established, leading to the widespread popularity of paper-cutting in folk applications, such as folk gifts, window decorations, and colored lanterns.
Ming and Qing Dynasties: The craft of paper-cutting had become mature and was extensively used in various aspects of life.
In conclusion, paper-cutting art possesses a unique aesthetic and cultural significance, making it an essential part of traditional Chinese culture.
when was Chinese paper cutting invented?
Chinese paper cutting is believed to have been invented during the Han Dynasty, which was around the 4th century AD. However, the exact date and inventor of paper cutting are not well-documented in historical records. Paper cutting likely originated shortly after the invention of paper in China, as people began to explore creative ways to utilize this new material. Over time, paper cutting evolved and developed into the intricate and beautiful art form we know today. It became deeply embedded in Chinese culture and has remained a popular folk art and decorative craft throughout history.
The exact origin of paper cutting is not recorded in historical books. The earliest paper-cutting works discovered date back to the Southern and Northern Dynasties period, around 1959, near the ancient city of Gaochang in Turpan, Xinjiang. Among them, two relatively intact pieces are “Duomuhou Tuanhua” and “Duimahou Tuanhua.” These findings, along with the poem “Pasting flowers in front of the mirror” from the folk song “The Ballad of Mulan,” suggest that paper cutting was already widespread in the folk during that time.
Paper-cutting art is deeply rooted in the folk tradition and closely related to the customs of various regions and ethnic groups. The poet Zong Lin of the Southern Dynasties wrote in “Record of Jingchu’s Seasonal Customs”: “On the seventh day of the first lunar month, people celebrate Renri (Human Day) by preparing seven kinds of vegetable stew and crafting paper figures, or cutting gold foil to paste on screens or wear on their hair.” In the Tang Dynasty, the poet Li Shangyin wrote, “The gold-cut ornaments carry on the customs of Jingchu (an ancient region in China), while the paper cutting echoes the style of the Jin Dynasty.”
Paper cutting covers a wide range of social content, involving seasonal celebrations, life rituals, and various aspects of daily life. For example, during the Spring Festival, the most representative paper cutting forms are window flowers and door couplets.
Window flowers, one of the representative categories of paper cutting, have a long tradition in rural areas of China, becoming an important custom during traditional festivals. The custom of pasting window flowers originates from ancient people’s desire for auspiciousness. Since the Han Dynasty, the concept of “Yin and Yang and Five Elements” has influenced people’s beliefs. The South is associated with Li (Fire), which is represented by the vermilion bird, symbolizing the southern direction. The color red, representing the vermilion bird, was considered auspicious and capable of warding off evil spirits. Therefore, window flowers were originally designed in red, symbolizing blessings for a safe household.
In ancient times, paper cutting in Shaanxi was well-known nationwide.
Window flowers come in various shapes, including square, circular, strip-like, and dome-shaped. The handling of lines is required to be uniform, highlighting the lively and translucent characteristics of window flowers.
Window flowers cover a wide range of subjects, representing all aspects of daily life. All of life’s elements become the subjects of window flower designs. Additionally, there are specific themes for different occasions, such as “attracting wealth and treasures,” “fattening pigs under the arch,” “God of wealth as a child,” and “zodiac animals,” all of which are well-received by people.
Another form of paper cutting during the Spring Festival is “Diaojian’er” (hanging decorations). It is also known as “menjian’er,” “guajian’er,” “huajian’er,” or “zhijian’er,” derived from the homophonic sound “diaoqian’er” (hanging money). It resembles small flags or pennants and is hung on the door lintel. The tradition of hanging Diaojian’er during the Spring Festival dates back to the Tang Dynasty. It is said to have evolved from “caisheng” (colorful ornaments) in ancient times. Caisheng was a type of decoration worn on the head. According to the record of Duan Chengshi’s “Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang,” on the day of the first solar term “Li Chun,” noble families would cut paper into small flags and hang them above beautiful women’s heads or string them below flowers. Additionally, they would cut paper into images of spring butterflies and spring coins for playful enjoyment. Another belief is that hanging Diaojian’er serves to ward off evil spirits. According to legend, in ancient times, there was a vicious monster called “Nian,” which would prey on people during the Spring Festival, especially targeting young boys and girls. To avoid calamity and misfortune, people created colorful paper Diaojian’er, hanging them on the door lintels to make the evil monster afraid and bring peace to their homes.
