The Art Of Chinese Paper Cutting
Chinese paper-cutting is a tradition that can be traced back to the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), when people would cut silk cloth into intricate shapes and hang them on trees or doors to celebrate the coming of the spring, as well as to help exorcise demons. Today, people still embrace this tradition by hanging paper-cuts on windows or walls during the Spring Festival, expressing hope for a prosperous year.
There are two major kinds of Chinese paper-cut: one type is created using scissors and the other with knives. The former doesn’t require many specific tools or materials and allows improvisation during the cutting process; the latter, however, involves special tools and paper, as well as a pre-designed template that can be extremely complicated and detailed. This is the kind that paper-cut artist Ren Zhenshan specializes in.
Forty-six-year-old Ren grew up in Shanxi province, which is regarded as the birthplace of the Chinese paper-cut. He has been a paper-cut artist for 17 years and operates two small paper-cut studios in Beijing. A purist when it comes to his artistry, Ren even makes his own cutting tools and wax board. For his knife, he uses a sharpened and polished strip of steel from an old bicycle. For his wax board, which he uses as a cutting mat, Ren heats up straw ash, beeswax and butter in a pot until they melt together, then presses the mixture into a flat board.
“The wax board is very important,” he explains. “It protects the knife and the table that you’re carving the paper-cut on. The tricky part is to make the wax board soft enough to not hurt the knife, but hard enough to not be sticky. It takes a lot of experience to get just the right proportion of materials to achieve the perfect degree of softness.”
This kind of paper-cut is made with a special type of paper called xuan zhi, normally used for Chinese watercolor paintings. It is very fine and thin, light as a feather and extremely fragile. A stack of xuan paper is usually cut all at once; first the stack is soaked in water, then placed on the ground and trod upon to squeeze the water out until the individual leaves are pressed tight like a thick piece of cardboard. The paper-cut template is then placed on top of this stack of paper and the edges are stapled together. Finally, the block of paper is placed on top of the wax board, where the design is then cut out with a knife. “It’s easiest to carve when the paper is still a little damp,” says Ren. It’s crucial to hold the knife straight, too, as if you are practicing Chinese calligraphy, in order to have clean-cut edges.” When he finishes carving, Ren might have as many as 20 paper-cuts created from the same pattern. To separate these fragile paper-cuts from each other, he will roll a rounded stick over it like a rolling pin and the piece will peel off the others easily.
Traditional paper-cuts are all red, which symbolize fortune and happiness in Chinese culture, but in recent years people have become more creative and started dyeing the paper-cuts in multiple colors. Dyeing a paper-cut also involves special techniques. Because paint spreads fast on xuan paper, only one color can be applied at a time to avoid having colors bleed into one another; moreover, light colors are usually applied before darker ones. “To dye a red-pink flower, for example, you should dye the pink petals first, wait till the paint dries, then dye the red petals.”
Anyone who can draw can design his or her own paper-cut. “Most of our designs are about Chinese traditional subjects like historical figures, Peking Opera features, or items that represent health and fortune,” says Ren. “In addition to that, we also make modern designs such as portraits and landscapes.” The only rule in paper-cutting is that all the lines inside a picture must be connected, and great care must be taken to avoid cutting across lines.
Currently, there are about 200 professional paper-cut craftsmen in Beijing, but Ren thinks this number will grow. “I would like to pass my skills on to the younger generation who can carry on this traditional Chinese art. I have had about 60 students, but only a dozen of them are continuing to practice paper-cutting. I hope to reveal all the ‘secrets’ of this art so people can truly understand and appreciate it. It takes a lot of hard work, patience and perseverance, but when you really get into it, you gain more happiness from it than you could imagine.”
Care to try your hand at this traditional Chinese art? Professional tools for Chinese paper-cutting like xuan paper, knives and wax boards are available on the third floor of Tian Le Toy Market or order online at www.cnjianzhi.cn/shop. Use a finished paper-cut as your template, or design your own! Beginners should start with simple patterns. Don’t work long hours, and rest when your eyes get tired. For lessons, contact Mr. Ren Zhenshan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lao Beijing Handmade Paper-cut
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