Cultural Treasures of China – Papercutting

Papercutting is one of China’s most famous folk arts. Probably originating sometime in the 2nd century, its possible that the techniques had already formed through cutting other materials, such as leather, even before the invention of paper by Cao Lun in 104CE. Due to paper’s perishable nature, few papercuts are preserved in the archaeological record.

The oldest are five papercuts dated to the Southern and Northern dynasties (420 to 589) found in Xinjiang, where the dry climate helped preserve the delicate paper.

Papercutting is done using folded paper and scissors or a sharp knife. As papercutter Duan Yun Xia explains, this requires some courage, especially if the design hasn’t been pre-drawn on the paper: “When cutting, the paper may not be big enough or you may make the wrong cuts.  But once you start, you can’t stop cutting, nor can you open the folded paper to check if your cuts are correct.”

The most common motifs are auspicious characters (for example, double xi 喜 for wedding blessings or fu 福 for good luck at Chinese New Year), zodiac animals, birds and flowers. Almost all motifs have another meaning behind them, for example, the combination of magpies and plum blossom signifies ‘joy filling you up to your eyebrows’ (喜上眉梢). As Ms. Duan mentions however, ultimately “the papercutter can create something from their own imagination”.

Long rectangular Tianjin papercuts are a well-known variation on the usual circular or irregularly-shaped papercuts, and usually include an auspicious phrase as well as a combination of lucky motifs.  Like most papercuts, they are designed to be hung on doors or windows, usually in pairs, since a pair of anything is considered lucky. While papercuts are usually hung around the house at Chinese New Year and to welcome a bride and groom to their new home, they make beautiful year-round decorations if framed.

If you’re interested in buying papercuts, you can buy them in any touristy area of Beijing (Houhai, Nanluoguxiang etc), but they will likely be machine-cut.  For papercuts that are handmade by local craftspeople, come to the CK Culture Boutique at any time of year to see our selection. Real enthusiasts will love the paper decoration market held in the month leading up to Chinese New Year on Tianjin’s Ancient Culture Street, where you can buy every kind of design imaginable, both handmade and machine-cut.

If you’d like to learn how to cut some simple designs for yourself, why not join us on August 26th for our Culture Taster? Learn not only papercutting, but try your hand at dumpling making and painting too!

Alternatively, if you would like to book a private class for your friends or colleagues, feel free to contact us and let us know how we can help! In either case, we look forward to seeing you here soon!

The Cultural Treasures of China blog is dedicated to introducing the cultural heritage of China. Be sure to check back often for our latest posts and learn about all the most interesting and exciting aspects of Chinese culture! If you would like us to write about a particular topic you’re interested in, or had any questions about the article, please feel to contact us at [email protected] We’d love to hear from you!