The content of Diaojian’er usually consists of auspicious phrases and symbols. The text uses symbolic, homophonic, and metaphorical techniques, such as “Duohou Tuanhua” (pairing monkeys) and “Siji Ping’an” (peace in all seasons), “Shuangxi Linmen” (double happiness arriving at the door), “Jinyu Mantang” (prosperity and wealth filling the hall), and “Ziqi Donglai” (purple air coming from the east). The images harmonize with the text to create a unified whole.
In folk culture, in addition to window flowers and Diaojian’er, “Denghua” (lantern flowers) is also an important category of paper cutting during the Spring Festival. There is a popular saying that “on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month, people celebrate Yuanxiao (Lantern Festival) by lighting lanterns.” It was a tradition to hang lanterns, with houses decorated in lights and staying awake all night.
what is the purpose of Chinese paper cutting?
The purpose of Chinese paper cutting is multifaceted, including but not limited to the following:
Welcoming Good Fortune: Paper cutting artworks express people’s aspirations and wishes for a better life, such as praying for prosperity, abundant offspring, good health, and all-around happiness.
Celebrating Life: Paper cutting works show people’s love for and appreciation of life. Symbols like deer, tortoises, pine trees, and cranes are often used as representations of longevity.
Expressing Beautiful Ideals: Paper cutting works embody various beautiful ideals, with symbols like dragons, phoenixes, and kirin representing auspiciousness and beauty.
Promoting National Spirit: Paper cutting artworks promote the national spirit by using symbols like Chinese dragons and Chinese phoenixes, representing and inheriting the excellent cultural traditions of the Chinese nation.
what are the Chinese paper cutting used for?
The uses of paper cutting are as follows:
Decoration: Directly pasted on doors, windows, walls, lanterns, and various decorative items. Examples include window decorations, wall decorations, ceiling decorations, lantern decorations, paper lanterns, and door hangings.
Ornamentation: Used to embellish gifts, dowries, offerings, and ritual items. Examples include decorative flowers for weddings, offering flowers, gift flowers, flower decorations for candlesticks, incense holders, and festive flags.
Embroidery templates: Used as patterns for embroidery on clothing, shoes, hats, and pillows. Examples include patterns for shoes, pillowcases, hats, collars, sleeves, and suspenders.
Printing and dyeing: Used as printing plates for blue calico fabric, applied to clothes, bedding, door curtains, pouches, aprons, headscarves, and other textiles.
paper cutting Chinese new year
The application of paper cutting during the New Year is as follows:
Window Decoration: On the day of “立春” (Lichun – the beginning of spring in the Chinese calendar), people use paper cutting to celebrate. Since the Song and Yuan dynasties, the tradition of welcoming spring was moved to the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), and thus, the practice of pasting window decorations shifted to the Spring Festival. On this day, people use paper cutting to celebrate the joyful spirit of the festival.
Ornamental Purpose: Paper cutting has strong decorative qualities, with red as the predominant color, making the festival vibrant, luxurious, and auspicious.
In summary, paper cutting plays a significant role during the New Year celebration. It can be used for window decoration to celebrate the arrival of spring, and it also serves as a decoration to create a festive atmosphere during the holiday.
Paper Cuttings and wedding
Paper cutting holds rich cultural connotations and symbolism in weddings, commonly used to decorate the wedding venue and serve as wedding gifts.
In weddings, paper cutting is often used to adorn banquet halls, wedding stages, corridors, and other areas, creating a romantic and festive atmosphere.
Moreover, paper cutting can be incorporated into various aspects of the wedding ceremony. For instance, red paper cuttings in the shape of “喜” (happiness) and “囍” (double happiness) are placed throughout the wedding venue, symbolizing blessings for the newlyweds’ harmonious and enduring marriage.
