Chinese Papercut

Written by Sally Guo Updated Jun. 23, 2021

Ever since the paper was invented in 105 A.D. by Ts’ai Lun, an official in the court of Ho Ti, emperor of Cathay, paper-cutting has been a folk art.

Perhaps it flowered because paper became so inexpensive and universally available, so easily workable with ordinary tools, and so adaptable to manifold uses. Whatever the reason, it was the common folk who first learned to cut the paper, and then perpetuated these rich traditions.

The humble nature of its origins and the anonymity of its practice have caused paper-cutting to remain virtually ignored as an art form.

Certainly, most paper cut work was never so much as attributed, much less signed. Often the paper design was only an intermediate step in the production of another art form more highly prized.

One of the original uses of cut paper designs in China was in the production of embroidery patterns since at the time of the invention of paper Chinese embroidery had already reached a very high state of artistry.

But no longer is paper-cutting and unappreciated Cinderella of the arts. While the materials remain simple and easily available, artists, craftspeople, collectors and even governments are becoming increasingly aware of this valuable folk heritage, and are taking steps to see that it is preserved and perpetuated.

The Chinese Heritage

Paper-cuttings have been made in China for at least fifteen centuries. This is known because paper-cuttings were among the archaeological founds at Kaochang (in the Sinkiang Uighur region) excavated in 1959, and objects from this excavation are dated between 514 and 551 A.D.

The degree of skill evident in the cut-paper horses and monkeys indicates that the art form had already achieved a high level at that time.

Writings from the Tang and Sung dynasties indicate that paper-cut decorations were used by the rich and poor alike. Part of any girl’s preparation for marriage included training in paper-cutting as well as in embroidery; and on her wedding day, these two skills have deemed the criteria of the bride’s accomplishments and intelligence.

At the time of the annual Spring Festival, folk arts in general and paper-cutting in particular really had a chance for special glory. That was and still is the time of the year when “out with the old in with the new” became the rule of the season. Debts were paid and houses were cleaned. Paper-cuttings were used as interior and exterior decorations.

Paper on the walls and windowpanes was removed and replaced. The gaily-colored cut-outs named Window Flowers were pasted on window-panes.

Ceiling flowers were used as ceiling decorations, and columns and lintels were decorated with Luck Hangings.

Doors and walls all shared in the renewal, to stay resplendent until just before the next Spring Festival. Smaller and less permanent paper-cutting called Happy Flowers were pasted on mirrors, lanterns, and gifts, and even used as decorations on cakes.

Chrysanthemums from Wang Chow City, perhaps inspired by Chang Yung-Sho. And to this day Spring Festival is the time when women shop for new cut-paper embroidery patterns, “Hua Yang” to be tacked or glued on hats, aprons, and slippers, and then covered with row after row of bright floss.

If you had been a member of nobility during the Tan dynasty, you might have been invited to the Emperor’s court to share in the festivities. As an opening favor, you might have received a silk flag decorated with gold and silver cut-paper designs in the form of spring flowers and lettering.

Smaller spring flags were used to festoon the garden bushes and to pin in ladies’ hair –and sometimes, when everyone was overcome by the mood and the season, in men’s hear as well. Later, after being given a gift of a paper flower, you might have been expected to compose a poem.

While Spring Festival was the major showplace for the paper cutter’s art, there was other work throughout the year.

In a Chinese funeral, cut-paper symbols were used extensively. Along with paper clothing and shoes, messages and symbols of paper might be made and burnt as gifts to accompany the dead in the other life.

Birthdays and weddings must always go along with appropriate wishes for goodwill, luck, and long life – all cut from paper. Itinerant craftsmen supplied these needs.

Known as the “pilgrims of the rivers and lakes”, they traveled over the countryside selling their paper-cuttings to provide themselves a meager existence.  While their work enjoyed tremendous popularity, these workers were accorded no status whatsoever.

Some of the ancient cuttings came from ‘factories” composed of a single peasant family, whose members worked on an assembly-line arrangement to supplement their farm income. One member may cut the original design, another would use it as a pattern to produce replicates, and a third member might apply the color. These paper-cuttings then were sold in an open market.

Soon, symbols became highly important in Chinese paper cut-outs. Hundreds sprang from mythology, drama, or someone’s fertile imagination.

