Zen and the art of Chinese paper cutting

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The Chinese art of paper cutting has been around for thousands of years and includes some very complex designs. Photo credit: Screen-grab

While paper-related traditional craftsmanship is mostly associated with the Japanese art of Origami (folding paper to create simple and complex shapes), in the rural villages of the province of Jinhua, south east China, a long-lasting tradition of artistically cutting paper still persists.

UNESCO defines traditional craftsmanship as ‘the most tangilble manifestation of intangible heritage’ — the value, therefore, lays not only in the object produced, but also (and especially) in the manual process behind its realization.

Paper cutting represents an important craftsmanship in rural China, a tradition which is very much alive –scissors and other cutting tools are used to create intricated shapes, mostly symbols of the culture and beliefs.

I had the honor to attend a paper cutting class during a field trip to the rural village of Yuyuan (you can read about the village here) — the Ancestral Hall, most ancient and important building of the village, became the theatre of sharing traditional knowledge with new generations from all over the world. The craftsmanship master was the 75-year-old Chen Yuejin.

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Paper cutting class with Master Chen Yuejin (far left). Photo credit: Jinhua Homestay

Chen started to artistically cut paper under the supervision of her mother when she was only a child. She started because she felt relaxed and loved the final result, ands patiently improved her skills with more and more elaborate designs. She started to perform paper cutting full-time only after her retirement, and teaches in a professional school in Jinhua now.

It takes a lot of time and patience to achieve a satisfactory result, special attention needs to be paid while folding the paper, otherwise the cutting is even and one has to start again,” she says as she folds a red napkin with the precision of a surgeon. Chen says that the secret to achieve good results is to be calm and not focus too much on the final outcome.

Image 2: Fu symbol and magpie artwork, wish of good luck and prosperity. Photo by Cultural China
Fu symbol and magpie artwork, wish of good luck and prosperity. Photo credit: Cultural China

The art of paper cutting has a decorative function, although the end result often have a symbolic significance. Dragon, the ‘Fu’ (fortune and good character) character, magpies, gods and goddess: they can also mean prosperity. Often, works of art are required to embellish rooms for celebrations, such as birthdays and weddings.

The artworks can be very complex, and one can’t help but be surprised by the level of precision of some of the characters.  Once the craftsman becomes more confident, he/she can start working on more elaborate patterns. The options are enormous, and everything it takes is a pair of scissors, paper and a great amount of patience.

Image 3: Complex paper cutting artworks, photo by Matteo Forni
Complex paper cutting artworks. Photo credit: Matteo Forni

Nevertheless, those who wish to engage in this activity should not be scared by its complexity — there are several options — from the beginner to the master level. Take heart, Chen started practicing on her own, and has only taken a grand total of three lessons in her whole lifetime!

  • Master in World Heritage Studies, I try to make a profession out of my two greatest passions: travelling and writing. Nothing makes me happier than experiencing cultural diversity, visiting beautiful places and knowing different realities.

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