In summary, paper cutting is widely utilized in weddings, serving not only as decorative elements but also carrying profound cultural meanings and wishes, expressing the couple’s beautiful aspirations for their marriage.
Paper Cuttings and the Zodiac
Paper cutting can be combined with the Chinese zodiac to portray the images and characteristics of the twelve zodiac animals.
The twelve zodiac animals include Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. Each zodiac animal has its unique traits and symbolic meanings, which can be expressed through the art of paper cutting.
For example, Rat paper cutting can depict the agility and cleverness of rats; Ox paper cutting can portray the diligence and perseverance of oxen; Tiger paper cutting can showcase the majesty and bravery of tigers; Rabbit paper cutting can illustrate the nimbleness and agility of rabbits; Dragon paper cutting can capture the mystery and dignity of dragons; Snake paper cutting can represent the flexibility and wisdom of snakes; Horse paper cutting can convey the freedom and exuberance of horses; Goat paper cutting can display the gentleness and kindness of goats; Monkey paper cutting can reveal the cleverness and liveliness of monkeys; Rooster paper cutting can reflect the trustworthiness and punctuality of roosters; Dog paper cutting can express the loyalty and vigilance of dogs; Pig paper cutting can depict the simplicity and honesty of pigs.
By using paper cutting to depict the twelve zodiac animals, their images and characteristics can be vividly showcased, allowing people to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Chinese zodiac. Moreover, it adds more cultural significance and amusement to the art of paper cutting.
Paper Cuttings and funeral
In the Chinese culture, the practice of paper cutting for funeral purposes is commonly known as “Xi Sang” or “White Xi Shi Mian Huai Qian Ren Tuo Ai Si De Hua.” Xi Sang is a way of conducting funeral ceremonies with a joyful atmosphere, just like celebrating a birthday during one’s lifetime. People use paper cuttings as offerings to please the deities and help the deceased’s soul ascend to heaven. This practice is based on the belief in the immortality of the soul, providing comfort to the living while honoring the deceased.
According to legends, the souls of the deceased must pass through a bridge to enter the heavenly palace and become immortals. There are three types of bridges: the Golden Bridge, the Silver Bridge, and the Nai He Bridge. Those who did good deeds in their lifetime can cross the Golden or Silver Bridge, while those who committed evil deeds can only cross the Nai He Bridge.
During the funeral, various necessities of daily life are prepared as offerings to the deceased, including paper money, paper ingots, soul banners, and paper-made items such as the “Zha Jin Tong Yu” (paper-crafted gold and silver boys and girls) or even modern items like TVs and refrigerators. Paper money, in particular, has been used as a form of offering for centuries and is considered one of the earliest forms of paper cutting.
In the Lüliang region of Shanxi, people paste paper-cut funeral flowers on the mourning clothes of filial sons. The flower patterns for male filial sons mainly feature snakes coiling around rabbits, rabbits holding lotus flowers, and lanterns. Female filial sons’ flower patterns consist of various flower designs. Additionally, some regions continue to use traditional burial practices, where the coffin is decorated with paper cuttings, known as “Shou Cai Hua” or “Longevity Decorations.” These paper cuttings are often used to represent images such as houses, male and female figures, or auspicious animals like dragons and phoenixes. Paper cuttings are also used on the clothing of the deceased, commonly known as “Shou Yi,” with embroidery or paper-cutting decorations representing various patterns, such as lotus flowers or pairs of animals like dogs and geese.
The tradition of using paper cuttings during funerals and other funeral-related ceremonies continues to be an essential part of Chinese customs, providing a heartfelt expression of grief and commemoration for the deceased.
Paper Cuttings for sacrifice
Different patterns of sacrificial and auspicious paper cuttings are used in different occasions according to traditional customs. It is believed that the paper cuttings for sacrificial and auspicious purposes only have effects after people have finished chanting scriptures during a vegetarian diet.
In the late Ming Dynasty, sacrificial and auspicious paper cuttings started to appear in Puyan Village, Xinpu Town, Cixi. These paper cuttings use exaggerated artistic techniques to express people’s aspirations for a better life and their wishes for peace and happiness. The patterns are full of romantic colors, with specific traditional and folkloric meanings, often featuring animals like dragons, phoenixes, bats, fish, monkeys, golden roosters, as well as auspicious symbols like Ruyi (a wish-fulfilling ornament), ingots, money, double happiness, peaches, money trees, and evergreen plants.
