Wearing a red sweater and no make-up, Zhu Manhua, 60, is like any elderly village woman of Yantai, a coastal city in East China's Shandong Province.
But it is the magic that happens when she works with her scissors that sets her apart. Her tools are simple: a pair of scissors, a piece of red paper and a small wicker basket to collect paper scraps and shreds.
Over half a century, Zhu has created some 100,000 paper-cut works that have been displayed and collected in museums and expos around the world.
When still a toddler, Zhu was fascinated to watch the deft hands of her maternal grandmother and mother at work.
She began to learn the art of paper-cutting from them when she was just 6.
At first, she made single items animals such as kittens, puppies and fish, plants such as the morning glory and auspicious Chinese characters such as the double-happiness one.
Then she ventured to create a whole scene featuring small animals amid flowers and grass.
One of her earliest works that she cherishes is magpies chatting on the plum.
She copied it from her mother, and the work portrayed two small magpies on a branch of plum flowers.
However, she never imagined that one day her whole life would be defined by her paper-cuts. Today, "I cannot live without it," she said.
Zhu is up at five every morning and that is when she picks up her scissors. It is already late at night when she finally calls it a day.
She said that a single extensive and complex work could well take months. "Sometimes I have the inspiration at midnight, and I immediately get up to work on the idea," she said. "I could be up several times in one night."
"If I don't shear right away, I am afraid that I will forget," she explained.
Once, she was cooking a pot of rice porridge while working on a paper-cut. She was so reluctant to let go of the piece that scraps of red paper fell into the pot, turning the porridge red.
Zhu said she would always be too excited to sleep when showcasing her deft hands and works at exhibitions at home or abroad.
Overworking took its toll recently when she fell ill and had to be hospitalized. But she still had her husband bring the scissors and paper to the hospital bed.
Working with her scissors helped take her mind off her illness, she said. "Everything seems meaningless without being able to do the paper-cutting."
A paper-cut by Zhu Manhua in the shape of the Chinese character of "longevity" (shou) features complicated patterns.
Paper-cuts are used mainly as decorations or as gifts during the Lunar New Year, weddings or children's birthdays.
While following traditions, Zhu has developed her own artistic style. Simplicity and vividness are essential to her distinctive style, she said.
"Animals or birds or even flowers and grass must come alive."
She often goes to the zoo to observe the animals. She has bought paintings, toys and even kept birds at home, to study them carefully.
One of her signature works is 100 Tigers, with each of the 100 tigers in different postures and wearing different expressions. She has also created 100 Cats, in the same vein.
It took her five months to complete 87 Immortals, a work inspired by a classical painting by Wu Daozi of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907).
She said she changed the draft several times before she was able to portray 87 different personalities on a paper cut. This work is now kept at the Xu Beihong Museum in Beijing.
She has also created paper-cuts of leading historical figures such as late Chairman Mao Zedong.
Today, her works often stretch to more than two meters.
Zhu rose to fame as a folk artist in 1986, when she attended a national paper-cut contest and won the first prize.
Since then, she has been showered with laurels. Visitors to her home will be drawn to a pile of certificates of honor, which number more than 100.
In 2001, her work The Lotus Flower in a Fish Tank won the first prize for international exchange at a calligraphy and painting exhibition held in Seoul, South Korea.
She held her personal paper-cut exhibitions in Australia in 2003, and in Hawaii, the United States, in 2004.
There are many of her paper-cuts on display at the Yantaishan Park. They include Gold and Jade Hall, Good Luck and Longevity, 18 Arhats, Eight Immortals, Grand View Palace from A Dream of the Red Mansions, and Five Children of Blessing.
Zhu was fortunate to have met and married a man who shared her passion for paper-cuts when she was in her 20s. "When we were young, there was not as much entertainment as young people enjoy now," she recalled. "We learned from each other to create paper-cuts."
Zhu Manhua, 60, displays her tiger paper-cut in her home in Yantai, East China's Shandong Province.
The couple have two sons and a daughter, who have also picked up this art. They themselves have become masters, with their works winning prizes in competitions.
When their son started dating, Zhu insisted that her future daughter- in-law should also like paper-cuts, her husband, Hu Changyun, said. Otherwise, she would not give her consent.
It took their eldest son several years to satisfy his mother's demand. He got married when he was already 31 years of age.
Although all her children and a grandson can come up with paper-cuts, Zhu said she liked the works of her niece Wen Lei the most.
"She has inherited my trait, the young girl has a pair of the most nimble hands," she said. "She recently won a prize in the school's art contest."
Over the years, Zhu has traveled extensively in more than 10 countries.
She has taught and trained many students, and quite a few have launched their own careers overseas.
Zhu herself has declined invitations to settle abroad.
"I was born and have grown up here (in Shandong) and here is where I am rooted, and where my paper-cut art is rooted," she said.
(China Daily March 15, 2006)