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The History of the Chinese Papercut

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Nigel Cameron surveys the magic of Chinese Papercuts, reprinted from SACU's China Now magazine 1976.

Up until 20 years ago Chinese papercuts never received serious artistic attention, either from the Chinese themselves or from Western scholars. They belonged to the category of folk art, something that until very recently was taken for granted and regarded as hardly worthy of serious study. Fortunately, this attitude is now a thing of the past.

At what precise period of their long history the Chinese began to make papercuts will probably never be known. The nature of paper is such that it does not easily survive the ravages of time; and since paper in the form of papercuts was not regarded with any of the veneration accorded to paper that was painted or covered with calligraphy, no attempt was made to preserve it.

A limit of the antiquity of papercuts, however, can be placed if we recall that the Chinese invented paper around the end of the first century AD. At that time and for several centuries after, paper was probably neither plentiful nor cheap enough to allow of its use as mere decoration. But by the Tang Dynasty (618 -906) there are records of the use of coloured paper and papercut decorations. The great poet Du Fu (712-770) mentions the art of paper-folding, which suggests that by his time paper must have been cheap enough to be put to such uses. In the same eighth century, Chinese artisan paper-makers had been requested to journey to Samarkand and Baghdad where they were employed some indication of the extent of the Chinese paper industry and the number of men involved.

Yet at the same period, there are contrary evidences. It seems that at least in some parts of China paper was still rare, or at least expensive, enough for it to be re-used. There is an interesting example of this in the materials brought back from the library of the monastery at Dun Huang by Sir Aurel Stein: a Tang document recording benefactions to the monastery by the regional governor, which was later used to put down lively ink sketches of a horse and camel. In Tang times, too, we find the first use of paper to mend paintings whose silk base had frayed or torn, the paper being painted to simulate the lost segment-- a practice that led eventually to the routine application of a paper backing to all painting on silk.

Papercut
An intricate papercut design

The uses to which papercuts were put were many. In a land where windows were of paper and not glass, and where decoration in ordinary houses was sparse enough, a bright-red papercut of a pair of mandarin ducks was both a symbol of conjugal felicity and a pleasing touch of colour. At night when the lamps were lit, it could be seen from outside as well, creating good cheer in both places. In more elaborate interiors, whole walls and ceilings were ornamented with papercuts. Those stuck on windows were called Window Flowers, and those on ceilings were similarly named Ceiling Flowers; those adorning the lintels of doors were termed Good-Luck Hangings.

A second use of papercuts was a guide for woodcarvers. The pattern that was to be carved took the form of a papercut that was pasted onto the wood before the worker began his sculpture. Allied to this was the use of papercuts as stencils for transferring colour to lacquerware, and especially to mass-produced pottery and porcelain. Some of the cheaper blue-and-white domestic and export porcelains show unmistakable signs of this technique. By soaking papercuts in the required colour, one could apply the designs quickly and in great number and variety without the intervention of the skilled artisan with his brush. The results were, of course, rather rough, and the technique was unacceptable for fine-quality ware.

Papercuts also served as guides for embroiderers. Tacked onto the cloth, they could be oversewn in the required colours. Until about 30 years ago it was still possible to see in many Chinese cities men selling from street stalls an infinite variety of papercuts for this purpose (as well as other designs for other purposes).

Not only windows were paper-filled. The traditional lantern was a flimsy object of cane or split bamboo, over which damp paper was stretched, just as it was over window frames by assiduous housewives each autumn in preparation for winter. Inside the lanterns were, often as not, papercuts (Happy Flowers, they were generally called) of the finest material, so that their colour would show through when the candle or lamp inside was lit.

Fans, folding screens, the corners of mirrors, gift packages, offerings at temples and many other objects frequently bore papercut decorations.

Papercut

The technique of making papercuts is, like their charm, deceptively simple. The beginner generally used a readymade design, placed it on the uppermost of a sheaf of already coloured papers and held the whole inverted in the smoke of a lamp. The pattern was then removed. leaving a clearly defined area of unsmoked paper around which the scissors could be guided. The old-fashioned sharp-pointed Chinese scissors with their generous loop handles are eminently suited for this purpose. In practice they were frequently supplemented by a variety of small knifelike cutting instruments that were made by the papercutter himself to suit his own particular technique. In this way a dozen or more identical patterns might be cut at once. Of course, the really adept practitioners thousands of them are still at work in China today tend to cut freehand. It is amazing to see how rapidly such workers can cut the most complex and beautifully formed pattern of flowers, human figures, fruits or whatever, as you watch.

One further method or variation is to fold the paper in various ways, much as Western children used to do, before cutting. This forms either chains of identical linked patterns or figures, or geometrically ordered patterns whose ultimate complexity depends on how many folds there are and in which directions they run.