During the production of sacrificial and auspicious paper cuttings, various auspicious patterns are first depicted on colored paper and then cut according to the designs. Some more skilled artists can directly cut the paper with creative improvisation. While the general shape of the paper cuttings remains consistent, different creators can add their own unique touches and differences. The creators must observe a vegetarian diet and chant Buddhist scriptures to show respect for the deities. After completion, the back of the paper cuttings is covered with another color of paper to achieve a smooth and even surface. The finished work is then placed between books or newspapers to absorb moisture and flatten it, ensuring the protection of the artwork from damage.
Qingming Festival is a traditional Chinese festival and one of the most important sacrificial holidays, dedicated to ancestral worship and tomb sweeping. People often create flower banners and paper money as offerings for the deceased. The writings of Ming dynasty writer Liu Tong in his work “Briefing on the Scenes of the Capital” provide evidence of the significant role of paper cuttings in sacrificial rituals.
Chinese paper cutting tools
The tools needed for paper cutting include:
Scissors: Choose pointed-tip scissors specifically for paper cutting. The scissors’ pivot should be smooth to prevent accidentally cutting off fine details.
Carving Knife and Cutting Mat: For more complex designs, a carving knife can be useful. Beginners may struggle with precision cutting, so a carving knife can be used as an alternative to scissors for intricate parts. Both scissors and carving knives have their advantages and can be used in combination.
Paper: China is the birthplace of papermaking, and as a result, there is a wide variety of paper available. However, some types of paper, such as traditional Chinese red paper, can be more expensive. Choose paper appropriate for the project.
In addition, some auxiliary tools are needed, such as a hole punch, pencil, eraser, compass, and ruler.
why is Chinese paper cutting important?
The importance of paper cutting is mainly reflected in the following aspects:
Welcoming Good Fortune: The widespread and enduring popularity of folk paper cutting is largely due to its representation of welcoming good fortune and auspiciousness. The closed geographical regions, cultural limitations, and adversity caused by natural disasters have inspired people’s desire for a happy and prosperous life.
Praying for Life: Paper cutting artists approach prosperity and happiness with a firm and optimistic belief, carrying an enduring hope. Paper cutting becomes an external expression of their vision for a beautiful life.
Expressing Aspirations: The language of folk paper cutting goes beyond simple narration; it employs symbols and imagery rooted in tradition to express people’s aspirations for a better life and their hopes for auspiciousness and happiness.
In addition, paper cutting holds value in providing insights into social cognition and cultural history, making it an important part of Chinese culture.
Ethnic Paper Cuttings
Based on archaeological findings, Chinese paper cutting has a history of 1,500 years. According to the field investigations conducted by the Non-heritage Center of the Central Academy of Fine Arts and the recently completed “Survey and Research on Traditional Chinese Ethnic Minority Paper Cutting Art” project, it has been discovered that paper cutting traditions are associated with 30 ethnic groups in China.
In the Southwest region, various ethnic minorities such as the Miao, Shui, Buyi, Dong, Bai, Yi, Naxi, Dai, Maonan, Qiang, Hani, and Zhuang, as well as the Manchu, Mongol, Daur, Oroqen, Hezhen, and Evenki in the Northeast region, have customs related to paper cutting. Some of these ethnic groups, like the Evenki, Hezhen, and Oroqen, belong to the “Three Small Ethnic Groups” with very few populations (according to UNESCO, ethnic groups with less than 100,000 people are in danger of their languages becoming endangered and difficult to preserve). Additionally, there are the Tu people in Qinghai and the Xibe people.
Among the ethnic minorities in the Southwest region, Yunnan, Guizhou, and Xiangxi are represented by their folk paper cutting art. The Dai ethnic group is known for its Buddhist paper cutting, the Miao for its dress paper cutting in Guizhou, and Xiangxi for its carved flower paper cutting. Other ethnic groups, such as the Bai, Dong, Shui, Yi, and Buyi, showcase distinctive embroidered patterns inspired by their traditional costumes.
