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The Cutting Edge, in Paper

Every year not long before Spring Festival, newspaper offices in China always receive contributions of various styles of papercuts from folk artists around the country.

The central animal figure changes every year in accordance with the cycle of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac, but all the other motifs, such as Chinese characters, flowers, fish or chickens, are meant to bring joy and good fortune to the observer.


Just as Christmas trees or wreaths of pine branches are essential to Christmas in the West, papercuts are an indispensable element of the Spring Festival here in China. You will see them adorning lanterns, mirrors, walls, in fact, on just about anything, as the New Year on the Chinese lunar calendar approaches. Papercuts are also called "window flowers" as they are traditionally used in window decoration.


The public have heard many stories about papercut folk artists in the past few days and even have had chances to meet them in shopping centers and at temple fairs over the holiday.


Lin Rongwen, 57, a folk artist with a hearing impairment, in the city of Wenling of East China's Zhejiang Province, hit media headlines two weeks ago as he demonstrated how he was going to use a simple pair of scissors to cut out a string of more than 100 monkeys in different postures.


Mr Lin is not the only person to use this unique way of greeting the Year of the Monkey.


Luan Yueying, 77, who lives in Jinan, in East China's Shandong Province, has been invited to show her dexterity and mastery of making traditional Chinese New Year papercuts, featuring the naughty monkey in all kinds of different sizes and movements.


The news is also out that folk artists who gathered together at the Yangzhou Arts and Crafts Factory have recreated a set of 100 monkey papercuts designed by the late, local papercut master Cai Qianyin.


From the deft hands of the artists, we see monkey instrumentalists and acrobats, monkeys engaged in mischievous pranks, as well as many other monkey-inspired creations.


In Shenzhen, in South China's Guangdong Province, Xu Ying, who traveled thousands of kilometers south from her home village of Xujiagou, in Northwest China's Shaanxi Province, has thrilled many visitors to the Shenzhen Municipal Museum.


As the museum's guest folk artist, Xu has scissored out singing, golden cocks and lively representations of the Monkey King.


Markets across the country, from those in big urban centers to tiny villages, are awash with different kinds of papercuts.


And these days, folk artists working at the local papercut center in Guangling County, in North China's Shanxi Province, "have to finish thousands of papercuts every day," said Gao Qinghong, a sales director with the center, which is dedicated to promoting the traditional art form at home and in overseas markets.


A suburban county in the city of Datong, a major coal production base, Guangling sells one million papercuts a year, half of which go to overseas markets in Europe, the United States and Southeast Asia, according to Gao.


With nothing but a simple pair of scissors and some paper, local paper-cutters do a booming business creating vivid images for the holiday season, and this year the monkey is the star.


In fact, the center has set up a branch office in downtown Shanghai, where it is selling 1,000 papercuts a day, at prices from 3 yuan (36 US Cents) to 1,000 yuan (US$120).


In the hands of local artists, a piece of paper can be turned into a wide variety of images -- landscapes, flowers, birds, animals and human figures.


Historians still maintain that no hard evidence has ever surfaced to prove when papercutting began in China. But many believed that papercutting must have started soon after paper was invented, in the Han Dynasty (207 BC-220 AD).


Local artists in Shanxi claim that their art tradition has a history of at least 600 years.


Like the folk artists in Guangling, Wang Wenlin and his family in Yuxian County, in North China's Hebei Province, are also doing well in the papercutting business.


Different from the various styles of single-color papercuts prevalent everywhere else in China, the ones in Yuxian feature different colors.


"We cut, engrave or etch instead of just using scissors," Wang Wenlin said in a telephone interview with China Daily.


Wang's family business was created and is headed by Wang Feng, Wang's father and a noted local folk artist in the county. The family now has a workshop in the county town employing 50 artists and helpers. Wang Wenlin said his father learned papercutting when he was a young teacher fresh out of high school.


Papercutting in Yuxian began in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). In the 1950s, the area was already famous for its unique coloring and cutting techniques.


Wang Wenlin said his mother, Zhang Quanying, plays a vital role in the family's papercutting business, as she supervises the coloring stage of production.


"With an absolutely sure hand, she adds colors here and there, and the figures and flowers suddenly come alive," Wang notes with pride on the family website: http://yanlinwang.51.net.


Saving the tradition


As booming as the papercut business is nowadays, Wang Wenlin said some people have also been telling him "window flowers" may eventually disappear.


Although his parents are making new works with complicated modern design and coloring, some visitors, especially those from abroad, marvel more at the simple red cuts used for window decoration, which many Chinese see as too ordinary.


"I eventually realized that, in their pursuit of improvement and perfection, the highly skilled folk artists have to some extent ignored the traditional simple folk designs," said Wang Wenlin, who learned papercutting from his father but now mainly handles the sales end of the family business.


Tian Yongxiang, a folk art researcher in Yuxian County, pointed out that although papercuts from Yuxian sell very well, some of the older papercutting traditions are being ignored.


Those traditional elements are the "roots" of the Yuxian papercuts, and it is these "roots" that give Yuxian County papercuts their distinction, Tian said.


Thus, Tian feels, it is urgent that these "roots" be preserved.


Fan Zuoxin, a villager and renowned papercut folk artist in Gaomi County, in Henan Province, is also worried about the "roots" of the tradition.


He told Sanlian Life Weekly magazine recently that Gaomi papercuts no longer express the traditional roots of the area's papercutting.


"They are being influenced by those in academic circles," he was quoted as saying.


Gaomi papercuts are characterized by their detailed fine cuts and often bold and vivid figures.


However, Fan, now in his 60s, says that only six of his Gaomi employees know how to make local-styled papercuts.


Even elderly women, who long ago learned the art from their mothers, no longer practice it.


"You seldom see the old decorative works in windows of the farmers' new homes, because all the houses now have glass windows," Fan said.


(China Daily January 19, 2004)

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