The Art of Pa­per Cut­ting

Gen­er­a­tions of pa­per-cut­ting artists have been de­vel­op­ing and im­prov­ing their skills, bring­ing out the charms of this folk art.

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Su Yi­long, pol­ished by Png Yu Fung, pho­tos by Li Xiaoyin

Chi­nese pa­per cut­ting can be de­scribed as one of the most pop­u­lar forms. Gen­er­a­tions of pa­per cut­ting artists have been de­vel­op­ing and im­prov­ing their skills, bring­ing out the charms of folk art.

With a pair of scis­sors, a few pieces of red pa­per, and no spe­cial tools or skills, you can present the beauty and har­mony of the world with only a pair of hands. In the ever- chang­ing Chi­nese folk art fam­ily, pa­per cut­ting can be de­scribed as one of the most pop­u­lar and grounded forms. Be­fore pa­per­mak­ing was in­vented, an­cient Chi­nese had been us­ing tech­niques like carv­ing, en­grav­ing, pick­ing, cut­ting, and scis­sor­ing to cre­ate pat­terns and dec­o­ra­tions on gold foil, leather, silk or even leaves.

Af­ter the in­ven­tion of pa­per­mak­ing in the Han Dy­nasty (206 BC–AD 220), the use of pa­per, which had then be­come a com­mon and eas­ily ac­cessed ma­te­rial, was ap­plied more widely. Pa­per cut­ting works of art have be­come dec­o­ra­tions and sym­bols for cel­e­bra­tion, fu­ner­als, birthdays, bless­ings and other events. Be­cause of this prac­ti­cal value, the art of pa­per cut­ting has been passed down for thou­sands of years. It has a wide dis­tri­bu­tion in China and is di­vided into dif­fer­ent styles and fea­tures. Af­ter de­vel­op­ments, it has grad­u­ally grown into a lively folk art rep­re­sent­ing tra­di­tional val­ues. In Septem­ber 2009, China's pa­per cut­ting was in­cluded in the list of the rep­re­sen­ta­tive works of hu­man in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage by UNESCO as a world-class in­tan­gi­ble her­itage.

Nec­es­sary Tools

Pa­per cut­ting, is a form of art that re­quires scis­sors, a knife or other tools to en­grave or carve on a va­ri­ety of pa­per with dif­fer­ent meth­ods to cre­ate shapes and pat­terns, such as win­dow grilles, door let­ters, walls, ceil­ing and lamp flow­ers. The car­rier of this art is mainly pa­per, gold and sil­ver foil, bark, leaves, cloth, leather or other sheet ma­te­ri­als. Its char­ac­ter­is­tics are mainly man­i­fested in a two-di­men­sional con­cept, the sense of scis­sors and pa­per, the lines and dec­o­ra­tions, free­hand ex­pres­sion, im­plied mean­ing and other as­pects.

The his­tory of pa­per cut­ting can be traced back to the Han (206 BC–AD 220) and Tang (618–907) dy­nas­ties when folk women cut gold and sil­ver foil and colour silk into flow­ers and birds posted on the tem­ples as fash­ion­able dec­o­ra­tion. Later, when­ever there were fes­ti­vals or wed­dings, peo­ple would cut colour pa­per into a va­ri­ety of flow­ers, an­i­mals or char­ac­ters in sto­ries, post them on win­dows (“win­dow grilles”) and door head­ers (“door let­ters”) as or­na­ments, and use them as gift dec­o­ra­tions or

em­broi­dery pat­terns to add to the fes­tiv­ity.

Dur­ing the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) Dy­nas­ties, the art of pa­per cut­ting ma­tured and reached its hey­day. Folk pa­per cut­ting art was ap­plied widely. Flo­ral or­na­ments on lamps, fan dec­o­ra­tions and em­broi­dered pat­terns orig­i­nally were all pa­per cut­ting works be­fore un­der­go­ing other pro­cesses. More of­ten, peo­ple would cut pa­per into home dec­o­ra­tive items like win­dow grilles, cabi­net, happy and ceil­ing flow­ers that were used to decorate doors, win­dows and rooms.