In the border areas of southwestern Yunnan, the Dai paper cutting takes on various forms, with the most outstanding ones used for religious activities. For example, parasol flowers, wall flowers, paper crafts, hanging lamps, hanging banners or flags, and paper cuttings for Buddhist shrines are remarkable examples.
It’s worth noting that the Xibe ethnic group’s paper cutting tradition has been preserved among those who migrated to Xinjiang, while it has been lost among those who remained in Liaoning and entered museums.
Furthermore, there are other ethnic groups such as the Yugur, Hui, Gelao, Li, She, and Lahu in the Southwest region, distributed in Hainan, Guangdong, and Hainan; and the Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Uighur, who follow Islam.
Overall, the folk paper cutting in the Southwest region, including Yunnan, Guizhou, and Xiangxi, reflects the diverse cultural traditions and artistry of various ethnic groups in China. The different styles and patterns carry unique cultural significance, making them an essential part of China’s rich cultural heritage.
Chinese ethnic minority paper cutting is an important part of Chinese folk art, with rich cultural and artistic connotations. The paper cutting styles and uses vary among different regions and ethnic groups. Below are some common styles and uses of paper cutting among ethnic minorities:
Uyghur Paper Cutting: Uyghur paper cutting has a long history and unique cultural connotations. The styles often feature delicate lines and elaborate patterns of flowers, fruits, and animals. Uyghur paper cutting is widely used for decoration, gifts, and cultural exchanges.
Kazakh Paper Cutting: Kazakh paper cutting is a folk art in the northern grasslands of China, characterized by a strong pastoral culture and nomadic style. The patterns often include animals, figures, hunting scenes, etc., with bold lines and vivid imagery. Kazakh paper cutting is used for decoration, gifts, and cultural exchanges.
Kirgiz Paper Cutting: Kirgiz paper cutting is a folk art in Xinjiang, China, characterized by a strong nomadic style. The patterns often include animals, figures, hunting scenes, etc., with fine lines and lively images. Kirgiz paper cutting is used for decoration, gifts, and cultural exchanges.
Tibetan Paper Cutting: Tibetan paper cutting is a folk art in the Tibet region of China, with profound religious and cultural connotations. The patterns often include religious symbols, figures, animals, etc., with uniform and exquisite lines. Tibetan paper cutting is widely used in religious ceremonies, cultural exchanges, etc.
Mongolian Paper Cutting: Mongolian paper cutting is a folk art in the northern grasslands of China, characterized by a strong pastoral culture and nomadic style. The patterns often include animals, figures, hunting scenes, etc., with rough lines and lively images. Mongolian paper cutting is used for decoration, gifts, and cultural exchanges.
Dai Paper Cutting: Dai paper cutting has been profoundly influenced by Theravada Buddhism and has become a widespread belief among the Dai people. It employs scissors or knives as tools, and the images created with agile hand movements come to life on paper. In Dehong Prefecture, Dai paper cutting is widely used in daily life and festive activities, such as offering to Buddha, pagoda worship, bridge offerings, well offerings, bed offerings, book offerings, and making merit.
Miao Paper Cutting: Miao paper cutting is a traditional handicraft in Jianhe County, Guizhou Province. Jiang Wenying is a representative inheritor of Miao paper cutting. Her paper cutting works mainly feature animals, flowers, and figures, with full compositions and vivid shapes. They are often used for decorating trouser edges, clothing borders, shoes, aprons, and chest flaps, as well as for various daily items, beddings, ceremonial items, and children’s items. These paper cuttings are commonly used to pray for blessings, ward off evil, and seek good fortune. Miao paper cutting demonstrates bold ideas, rustic and rugged style, strong regional characteristics, and retains many traces of ancient Miao culture and ethnic customs, reflecting the fundamental aesthetic concepts and spiritual qualities of folk art.
