A lifetime of devotion to the art of paper cutting

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Wielding a pair of scissors, Song Baoshu is like a magician, swiftly snipping a piece of paper into a work of art.

Song, 62, is a craftsman in north China's Hebei Province specializing in the Chinese folk art of paper cutting, or "jianzhi." Boasting a history of over 1,000 years, paper cutting was traditionally a craft mastered by women and used in ritual and home decoration.

The art form has gained attention in past decades and was included on the UNESCO world intangible cultural heritage list in 2009.

Song was born in a small village and his relationship with paper cutting began more than five decades ago at the age of eight, when he learned the craft from his grandmother.

"At that time, villagers living nearby would ask my grandmother to make paper cuttings for them when the Spring Festival approached," he said.

His grandmother would make paper cuttings featuring traditional auspicious motifs and patterns as well as Chinese characters symbolizing the zodiac animals. Villagers would stick them on their windows or walls to invite happiness and fortune.

"Seeing the villagers' faces light up when they got those paper cuttings, I decided to become a craftsman and bring joy to people with my work," Song recalled.

Decades of devotion and practice have led to Song's distinctive style. By combining his masterly techniques and unique ideas, Song has breathed new life into the ancient craft.

"Ideas are the most important," he said. Once he spent a month creating a portrait of Chairman Mao, and he used most of the time just thinking about how to do it.

In May, he gave one of his pieces to Masoud Soltanifar, the head of the Iran Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization. It was cut to display both Chinese and Persian calligraphy.

Despite the fact that paper cutting remains popular in contemporary China, the craftsman admitted that there are challenges in promoting the art.

"There are fewer young people who are really interested in paper cutting," he said. Once he tried to offer training courses at local primary schools, but the schools did not show much interest, he said.

"Actually, learning paper cutting can help make kids more patient, and help train their hands-on skills, sharpen their memory and fire their imagination," Song said, adding he won't give up his efforts to introduce the art to the young.

His two sons have learned paper cutting and he is also teaching his grandchildren the craft.

Modern machines are also a challenge to his art.

"Many buyers choose laser-cut products over hand-made works," Song said. As modern paper cutting has developed into a commercial industry, mass-produced copies are much cheaper and more accessible than man-made paper cuttings.

"But they are in no way works of art," Song said. "Traditional paper cutting will not be replaced by machines."

He believes that innovation is key to keeping the traditional art alive. Aside from innovation in subjects and themes, he is exploring new techniques, such as multi-layer paper cutting and adding more colors to the traditional red.

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