Pa­per cut­ting in dif­fer­ent re­gions comes in var­i­ous styles. Shaanxi pa­per- cut is rough and un­re­strained, He­bei is good with colour, Shanxi and Shan­dong ones are plain and heavy, Guang­dong is good at us­ing gold pa­per lin­ing, Jiangsu pa­per cut­ting is fine and de­tailed, and Zhe­jiang is skill­ful at the dec­o­ra­tion pat­tern on the sides. In Xicheng District of Bei­jing there is an in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage project called “Bei­jing School Pa­per Cut­ting (Shen Peinong).” The rep­re­sen­ta­tive and in­her­i­tor of this art Jin He­nian be­lieves that the de­vel­op­ment of modern Bei­jing pa­per cut­ting has its unique side. He be­lieves that Bei­jing's pa­per cut­ting and that of the north­west share sim­i­lar ori­gins: “The north­west has a strong re­gional style of print and pa­per cut­ting. ”

In Bei­jing's pa­per cut­ting cir­cle, many would re­mem­ber Shen Peinong. This pa­per cut­ting artist, who passed away more than ten years ago, has by far pub­lished the most pa­per cut­tings. In an era of few pub­lic­ity chan­nels, Shen and his men­tor Teng Fengqian, a pro­fes­sor at the Cen­tral Academy of Craft Art (Academy of Arts & De­sign, Ts­inghua Univer­sity at present), brought on Peo­ple’s Daily and Bei­jing Evening News and other news­pa­pers the folk art of pa­per cut­ting which most peo­ple thought be­longed to the fields and farms. They also show­cased art at Jing­shan Park and cre­ated the Bei­jing School Pa­per Cut­ting.

In the de­vel­op­ment of Bei­jing School Pa­per Cut­ting, the role of folk art ex­pert Teng Fengqian can­not be ig­nored. He was the first group of artists af­ter the found­ing of the Peo­ple's Repub­lic of China to cre­ate pa­per cut­ting works. He is also the founder of Bei­jing School Pa­per Cut­ting. In 1956, he cre­ated Blos­som­ing Sun­flower To­ward the Sun which won him the Sil­ver Award of Ger­man Leipzig Trade Fair, which was met with pop­u­lar­ity.


Pa­per cut­ting work is a hand­made art­form, with scis­sors and carv­ing knives as the ba­sic tools for cre­ation. Scis­sors gen­er­ally can cut two or three at once while knives can carve five or six. The artist gen­er­ally holds the knife ver­ti­cally, and cuts out pat­terns ac­cord­ing to the un­der­ly­ing model. Com­pared with scis­sors, the ad­van­tage of us­ing the knife is that it pro­cesses a num­ber of pat­terns si­mul­ta­ne­ously, sav­ing time and en­ergy.

Af­ter the idea is de­ter­mined, you can de­sign the draft and lay­out, and bring out a black and white ef­fect. For skilled artists, tech­nique is not an is­sue. Great ideas and com­po­si­tions are the key to cre­at­ing great pa­per cut­tings.

With pa­per as the es­sen­tial ma­te­rial, other ba­sic units are the lines and block sur­face, along with ba­sic de­sign of point, line, and plane. Due to ma­te­rial con­straints, pa­per cut­ting is not adept at pre­sent­ing com­plex con­tent, nor does it em­pha­sise light and shadow. An artist must fo­cus on strength and avoid show­ing any weak­ness in the pa­per cut­ting. This can be done by us­ing a flat com­po­si­tion, sim­plic­ity, us­ing con­cise lines, so that view­ers can al­ways see the high­lights.

Talk­ing about the unique ex­pres­sion of pa­per cut­ting, Jin said: “Pa­per cut­ting re­quires ex­ag­ger­a­tion and sum­maris­ing, so the char­ac­ters in the work are gen­er­ally short and thick; the pro­por­tion of height is not as strict as it is in paint­ing. In one of the pat­terns a crane stands on a pine tree, but in reality, this isn't pos­si­ble.

For a sec­ond ex­am­ple, the mud-toy style chil­dren are gen­er­ally com­pressed to a pro­por­tion where the head is as large as the body.” He said that the fa­cial fea­tures in pa­per cut­ting are con­nected in a more unique way. Ex­ag­ger­ated eyes come to­gether with the two tem­ples; eye­brows, nose and mouth are also con­nected with one line. As long as you mas­ter the use of line and modelling, the im­ages of the char­ac­ters can be beau­ti­fully made.