Yi Paper Cutting: Yi paper cutting is an ancient art form, mainly spread in Yunnan Province and other areas. It is an artistic expression of Yi culture, representing the wisdom and artistic creativity of the Yi people. The subjects of Yi paper cutting are extensive, including animals, plants, figures, symbols, etc., with unique artistic styles and expressive techniques. The paper cuttings are commonly used for decorating houses, offering sacrifices, and during festivals, making them an important traditional handicraft in Yi culture. The process of making Yi paper cutting typically involves cutting patterns on paper with thin iron sheets or scissors, followed by gently tapping with small iron rods to create deformation and a sense of layers in the patterns. Finally, the paper cutting is pasted on windows or walls to admire its beauty and uniqueness.
Chinese paper cut Art Appreciation
Paper cutting is a form of folk art in China that uses paper as the material and scissors (or knives) as tools for creation. Each art form has its own unique style, which is determined by the paper cutting material (paper) and tools used (scissors and knives). Paper cutting art is an “easy to learn but difficult to master” folk craft, often created by rural women and folk artists. They draw inspiration from daily life, relying on simple emotions and intuitive impressions as the basis for their artwork. As a result, paper cutting art has a distinctive style that is profound, simple, concise, and vibrant, reflecting the down-to-earth spirit of the farmers.
Some key aspects of paper cutting include:
Connection and Disconnection of Lines: Paper cutting works are created by cutting or carving on paper, which requires a method of hollowing out. Due to this hollowing out, positive patterns in paper cutting need connected lines, while negative patterns require disconnected lines. If some lines are cut off, the whole paper cutting will become fragmented, and the composition will not hold together. This results in the important structural characteristic of paper cutting – “thousand cuts without falling apart, ten thousand connections without breaking.”
Emphasis on Lines: Paper cutting places significant emphasis on lines since the composition of paper cutting is built with lines. The lines in paper cutting are summarized as “round, pointed, square, missing, and lines.” They should achieve characteristics like “round like autumn moon, pointed like wheat awns, square like blue bricks, missing like saw teeth, and lines like whiskers.”
Pattern-based Composition: In terms of composition, paper cutting differs from other forms of painting, as it is more challenging to depict three-dimensional space, scenes, and layered images. Therefore, it mainly relies on the thematic connection of the content, often employing a combination of techniques. Exaggeration and deformation are used in the representation of forms, and certain patterns are employed for aesthetic purposes, such as symmetry, balance, combination, continuity, etc. Paper cutting can arrange the sun, moon, stars, flying birds, clouds, architectural structures, crowds, and animals all in one composition. Commonly seen are forms like “layered stacking” or the use of “objects as substitutes to change scenery.”
Exaggerated, Concise, and Rhythmic: Due to the limitations of tools and materials, paper cutting requires capturing the characteristics of the subject while maintaining natural connections between lines. As a result, it cannot adopt a naturalistic realistic approach. It calls for emphasizing the main parts of the subject, boldly discarding the minor parts, and making the main subject readily apparent. The form should be highlighted, creating a simple and generous sense of beauty. The posture of the subject should be exaggerated with bold movements and graceful postures, akin to the movements of a performer on stage, exhibiting a sense of rhythm.
Simple and Vibrant Colors: The colors used in paper cutting are simple, vibrant, and avoid excessive use of similar or adjacent colors. The harmony is sought among contrasting colors. At the same time, attention is paid to color proportions. When one dominant color is used to establish the main theme, other colors can be reduced in contrast to varying degrees. Sometimes, when various colors are juxtaposed and appear somewhat abrupt, they can be harmonized by overlaying them with black. The main pattern cut in gold will achieve a harmonious and vibrant feeling.
Steady, Precise, and Skillful Techniques: Many characteristics and styles of folk paper cutting are the result of specific techniques in the art of paper cutting. Techniques like “sawtooth” and “crescents” are important aspects of paper cutting. These two techniques, when used appropriately, give rise to the unique “sharpness and paper texture” of paper cutting art. In practice, the use of these techniques involves precise control of the knife to achieve various arc decorations that enrich the artwork. “Sawtooth” is created naturally during the production process due to the cutting movement of paper and the knife. It uses different proportions of long and short, sparse and dense, curved and straight to depict the texture, quantity, and structure of different objects. “Crescents,” which are mainly achieved through engraving, are used to depict clothing patterns of characters, or to break up large areas of black. Based on the characteristics and shapes of different objects, they can be long or short, wide or narrow, curved or straight, and can be varied in different types. Both “sawtooth” and “crescents” are often used together in one paper cutting composition, making the layers more distinct and varied.