These quickly caught on and became recognizable throughout China. For instance, a mythical animal, Chi-Lin, was taught to bring children; peach, pine, and crane suggested longevity; dragons, lions, and tigers symbolized courage and strength; the serpent, as might be guessed, was the villain representing cunning and evil power of supernatural origin.

Once a pleasing paper-cut design was produced, it was often passed from generation to generation, and eventually was adopted by a whole region, so that there developed a certain “look” or style of cutting peculiar to that region.

Flower patterns are identified with central China –not surprising since this is also the region in which the magnificent floral silks, brocades, and embroideries have been produced since ancient times.

The comparatively dry climate of the north region gave rise to the lovely Window Flowers.  Here the people could use a tough but transparent paper called “Kao-li” to make their windowpanes and decorations.

The district of Wei in Hopei Province is widely known for its cut-work, the subject matter of which is often taken from Chinese opera. Traditional theatrical figures are carved with a knife from the very thin white paper (usually several layers at once), then are brightly colored with dyes.

The northwest provinces were also the home of other paper-cuttings which revealed a great strength and power of imagination. They have provided inspiration to woodcut artists as well as to paper cutters working today.

One group called New Creation, accordingly sponsored by the government, excels in paper-cuttings of busy children engaged with great enthusiasm in some activity.

They may be doing a lantern dance, flying a kite, sweeping the floor while the mother is busy with the baby, or not so happily, perhaps trudging to school. The themes are aimed at encouraging modern youngsters to become industrious, contributing members of the community.

Other modern artists of this area stand out for their individuality. Chen Pin Hsing and Hsin Chai Shen used very thin lines in their dramatic scenes.

Chian Ken Ho is famous for her scenes and narratives from well-loved dramas.  It is reported that she could visit the theatre, remember the characters by heart, and then cut them directly, without sketches.

She used thick lines and bold patterns and invented her own style of composition to tell the stories, cutting with scissors rather than with the more common knife.

Traditional and Modern Techniques

Each culture in which paper-cutting has survived seems to have its own favorite paper types, colors, motives, and techniques. In Chinese tradition, red is the most celebrated color. Used in homes and in temples, red symbolizes everything positive: grandeur, dignity, royalty, youth, beauty, courage, joy. If a paper-cutting is going to be a single color, red is a likely choice.

The professional Chinese cutter relied mostly on his assortment of knives, punches, and other hand tools made by him or else to his specifications.

The paper used by the professionals is very thin, finely grained, and unsized.

When fewer than twenty layers are used, the packed is sewn together with needle and thread before cutting. If more copies are needed, the stack is placed inside a specially built frame and nailed down to a base coated with a vegetable oil and resin mixture to provide a flexible surface for cutting. 

If a pattern is being used, it is put on top of the stack. The cutting begins with the small details first, then gradually proceeds to the larger shapes. The outline is cut last.

Sometimes a combination of knife-cutting and scissor-cutting is employed. The intricate part of the design can be cut most successfully with knives, gouges, or a punch. Then the larger cuts and the outline are made with scissors.

Colouring is the final step. The whole bundle is colored at once. Since the paper is unsized, dyes applied to the top of the layer quickly soak down through the entire stack.

The dyes most commonly used are aniline, cinnabar, and lazulite; they vary, however, from artist to artist. When all of the colorings have dried, the work is ready for sale. The stacks are usually not separated until a customer has decided to buy.

When an existing cutting is to be used for a pattern, a time-honored smoking technique is used to transfer the pattern to the new paper.

First, a clean piece of paper is laid on a wooden board. The paper-cutting is placed on top, and the whole is then sprinkled with water and carefully smoothed out.

The water causes the two layers of paper to stick together and to the board. The board is then held upside down over an oil lamp or a lamp with a paper wick. The soot from the lamp flame coats the entire surface of the paper, the heat causes the old pattern to dry quickly and it can be peeled off, leaving a white print on the paper underneath.

Of course, such interesting processes often give way to modernization, and nowadays many cutters work from printed patterns. Through government sponsorship, paper-cutting in China has been perpetuated and revitalized. Today it is a thriving art form.

Designs for book covers and illustrations, headings for newspapers, stamps, and even animated films are all fertile fields for the paper-cutters art.

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