Cut­ting or carv­ing is the most im­por­tant pro­ce­dure in the pa­per cut­ting process. With the use of cut­ting, carv­ing or both tech­niques, one can make a beau­ti­ful win­dow grille. In this process, the scis­sors is used like pen. Ev­ery cut should be clean, ev­ery line should be full, and it must be ac­cu­rate. Folk artists use a va­ri­ety of pa­per fold­ing tech­niques to ob­tain dif­fer­ent dec­o­ra­tive ef­fects. These tech­niques are widely ap­plied in a num­ber of con­tin­u­ous pat­terns for win­dow grilles: First fold the pa­per, cut it ac­cord­ing to the in­tended shapes, un­fold the pa­per and you will get a sym­met­ri­cal pat­tern.

In the pa­per cut­ting process peo­ple mainly adopt two tech­niques: yin and yang cut. The yin cut refers mainly to the tech­nique of hol­low­ing out the pa­per. When mak­ing the phoenix pat­tern, an artist would cut with the tip of the scis­sors into the pa­per, and cut out the hol­low shapes ac­cord­ing to the re­quired dec­o­ra­tive pat­tern. The feath­ers of the bird, the eyes, and the pea­cock tail are all made with the yin cut tech­nique. In con­trast, the yang cut is more dif­fi­cult be­cause the artist needs to have good con­trol of the tip of the scis­sors and be cau­tious in ev­ery cut.

If not care­ful enough, the sharp blade is likely to go be­yond the over­all shape, and de­stroy the de­sign. The yang cut is fo­cused on mak­ing a sil­hou­ette on a large sheet of pa­per with the use of sharp scis­sors. Pa­per cut­ting re­quires vari­a­tion, so the com­bi­na­tion of a va­ri­ety of tech­niques is widely pre­ferred. The com­bi­na­tion of yin and yang cut en­ables a mul­ti­level ex­pres­sion.

Pa­per cut­ting with scis­sors re­quires only one pair, but when us­ing a knife, this will re­quire more than one. In ev­ery pa­per­cut­ting artist's tool­box, there is a pad about a square of one chi (33.33 cen­time­tres), coated with oil about five mil­lime­tres thick, con­tain­ing yel­low wax and char­coal ash at a pro­por­tion of seven to three. This pad is used to pro­tect the blade when carv­ing on pa­per.

If the waxy sur­face be­comes less smooth as time goes on, it can heated up and melted again to be reused. Pa­per cut­ting artists who do not use scis­sors have a sharp knife, but it is now of­ten re­placed by a scalpel. The up­per part of the blade is clamped with a brush tube and wrapped around with thread. There is also a sharp awl, iron tweez­ers and four or five small nails. With all these tools, the pa­per cut­ting artist is ready to go.

The pa­per cut­ting artist will first put the white pa­per on the pat­tern, and then hold them over an oil lamp to smoke out the lines; or when cre­at­ing a new pat­tern, it can be painted it out on the white pa­per with a brush. Af­ter that, place a few pieces of thin pa­per on the pad, and then the smoked or painted pat­tern over the thin pa­per, and fi­nally fix the po­si­tion with four small nails. Press the pa­per, and at the same time cut it ac­cord­ing to the pat­tern, start­ing from the fine lines. Then layer by layer, from the in­side to the out­side, keep cut­ting un­til com­plete. If a small hole is needed, it can be made with an awl.

Af­ter cut­ting and carv­ing, the four small nails are re­moved gen­tly, pick out the pa­per scraps one by one from the pat­tern on the pad, and fi­nally pick up the work with tweez­ers and put it into the box. If cre­at­ing win­dow grille, the pa­per should be thicker. Whether alone or in pairs, the com­po­si­tion must be sym­met­ri­cal. This can be done by fold­ing a piece of red pa­per on the red side and align­ing it with the back­side. Then cover it with the smoked or painted pat­tern, keep cut­ting un­til com­plete, un­fold it and it will show a sym­met­ri­cal pat­tern.


Once upon a time, an­cient art his­tory books would com­ment that folk pa­per cut­ting was “not el­e­gant enough for the hall of art­work.” Af­ter Shen's works were pub­lished in Peo­ple’s Daily and Bei­jing Daily, this folk art that came from the fields and farms has been recog­nised and deemed wor­thy of en­ter­ing “the hall of art­work,” and its pop­u­lar­ity and pub­lic­ity has greatly in­creased.

On March 25, 1958, Bei­jing Evening Post pub­lished Shen's pa­per cut­ting ti­tled de­sign, the first time his work was ever pub­lished in the news­pa­per. “It was some­thing new at that time. In par­tic­u­lar, the pa­per cut­ting work that was the size of a stamp was very im­pres­sive and at­trac­tive. It had both the char­ac­ter­is­tics of ru­ral win­dow grilles and the cur­rent el­e­ments; the ar­ti­cle that ac­com­pa­nied com­ple­mented the art work well.”