The use of techniques in folk paper cutting also includes various forms such as flowers, whirls, cloud patterns, water patterns, etc. Since the time of the Southern and Northern Dynasties, the embryonic forms of “sawtooth” and “crescents” have appeared in the technical style of paper cutting, and after hundreds of years of historical evolution, they have continued to the present day, becoming a popular and widely-used pattern in decoration.
Overall, paper cutting is a fascinating art form, capturing the essence of Chinese folk culture with its unique style and rich cultural heritage.
Meaning of Paper Cuttings content
Folk paper cutting excels in combining various elements together to create ideal and beautiful results. Whether using one or multiple images, it employs “representing meaning with symbols” and “constructing form with meaning” to shape the artwork, rather than relying on objective natural forms. Additionally, it skillfully uses metaphorical techniques to create a variety of auspicious symbols, combining conventional images to express personal sentiments. The pursuit of auspicious meaning becomes one of the ultimate goals in image combinations. Regional isolation, cultural constraints, and adversity from natural disasters have inspired people’s yearning for a prosperous and happy life. People pray for abundance, prosperity of their families, good health, and all things going smoothly, which are simple wishes conveyed through paper cutting.
The folk paper cutting work “Deer and Crane Together in Spring” is a traditional theme. According to records, the crane is also known as the “xuan bird,” a general term for migratory birds. In folk culture, deer is referred to as “hou beast,” and the crane is called “hou bird.” The deer and crane symbolize spring and life. In folk belief, “deer” sounds similar to “fortune,” and the crane is seen as a long-lived bird, hence the combination of deer and crane implies blessings of fortune and longevity. In a society with relatively low productivity, human labor is essential for survival, and escaping the suffering of illness and death has always been a timeless ideal. Folk paper cutting expresses the longing for life in various forms, protecting and praising life, celebrating the joy of life, and worshiping life as a devout belief.
Another example is “Eagle Stepping on Rabbit,” which is a joyous flower often seen in folk wedding decorations and widely circulated in tradition. The eagle represents “yang,” similar to chickens, birds, and crows. In folk mythology, the sun is referred to as the “three-legged bird,” and people call the sun “crow.” The rabbit symbolizes “yin,” and the moon is associated with rabbits in folk beliefs. “Eagle Stepping on Rabbit” metaphorically implies the love between men and women, reflecting the theme of reproductive worship. Common patterns in folk paper cutting, such as “Sitting Account Flowers,” “Happy Flowers,” etc., all express reverence and pursuit for the propagation and continuity of life through metaphorical means.
Many folk paper cutting works depict scenes of production and daily life, sharing the common characteristic of exaggerating the subject matter, such as oversized fish, large chili peppers, giant silkworms, and huge grains. Through paper cutting, people construct beautiful images to comfort their souls, showcase humanity’s power in conquering nature’s creativity, and establish their ideal world, affirming human strength and inspiring the courage to continue striving.
Chinese paper cut in the world
Paper cutting is a folk art in China with a wide range of themes, including animals, plants, figures, symbols, and more. In addition to Chinese paper cutting, various countries around the world also have their own unique paper cutting arts, such as:
Japanese Paper Cutting: Japanese paper cutting, also known as “Washi,” originated from China but developed independently in Japan. It features geometric patterns and themes like animals, figures, and plants, with a concise and lively style.
Vietnamese Paper Cutting: Vietnamese paper cutting originated from the Zhuang-Dong ethnic groups in southern China and exhibits a strong ethnic character. It predominantly uses red colors, with intricate patterns of animals, flowers, and figures, showcasing delicacy and exquisiteness.
Indian Paper Cutting: Indian paper cutting originated from ancient Indian metal engraving techniques and reflects the rich cultural characteristics of India. It often showcases themes of animals, figures, flowers, and geometric patterns, with a grand and delicate style.
