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Paper-cuttings are one of China’s most popular forms of visual art. Paper and scissors are the usual materials utilized, but sometimes an engraving knife is used. Paper cuttings have been a traditional art form that can be traced back to the 6th century; it only became apparent a few centuries after. These art forms are mainly used as decorations and patterns for religious and ornamental purposes.
Paper-cuttings have different uses or purposes. These can be used as an ornament in gates, windows, walls, columns, mirrors, lamps and lanterns. These are still widely used today in some important festivals especially during New Year. It is very important to put paper-cuttings at the entrance gates for it brings good luck for the family. These paper-cuttings also serve as presents or as decorations on the gifts. Paper cuttings can also be used for religious purposes. These serve as decorations for sacrificial offerings to the ancestors or to the gods. These art works are sometimes used as embroidery patterns for clothes and lacquer work.
This art form has a long history. Its uses influenced decorative patterns, leather silhouettes, printed cloths, embroideries and paintings. Folk paper-cuttings as an art, imitates nature’s forms by way of making characters, symbols, and other ways to entail nature out of the beautiful paper-cutting patterns. Various paper objects are buried with the deceased or are burned with other symbolic figures of the dead. This practice is still observed in some parts of China.
Paper-cuttings are all hand-made. There are two common practices in making paper-cuttings: the scissor cutting and knife cutting techniques. A pair of scissors is used in the scissor cutting technique. Several of these scissor-cut paper strips are fastened together. There are commonly eight pieces for one pattern. The artist cuts the motif with sharp, pointed scissors to shape the desired pattern. Knife cuttings, on the other hand is a method where the artist puts several layers of paper on a relatively soft foundation consisting of a mixture of tallow and ashes. After which, the artist holds a sharp knife vertically cutting the motif into the paper by following a pattern. Considerably, more paper-cuttings can be made with the knife cutting technique than the scissor cutting technique in lesser time and minimal operation.
In Chinese folk culture, the art of paper-cutting occupies a significant amount of time allotment in various folk activities. As early as the Southern Song dynasty, professional paper-cutting craftsmen have emerged. It was once a handicraft that every native girl masters. Paper-cut craftsmanship was often used to judge good brides-to-be. At present, paper-cut craftsmanship can only be seen mostly with countrywomen and girls.
Forms of Folk Paper-Cuttings
Window paper-cuttings are one of the forms of folk paper art. Window paper cuttings are pasted on windows which sometimes serve as a house ornament. In Northern China, the windows of farmer’s houses are usually built with wooden squares. It is commonly seen that a layer of white leather paper is pasted on the geometrically patterned squares. In some important holidays such as the Spring Festival, replacing old leather paper from the windows with new paper-cuttings signifies a farewell to the outgoing year and the welcoming of the New Year. Flora and fauna figurines and theatrical tales can become the themes of window paper cuttings.
It is a type of paper-cutting art that hangs on gate sills. It is alternatively called “hanging label” or “hanging money” for it resembles one. It is in the form of a flag engraved on red paper or multi-colored paper, with geometrical patterns. It is usually embedded with figures of flowers, phoenix, dragons, and other propitious characters. The gate label must be in series when hung up.
It is used to decorate household appliances and indoor furniture such as a teapot, soapbox, basin, and a dressing mirror. It appears in the form of circles, rectangles, peaches, pomegranates, and other propitious patterns. The red color and auspicious themes imply happiness.
Gift paper cuttings are usually seen as decorations in cakes, birthday noodles and eggs. In Shandong Province, people attach gift paper cuttings with the symbolic “happy egg” to celebrate a baby’s birth. Tortoise-patterned paper cuttings symbolize longevity. They are commonly seen in the countryside of Fujian Province.
Paper cuttings can serve as the base pattern for shoe embroidery. Women in northern China usually make cotton-cloth shoes by hand which makes embroidering the shoes possible. The pattern is cut into a bundle of flowers or a shape of a crescent moon which are embroidered on the head of the shoe or matched to the size of the shoe vamp and along the two ends. Themes of flora and fauna can also be used in embroidering the shoe by using the shoe paper cuttings. Two embroidery techniques are employed in making shoe paper-cuttings or patterns: doubled needling and color changing.
These forms of paper cuttings are used as decorations during sacrificing rituals. Paper cuttings are usually engraved on the wax-polished paper. Themes include spirits and other legendary characters.
Paper-Cutting Flower Bundle
This kind of paper cutting has a layout. It takes a form of a circle-shaped flower with four even sizes. The paper can be folded up and cut into a flower bundle in four even sides. This pattern has been usually used in decorations.