jianzhi (Cut Paper Ornament)

About this object

History of use

Paper-cutting or jiǎnzhǐ (剪纸) is the popular art of creating freehand patterns from paper, using scissors, or punching out figures with the use of small knives or chisels. Traditionally used in rituals (invoking rain, warding off evil spirits, etc.) or as offerings to the deceased, paper-cuts are now mostly used as decorations, and during festivities. Archeological evidence suggests that the art of paper-cutting goes back to as early as the Northern Dynasties (386 to 581 C.E.). The oldest paper-cuts were extracted from a sixth century South-North dynasties tomb, in the city of Gaochang (高昌) in Xingjiang (新疆). During the Tang Dynasty (681-907), paper-cutting flourished with the increasing availability of high-quality paper. At first paper was an expensive material, and it is only when it became more affordable that it developed into one of the most popular arts in China. During the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1912), it became increasingly popular and rural women and male artisans started making them. After 1949, paper-cuts were mass-produced in large workshops and used for illustrations in newspapers etc. Paper-cuts are often called “window flowers” or chuāng huā (窗花) as they were shaped to fit the space of window panes and are still often used to decorate doors and windows. They are also sometimes pasted to columns or walls as building decorations, and may remain in place for almost a year, being renewed for the Lunar New Year or Spring Festival celebrations. Some paper-cuts, called “happy flowers,” are used as decorations on lanterns, candles, fans, screens, gift packages and offerings. For auspicious occasions, such as weddings or the New Year, the designs are often made from red-coloured paper, as red is associated with festivities and happiness. In the past, when associated with rituals, religion and funerals, white paper was used, as the colour white was associated with mourning, as well as immortality. Paper-cuts also serve as patterns or huā yàng (花样) and are sometimes a source of inspiration for artists in other fields, including painting, pottery, metalwork, lacquer work or embroidery.

Narrative

The donor collected these Chinese paper-cuts, or cut paper ornaments, in the Chinatown regions of Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa, in the 1960s and 1970s. During this period she became interested in exploring her Chinese heritage. She also studied theatre, so many of the pieces in the collection depict characters from Chinese theatre.

Cultural context

Paper-cutting has often been considered a female craft, and rural folk art, but it has also been used as a propaganda tool, and is increasingly seen as a key part of social life as well as a Chinese cultural symbol. For over a thousand years, rural women have been creating paper-cuts as part of their leisure activity. Some rural families did paper-cutting as a subsidiary activity, selling their paper-cuts in the markets during New Year festivities. Styles and designs of paper-cutting vary regionally, but the southern and northern styles are the most well recognized. The southern style is characterized by delicate and intricate designs, while the northern style, such as Guangling paper-cuts (广灵剪纸) from Shaanxi (陕西) and Yuxian (蔚县剪纸), feature bold and vivid designs. Opera figures, legendary stories, harvesting, and animals have been popular themes. Until recently, the makers of paper-cuts were anonymous. Most designs were imitated, shared and passed down from one generation to the next, for centuries, eventually spreading to whole regions. In 2009, Chinese paper-cutting was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

Iconographic meaning

The imagery of paper-cut ornaments often includes auspicious motifs with symbolic meanings, such as the peach and pine tree representing long life, the pomegranate for many children, the melon for a rich harvest, or a pair of mandarin ducks for conjugal happiness. Other designs may have phonetic allusions, for example, a fish can symbolize “excess wealth” because in Chinese the pronunciation for fish (鱼) and excess (余) is the same (yú). Sometimes written characters, rendered in broad strokes, are incorporated into a paper-cut design, such as fú (福) or “good luck”, especially during the Lunar New Year, (囍) or “double-happiness” or xi, often seen at the windows or doorway of newlyweds, and shòu (壽) or “longevity.” Red paper is commonly used, but painted cut-outs, or layered cut-outs of water-coloured paper, are also produced in some areas.

Specific techniques

There are two main methods of creating paper-cuts: one uses scissors, the other knives. For more complicated patterns, some parts are cut with scissors, while others are carved with different sized knives, gouges, and punches. Sometimes needles are also used to produce even finer details. In the scissor method, several pieces of paper – up to eight – are fastened together. The motif is then cut with sharp, pointed scissors. The pattern may be drawn on the paper or not, depending on the maker's expertise. When cutting symmetrical work, the paper is folded many times. Knife cuttings are created by putting several layers of paper on a relatively soft foundation, generally consisting of a mixture of tallow and ashes. This is the technique preferred by professional craftspeople. Following a pattern, the craftsperson cuts the motif into the paper with a sharp knife, which is usually held vertically. Skilled craftspeople can cut out different drawings freely without stopping.

Physical description

Blue and white coloured paper-cut of a samurai figure.