European Paper Cutting: European paper cutting originated in medieval Germany and subsequently spread across various regions in Europe. It often features geometric patterns and themes like animals, figures, and plants, with delicate and exquisite designs.
American Paper Cutting: American paper cutting originated from European immigrants and developed independently in the United States. It mainly encompasses geometric patterns and themes like animals, figures, and plants, with a simple and vibrant style.
Paper Cuttings and couplets
Paper cutting and Spring Festival couplets are both important elements of traditional Chinese culture, and they share some similarities and differences:
They are both significant elements of traditional Chinese culture, representing the artistic value and cultural connotations of Chinese culture.
They both carry blessings and auspicious meanings, often used in festive occasions such as festivals and weddings.
Form of Expression: Paper cutting is an art form that uses paper as its material and creates various patterns and shapes through cutting and folding. On the other hand, Spring Festival couplets consist of two lines of poetry or phrases, usually written or printed on paper or wood, and hung on doors or walls.
Themes: Paper cutting offers a diverse range of themes, including animals, plants, figures, symbols, etc., representing auspiciousness, blessings, and warding off evil. In contrast, Spring Festival couplets typically contain auspicious words and phrases such as happiness, peace, wealth, and longevity.
Regional Differences: Paper cutting is a traditional art form popular in northern China, especially in regions like Shaanxi, Shanxi, Shandong, etc. On the other hand, Spring Festival couplets are widespread throughout China, with different regions having their own unique forms and content.
Historical Transmission: Paper cutting is a folk art, usually passed down within families and communities through oral and practical teachings. On the contrary, Spring Festival couplets have a long history in ancient China, and their transmission mainly involves writing and hanging traditional couplets.
In conclusion, paper cutting and Spring Festival couplets are both essential elements of traditional Chinese culture, and they differ in their form of expression, themes, regional variations, and historical transmission methods.
Paper Cuttings and door god
Paper cutting and Door Gods are both important elements of traditional Chinese culture, and they share some similarities and differences:
They are both significant elements of traditional Chinese culture, representing the artistic value and cultural connotations of Chinese culture.
They both carry blessings and auspicious meanings, often used in festive occasions such as festivals and weddings.
Form of Expression: Paper cutting is an art form that uses paper as its material and creates various patterns and shapes through cutting and folding. On the other hand, Door Gods are represented through paintings or prints, depicting deities or figures, and are usually displayed on doors.
Symbolic Meaning: Paper cutting represents a traditional art form in northern China, with meanings related to blessings and auspiciousness. Door Gods, on the other hand, represent the traditional Chinese belief in protective deities, serving to safeguard the home and ward off evil.
Historical Transmission: Paper cutting is usually passed down within families and communities, with the transmission primarily through oral and practical teachings. Door Gods, on the other hand, have a long history in ancient China and are typically passed down through the creation and posting of Door God images.
Paper Cuttings and embroidery
Paper cutting and embroidery are both important elements of traditional Chinese culture, and they share some similarities and differences:
They are both art forms in traditional Chinese culture, representing the artistic value and cultural connotations of Chinese culture.
They both carry blessings and auspicious meanings, often used in festive occasions such as festivals and weddings.
Form of Expression: Paper cutting uses paper as its material and creates various patterns and shapes through cutting and folding. On the other hand, embroidery uses fabric as its medium and creates various patterns and designs through needle and thread stitching.
Techniques: Paper cutting involves cutting and carving with scissors and knives to create the patterns and shapes. Embroidery, on the other hand, involves stitching with needle and thread to create the patterns and designs on the fabric.
Historical Origins: Paper cutting is a traditional art form in northern China with a long history dating back to the Han Dynasty. Embroidery, on the other hand, has ancient origins in China and can be traced back to the Zhou Dynasty.
Regional Distribution: Paper cutting is mainly distributed in the northern regions of China, such as Shaanxi, Shanxi, and Shandong. Embroidery, on the other hand, is mainly distributed in the southern regions of China, such as Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Hunan.
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.
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