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Chang Feng-Kao
The Art of the Papercut

Originally published in:
China Reconstructs, December 1973, pp. 30-31


The papercut is one of China's traditional folk arts. Quick to make and needing only simple tools, papercuts are very popular among the people. Many peasant women are experts at making them. With a pair of scissors, deft hands can turn out a beautiful design in no time. Most papercuts are pasted on windowpanes as ornaments. They are popularly called "window flowers".

This is an art closely connected with the daily life of the people. It is a traditional custom to beautify the home with papercuts symbolizing joy and happiness at the New Year or other festive occasions. They also appear on lanterns or as ceremonial symbols. Designs from this simple and vigorous decorative art are often used for embroidery, cotton prints, New Year woodcuts, wood carving in low-relief and Chinese shadow puppets.

Papercuts have been made in China for at least 15 centuries. They were among the archaeological objects excavated in 1959 at Kaochang in the Sinkiang Uighur Autonomous Region, dating from between 514 and 551 A.D., in the period of China's Southern and Northern Dynasties. The designs of facing pairs of horses and monkeys were rendered with a high level of skill, indicating that the art had already begun previous to the 6th century.

Through many hundreds of years of practice China's folk artists have created papercuts of many kinds: in paper of one color, painted or combining papers of different colors pasted together. In style, those made in the south tend to use fine, delicate lines while those from the north feature broad, forceful ones. But even within one region styles differ. Together they form a wide range of stylized expression in composition, form, use of color and elements of design.

Under the limitations imposed by history, the papercuts of the past were confined mainly to ornamental purposes, and their subject matter was sometimes unhealthy, for example many were tinged with superstition.

It was during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-1945) that artists in the lib-erated areas led by the Chinese Communist Party first created "window flowers" of a new kind based on the folk form but expressing the current life and struggle of the people. "Opening up Wasteland" depicts the people of northern Shensi province increasing grain production to support the battlefront against Japanese aggression. "Militiaman"shows how peasants of the border regions armed against the aggressors. Both are done in the simple, bold style of the northern Shensi papercut.

Ever since liberation in 1949, guided by Chairman Mao's principle of weeding through the old to bring forth the new, many papercut artists have held to the orientation of serving the workers, peasants and soldiers. They have painstakingly studied the traditions of their art, carrying on its best

p. 30

elements and discarding the dross. With creative boldness they have developed it to express new content and new subjects. So today papercuts are no longer merely ornaments but comprise an independent art form providing, among other things, designs for bookcovers, illustrations, animated films, postage stamps, bookmarks, calendars and headings for news-papers and magazines.

The cultural revolution brought even more vigorous progress. Many new artists and creations have appeared. "Bumper Harvest", showing the silhouette of a boat filled with grain, conveys the joy of the commune members as they row, pushing back the waves, and evokes the sparkling beauty of the well-watered southern countryside, although the cutting does not show any shoreline. The composition is precise, forceful and highly decorative.

In contrast to drawings, papercuts characteristically employ bold exaggeration and lay emphasis on sweeping motions, with lines that give a feeling of movement and rhythm. In "Tibetan Dance", two children in brightly colored national costumes, with uplifted faces and glad smiles, begin to dance, waving their long sleeves. The black outlines, contrasting sharply with the white background, are an example of how a few strokes of the knife can produce a clear and vivid image. Within the deft style there is a direct simplicity that brings out the ingenuous, imaginative nature of children. Shen Pei-nung, the creator of this work, specializes in depicting children. His style has solidity and is redolent of the northern China papercut, but the artist has added liveliness and vividness to its rough-and-ready straight forwardness. Learning from the traditional, he has created a style of his own.

The papercut employs many basic elements of design. There are sawtooth patterns, crescents, whorls and flowers. Sawtooth patterns, which serve a wide range of expression, are richly decorative and are used to depict animals, plants, objects, scenery, buildings and sometimes people. The papercuts "Feeding Chickens", "Hunting", "Ping-Pong Player", "Barefoot Doctor", "Spring", "Cat" and "Arrow Lotus" show the various applications. Dew-fresh fruit is depicted through gentle sawtooth lines. For leaf-edges, grass and stones more clearcut ones are used. For the bristles of a boar and quills of a porcupine the serrations are sharp, and for cow's hair and cat's fur they become thin and delicate. Human hair, fingers and the lace edgings of clothes, etc. are also expressed by various forms of this sawtooth pattern.

How to Make Papercuts

The making of papercuts is rather simple. Generally, all that's necessary is a pair of small or medium-sized scissors, sharp and with thin blades.

Some papercuts are cut with a knife on a base board. The knife is easily made. Cut a piece off a discarded clock spring, insert it between strips of bamboo (or pliant wood) for a handle and bind together with wire. Sharpen the steel piece into a pointed blade. The base board should be of fine-grained, soft wood, cut in cross-section.

With scissors, two to three copies at most can be made in one cutting. With a knife, as many as forty copies can be produced at once.

Usually, the artist prepares a drawing first, then cuts it out. So that the papercut does not fall apart, all points and lines in such a drawing are connected. It is placed on the required number of layers of paper and fixed into place with clips or pins. Then the cutting begins, usually starting from the center and going outwards, the smaller details and movements being done first. Bright red, black or white paper is commonly used. The red or black images show up especially clearly against a white background.

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