Shen, a student of Teng, was an idol of that time. As a se­ri­ously dis­abled per­son, Shen found it hard to raise his head be­cause all of his joints were hard. For­tu­nately, with dex­ter­ous fin­gers, Pro­fes­sor Teng taught him pa­tiently with­out any reser­va­tion. “I ad­mired Shen for his art and his char­ac­ter, and he is a role model to me.” Chen Yuan, a Bei­jing writer, spoke of ideas that many young peo­ple also had at that time.

Shen's stu­dents re­spected their teacher. Yang Yingy­ing, an artist who fol­lowed Shen to learn the art of pa­per cut­ting at seven years old, re­called: “The first time I saw him, he was cre­at­ing with his deft fin­gers, and I was fas­ci­nated. It was amaz­ing watch­ing him use the carv­ing knife. While study­ing pa­per cut­ting, I re­ally felt his charisma and saw in him what a true mas­ter he is.”

In 1975, Jin He­nian who was just over 30 came to the cul­tural cen­tre of Xicheng District for the art pro­gram be­cause he liked paint­ing. Lead­ers of the cen­tre brought him to meet Shen. At that time, Jin was al­ready a big fan of Shen, and he be­gan to learn from Shen. He would some­times es­cort his teacher for walks or buy him some books and pa­per. In 1978, Jin and his teacher held a Bei­jing pa­per cut­ting art ex­hi­bi­tion in Jing­shan Park. The ex­hi­bi­tion not only pre­sented Jin and Shen's works, but also the best pa­per cut­ting col­lec­tions from across the coun­try.

Over the years, Jin has al­ways col­lected his works. In the col­lec­tion are Jin's copies of his teacher's works. In the last page, Jin wrote: “Take pic­tures of the works and print them out in dif­fer­ent sizes. You can achieve suc­cess since you got this op­por­tu­nity of hav­ing a sam­ple to study. Op­por­tu­nity comes only once and it will not come again. You must keep work­ing hard, for suc­cess does not come easy. April 28, 2011.”

Bei­jing School Pa­per Cut­ting has a his­tory of more than five decades, and each gen­er­a­tion of the artists tried to change and in­no­vate the tech­niques. But Jin did not justim­proved the tech­niques; he achieved break­through in the as­pect of ma­te­rial. In his home, he showed us an A4 pa­per sized work, in­spired by a trade­mark of a north­ern Shaanxi noo­dle shop. When Jin saw the trade­mark, he knew it was some­thing he could work with. So, he cre­ated some­thing new based on it, a modern pa­per cut­ting in a ru­ral style. More specif­i­cally, Jin passed by the shops of North Xi­dan Street and saw a poster on the door of a noo­dle shop. It was a black and white pa­per cut­ting of a north­ern Shaanxi farmer, wear­ing a white vest and with white towel on his head, raised his head and ate noo­dles with chop­sticks.

Jin was sud­denly moved by the picture for its rus­tic style. He im­me­di­ately got to work at home and used a colour sep­a­ra­tion method to give the char­ac­ters and text dif­fer­ent colours such as red, blue, orange, and pink, and added gold­fish and lo­tuses, sym­bol­is­ing abun­dance. On the body of the fish's body here were also golden se­quins. He put a black frame around the ti­tle “Shaanxi Food Fam­ily” and used six colours in­clud­ing pink, yel­low, orange, ochre and oth­ers as the back­ground, adding in colour and taste to cre­ate a won­der­ful rhythm for the work.

When it comes to the de­vel­op­ment and her­itage of Bei­jing School Pa­per Cut­ting, Jin said that copy­ing and learn­ing the works of the an­ces­tors was nec­es­sary, but one should not be lim­ited by tra­di­tion be­cause in­no­va­tion and per­sonal style are also im­por­tant. Pa­per cut­ting artists should have their own views on beauty, bet­ter un­der­stand what peo­ple like, study what should be ex­pressed, and how to make it hap­pen. The big­gest role of pa­per cut­ting is bring­ing beauty to peo­ple's lives.

De­sign­ing a draft

Cut­ting out a rab­bit pat­tern with a pair of scis­sors

Carv­ing a pat­tern with a knife

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from China

© PressReader. All rights reserved.