The traditional subjects of the papercutter were many. The ki-lin was a mythical animal of auspicious omen., the lotus in its many forms and the pomegranate and the pig all symbolized fertility; bamboos, pines, plum blossoms and chrysanthemums represented a courageous spirit; lions and tigers symbolized courage itself. Peaches, pines and cranes were all common signs of longevity, and all of them were frequently used. Sometimes Chinese characters, such as the decorative 'longevity', 'luck,' or 'happiness,' were used. In contemporary times it is more common to find some political slogan.

There were also still more subtle papercuts employing characters. In these the character was read for its sound, which could have two entirely different meanings. The word yu, meaning 'fish', should be read as yu, meaning 'great wealth' which has the same sound. And a design using actual representations of a bat and peaches means 'Luck and long life can go together,' because the sounds of the first two characters are the same as those of luck and long life.

Papercut

The papercut graduated from these fairly simple forms long ago, although the simple designs of old are still forceful and satisfying. Many of the Shandong papercutters traditionally used as a basis for their patterns and designs the coloured woodblock prints in a book called the Painting Manual of the Mustard-Seed Garden by Mai-mai Sze which dates from 1679-1701, or the Collection of Pictures from the Ten Bamboo Halls from Hu Chen-yen.

Until the establishment of the Lu Xun Art School in China in 1945, most traditional designs had altered but little over the centuries. But with the school's publication of new patterns dealing with modern themes in an attempt to put new life into the old folk art, a radical step was taken. And since then, with the coming of the present government in China, the use to which papercuts might be put because of their popularity was an obvious one.

The first variations from the old styles were probably the early papercuts of Chinese opera characters, variously coloured in more or less realistic fashion. Some of these are extremely effective, especially the generals, both good and evil, with their lurid facial make-up. But other variants of old themes include all sorts of scenes of children learning the value of manual work, of industrial workers with their tools, even of scientists in the midst of complicated experiments.

It says much for the innate Chinese capacity to communicate graphically (an ability that was put to effective use many times in the past, not the least in the famous series of cartoons criticizing Western missionaries and their activities in the mid-nineteenth century) that such apparently banal themes are nearly always lively as well as being satisfactorily integrated into papercut style.

But modern China still produces numerous series of 'old-fashioned' works the fairies of ancient legend, the heroes of the past, characters from famous novels such as the currently much-criticized 'Water Margin' and many others. Alongside these, quite new developments have recently appeared. Scenes depicting vast new dams and hydro-electric enterprises appear in full colour in settings of traditional mountain and forest that are the nearest papercuts approach to such rural scenes in traditional Chinese painting. Newly engineered roads in other examples snake their tortuous way up and down China's rugged mountain terrain (and we have to remember that two-thirds of the Chinese mainland is composed of just such country, not at all of the typical spreading rice paddies). In other modern works we see what at first appears to be yet another of the familiar landscapes of Guilin, with its surprising mountains arising suddenly from the lakes. But there, in some grove reflected in the water, is a tenement block of many stories. Or, in some other vast country scene, on a tiny ribbon of road lost in the spreading land, marches a little group of pioneers with minuscule red flags fluttering bravely amid the awesome forces of nature they are attempting to conquer. In yet other papercuts, a scene of lakes and old Chinese architecture, willows, flowering shrubs and ancient peace is spiked by the sight of a large lumbering truck just visible enough to add a note of modernity.

Papercut

In a series of papercuts showing Tibet, we find among the brilliant colours of snow-capped mountain and autumnal foliage, below the medieval walls of the Potala Palace, another picture that shows simply the dramatic silhouette of a viaduct under construction, bedecked with those emotive fluttering red flags against the savage blues of icy mountains.

All these new papercuts are hand-coloured in bright hues that have a kind of naivete quite in keeping with the medium and its long traditions.

It is a far cry, now, from the ancient days of the Tang dynasty when, at the Spring Festival, the arrival of the courtiers at the imperial palace was marked by each being given a colourful silken flag decorated with gold and silver papercuts in the form of auspicious calligraphy and flowers. In noble houses small Spring Flags were cut from gilded and silvered paper and tied under flowering bushes, while others, even smaller, were pinned in the women's hair. Later, in the Song dynasty, the records encourage us to conjure up the scene at a similar festival when the great poet Su Dongpo was seen walking about with numerous little Spring Flags sprouting from his hair, to the great amusement of the younger and female members of his family. But then the poet had been 'banished' to Hangzhou, the city of beauties (natural, man-made and female) It was here, even later in time, that Marco Polo described a mock battle on Hangzhou Lake between two boats crowded with ladies and gentlemen of noble families pelting each other with oranges. The boats were probably decorated with gold and silver and scarlet papercuts, as was the custom. But, to be quite honest, we do not know. But neither must we care, for the story, like the art of papercuts, is enchanting.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2006 reprinted from SACU's magazine China Now 59, Page 4, February 1976

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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