A lifetime devoted to the art of paper cutting
Wielding a pair of scissors, Song Baoshu looks like a magician, swiftly snipping a piece of paper into a work of art.
Song, 62, is a craftsman from North China’s Hebei province who specializes in the Chinese folk art of paper cutting, or jianzhi. Boasting a history of more than 1,000 years, paper cutting was traditionally a craft mastered by women, whose creations were used in rituals and for home decoration.
As an art form, it has gained much attention in recent decades, and was included on the UNESCO world intangible cultural heritage list in 2009.
Song was born in a small village and his relationship with paper cutting began more than five decades ago when he was 8 and learned the craft from his grandmother.
“At that time, villagers living nearby would ask my grandmother to make paper cuttings for them when the Spring Festival approached,” he said.
His grandmother would make cuttings featuring traditional auspicious motifs and patterns as well as Chinese characters symbolizing the zodiac animals. Villagers would stick them on their windows or walls as good luck charms.
“Seeing the villagers’ faces light up when they got those paper cuttings, I decided to also become a craftsman and bring joy to people with my work,” Song said.
Decades of devotion and practice have led to his distinctive style. By combining his masterly technique and unique ideas, he has breathed new life into the ancient craft.
“Ideas are the most important,” he said, adding that he once spent a month creating a portrait of Chairman Mao — using most of that time just to think about how he was going to do it.
In May, Song presented one of his pieces to Masoud Soltanifar, the head of the Iran Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization. It featured both Chinese and Persian calligraphy.
Despite the fact that paper cutting remains popular in contemporary China, traditional practitioners still face challenges promoting their art.
Song once tried to training courses at offer local primary schools, but said few students showed interest.
“There are few young people who are really interested in paper cutting,” he said.
“But actually, learning paper cutting can help make kids more patient, improve their dexterity, sharpen their memory and fire the imagination.”
The craftsman’s two sons have now learned how to cut paper like their father and he is also teaching his grandchildren the basics.
But modern machines and the commercialization of paper cutting pose a new challenge because mass-produced products are much cheaper and more accessible than man-made ones.
“Many buyers choose lasercut products over handmade works,” Song said.
“But they are in no way works of art. Traditional paper cutting will not be replaced by machines.”
He believes that innovation is key to keeping the traditional art alive.
Aside from innovation in subjects and themes, he is also exploring new techniques, such as using multiple layers of paper and adding more colors to the traditional red.