Cut above the rest

Updated: 2012-03-16 07:31

By Ji Xiang (China Daily)

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Traditional Chinese art form takes on new look

When Dianna Agron walked the red carpet at the 69th Golden Globe Awards this year, the popular American actress wore a hot sleeveless number that had audiences gasping. But few probably realized that her red dress by the global fashion brand Giles was inspired by a traditional Chinese art form, papercutting.

Agron's dress was one of the latest examples of the "Chinese wind", a term used to describe the waves of Chinese style inspiring the global art and fashion worlds.

The latest releases by the New York fashion label Threeasfour also employed the exquisiteness of Chinese papercutting to spice up its autumn and winter lines.

Cut above the rest 
Dianna Agron's red dress by Giles was inspired by traditional Chinese papercutting. Provided to China Daily

But the Chinese art of cutting red paper designs goes beyond its traditional decorative purposes or modern fashion takes.

Papercutting was originally a representation of agricultural civilization in ancient China and has survived into modern times as a unique art form among the various types of papercutting worldwide - the Chinese papercutting is the only one listed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List because of its 1,500-year history and reflection of Chinese cultural values.

"We try to keep as many traditional aspects of papercutting as we can, and the skills used today have not changed that much, but now we include modern elements into our designs," says Zhou Shuying, a papercutting artist who was tutored by her father Zhou Yongming, the only direct descendent of papercutting master Wang Laoshang.

Chinese papercutting started as a folk art and way to express people's wishes and their daily lives, with folklore being a major source of inspiration for its designs.

"Chinese papercutting came as a totem for women in agricultural society," says Bai Xiu'e, a folk artist from northwest Shaanxi province, whose "snake" papercutting design was used in a Year of the Snake zodiac postage stamp. "Many of them were not literate and they used papercutting as their language and way of expression. Each piece of work is a story told from the heart of those women.

"According to tradition, men worked the fields and women did the needlework. Papercutting skills were seen as a matrimonial advantage for girls waiting to be married."

Examples of Chinese papercutting are often seen on two occasions: at seasonal and folk festivals; and at ceremonies held for special purposes, such as weddings or funerals. They usually depict scenes from everyday life, such as plants, animals and people.

"The content of Chinese papercutting is important and the culture it reflects counts even more. A flower is not just a flower; it may mean different concepts within changing backgrounds," Bai says. "It is sad that these ideas are disappearing. There is papercutting in other countries too, but what are the differences? We have been unique and we must continue to stand out in the future."

Papercutting in China is also a regional art. Various forms are used in different regions. Some pay more attention to the visual aspects, while others prefer to emphasize the importance of cutting techniques.

Zhou Shuying is a traditional artist from Yuxian county, Hebei province. The papercutting of Yuxian county is considered unique in China because of its complex lines and colors.

"Once when I was in college, my American friend Mary said to me that my works were sold everywhere in Beijing and they were simply red in color. But after I took her to my hometown, she realized that variety was a part of Chinese papercutting," Zhou says.

Many people regard papercutting as a way of making a living, but more significantly, some believe that the commercial value of papercutting can save some rare types of the art form from extinction.

"I personally devote myself to the art and seldom distract myself with the potential profit I can make with my expertise," says Zhou, whose family has set up a papercutting museum to keep it alive.

"But I am someone who values tradition very much and I pay more attention to creating art instead of thinking about how much money I can make out of it."

Many Chinese papercutters have continued to embrace the changes and innovation along with China's development. During the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and the 2010 Shanghai Expo, some traditional papercutting artists sought out ways to develop new methods to make their works more relevant to these major international events. Some used modern painting methods in their designs and even included the Olympic venues. Chinese papercutting also served as one of the Olympic franchise products.

"The platform for showcasing Chinese papercutting is huge," Zhou says. "In 1995, I used Chinese papercutting to design the emblem for the United Nations' World Conference on Women, and the response was marvelous; but nowadays, there are people trying to emphasize the more visible signs of papercutting by depicting celebrities' images. I think there is too much attention on the descriptive but not the artistic function of papercutting."

Chinese papercutters hold classes to continue the tradition and promote it as a viable industry. Foreign faces are a familiar experience for the teachers.

"They don't always get the right meaning of each papercutting. Take the 'double happiness' motif used for weddings," Bai says. "We Chinese regard it as an enhancement of one's feeling of happiness, but foreigners think this 'double' means 'second marriage' and it suggests divorce. Cultural disputes exist at times between teachers and students."

"Through the lessons for foreigners, I want to bring a message to the world - that Chinese papercutting is not merely a handicraft anyone can easily learn when given a pair of scissors and a piece of paper. It is the combination of skills, ideas and tradition, which carries with it generations of Chinese people's intelligence," Zhou says.

Conveying the message internationally is not always easy. Guo Jialin has been dealing with Zhou Shuying's public relations and communication to foreigners for years, and has traveled overseas many times to promote the art. Guo says he constantly faces obstacles in communicating the beauty of the art form effectively with foreigners. His plan is to set up relations with more international public relations agents and spread the papercutting word further.

"We sometimes adapt our products to local tastes when we travel worldwide," Guo says.

"For example, we avoid using colors that might offend people with certain religions, or develop new designs using exotic features; we provide delicate pieces of Chinese papercutting as souvenirs for our guests at exhibitions in foreign countries, which they like very much.

"Through actions like this, I am confident about the popularity of our art."

Cut above the rest