Paper is synonymous with China and its once grand stature as the world leader in technological advances. Along with this progress, the country developed a cultural subset devoted solely to transforming objects into something beautiful. This practice, also known as an art form, spread throughout China, involving many different entities such as pottery and others. Paper, however, soon came to be one of the most widespread and widely accepted forms of decorative art. In this article, we will touch on the reasons for which this occurred, as well as the methods by which paper is cut and the purpose of this activity in Chinese culture.
Chinese paper cutting began thousands of years ago soon after Cai Lun invented the papermaking process in AD 105. Cai Lun, who today is little known outside of Asia, guarded women’s living areas outside of the oriental court until he was eventually promoted to the designation of Shang Fang Si, which refers to the one that is responsible for manufacturing tools and weapons. While participating in this role, Cai Lun concluded that mixing tree bark, hemp, and other materials would create a paper that is strong, lightweight, and rather inexpensive. With this papermaking process, Cai Lun became an extraordinarily wealthy aristocrat. After his death in AD 121, paper spread throughout China and the world allowing literature and literacy to spread much more quickly than it had before with other writing materials.
Paper cutting developed sometime after Cai Lun’s death, but it is not known when exactly. The oldest surviving paper cutout is a symmetrical circle from the sixth century, but the art form may have existed prior to then. In its early years, paper was a precious article of trade, and those who had access to it for purposes other than writing were generally of the upper class – royal nobles that lived in palaces. Beginning in the seventh century, paper cutting began entering mainstream culture as a decorative art form during Chinese holidays. Thereafter, it spread to the rest of the world in the fourteenth century; China moved on to other art forms, and paper cutting dwindled until it became virtually nonexistent. Sometime in the 1980s, however, The Republic of China tried to revive the art, spawning a market for professional paper cutters.
The methods by which professionals and hobbyists alike cut paper varies based upon their preference and skill level. There are two main ways by which paper can be effectively cut into a plethora of shapes and complex designs. The first, and somewhat obvious way is by using sharp, pointed scissors to carefully cut the design into many layers of paper that are clipped together. The other way to cut paper is to use a knife. This method is performed with several sheets of paper that are resting on a underpinning of animal fat and ashes. The paper artist places a sharp knife in a vertical position and repeatedly slices a pattern into the paper quickly and without stopping. This technique can allow highly skilled artists to create several paper cutouts in a shorter time frame and with greater accuracy than scissors.
In China, paper cutting has developed into a decorative market. Paper cut designs adorn all parts of a traditional home, from walls to windows, doors to mirrors, and even lamps and lanterns. Sometimes they are used to embellish gifts or are given as a gift themselves. It is common belief that entrances that are decorated with cutouts will bring good luck to those that reside within. Also, paper cuttings were once used as patterns for embroidery and other handiwork.
China’s technological advances brought along new forms of art such as pottery, but paper cutting quickly became the most widespread due to its strength, minimal weight, and low cost. Paper cutouts are also incredibly beautiful; their designs range from the simple, such as a circle, to the exotic, such as a stackable three-dimensional lantern. Paper can be cut either by scissors or knife, depending upon the artist’s preference. Paper cutouts are used mainly as decorations in homes, or as gifts to those that you cherish. Paper cutting is the world’s chief art form – it has risen from the earth to help us spread knowledge and good will to people everywhere.