Haiwang YUAN

Ancient Man paper cut-out.

Paper cutting (jianzhi 剪纸) is one of many Chinese handicrafts emerging a few thousand years ago. Both the Han Chinese and their ethnic minority compatriots cut paper, though for different purposes. There are different schools of paper cutting today, each having its regional flavor. The themes of paper cuts are diversified, varying from animals and plants to people and scenery.

Paper cutting (jianzhi) belongs to the folk (minjian) tradition of the four-thousand-year-old art of Chinese handicrafts and has been influential in Chinese decoration since its inception. Whereas the other type of handicrafts, special handicrafts (tezhong), largely involve costly materials manufactured with sophisticated workmanship, as in the case of cloisonne enamel and lacquerware, folk handicrafts are mostly made by common people and possess distinct regional and ethnic flavors. Along with paper cutting, embroidery and wax printing (batik)—a method of dyeing a fabric by which the parts of the fabric not intended to be dyed are covered with removable wax—also belong to the folk category.

An excavation of a tomb from the Warring States period (475–221 BCE) in Henan Province revealed ornaments of silver foil with hollowed-out, flowery designs. These were the precursors of paper cuts. Before the mass production of paper in the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220 CE) expensive paper of bast and leaf fibers was already in use. A legend tells that Emperor Wu (156–87 BCE) of the Han ordered that a portrait of his deceased concubine be cut out of this type of paper to be used in a ritual to call her spirit back. Indeed, early foil or paper cuts were mostly used for religious purposes.

Women of the Tang (618–907 CE) and Song (960–1279) dynasties used sheng (hollowed-out ornaments of paper, silk, and gold foil) to dress their hair. Designs came in the shape of squares (fangsheng), people (rensheng), and flowers (huasheng). Today, paper cuts are used primarily as house decorations to celebrate the Chinese New Year.

Besides the Han, ethnic minority Chinese, such as the Dai, Daur, Hezhen, Manchu, Mongol, Miao, Tibetan, Tu, Uygur, Xibe, and Yugur, also cut paper, though each group has a distinct style. The patterns of the Dai hint at Buddhism. Xibe and Uygur designs feature only flowers because their Islamic traditions prevent them from worshiping human or animal idols (Yuan 2006). Instead of decoration, they use paper cuts mostly as templates to create patterns on embroidery.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, while some rural Chinese individuals are still fond of cutting paper to decorate their houses, paper cutting has become a profitable industry. Paper-cutting themes are diversified. Paper cuts can depict cultural symbols and characters representing good wishes, historical or legendary figures, flowers or animals, natural or life scenes, traditional or ethnic performances, and even images of the West such as Santa Claus. Styles of paper cutting also vary, falling into two major categories: positive and negative. With positive cutting, the product is usually made of monochrome paper so that the outlines of a design are kept and the lines within the outline must be connected. Negative cutting does the opposite, keeping only blocks of the cutout, which can be painted in multiple colors. Sometimes both techniques are applied to create a more vivid, or even a three-dimensional, effect.

The different schools of paper cutting are named after the locations of their origins. They include xiaogan, characterized by its vivid representations; guangling, recognized by its ink-and-wash effect, created with liquor; ansai, characterized by its bold and simple craftsmanship; Wei County, marked by a technique borrowed from the Yangliuqing New Year Paintings, a 600-year-old folk art of woodcut painting named after its place of origin Yangliuqing, a town on the outskirt of Tianjin, China; fengning, recognized by its Manchurian flavor; yangzhou, characterized by its exquisiteness, comparable to the region’s famed embroidery; leqing, marked by its thin-lined patterns, which are often used to decorate lanterns of dragon boats; and guangdong, recognized by its integration of paper with glistening copper foils.

Further Reading

Yuan, Haiwang. (2006). Magic lotus lantern and other tales of the Han Chinese. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Borja, C. & Borja, R. (1979). Making Chinese papercuts. Craft books. Chicago: A. Whitman.

He luo tu shu chu ban she. (1978). Zhonghua jian zhi yi shu [Chinese paper cutting]. Taipei, Taiwan: He luo tu shu chu ban she.

Min su yi shu chu ban she. (1983). Shen fo jian zhi [Chinese paper cutting patterns of gods and Buddhas]. Zhonghe Shi: Min su yi shu chu ban she.

Paper can’t wrap up a fire.


Zhǐ bāo bú zhù huǒ

Source: Yuan, Haiwang. (2009). Paper Cutting. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1716–1718. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Cutting shadow pictures: A woman creates a profile of a young lady using black paper. Paper cutting (jianzhi), which emerged in China a few thousand years ago, is still a popular Chinese handicraft. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Boat and Sunrise paper cut-out.

Paper Cutting (Jiǎnzhǐ 剪纸)|Jiǎnzhǐ 剪纸 (Paper Cutting)

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