"I still remember how as a child I watched my mother making paper cuts and sewing under the light of an oil lamp beside my bed. She looked mysterious when she held a paper-cut in front of her face to amuse me," said Liu Jieqiong, a rural woman from northwest China's Shaanxi Province.
"It wasn't until I became a wife and mother and led a life like my mother's that I began to understand her. She was a strong woman," she added.
The Chinese folk art of paper cutting, which uses scissors and knives to cut out patterns on paper, has been a major source of decoration in Chinese peasants homes for more than a thousand years, and has become an important form of artistic expression for farmers, especially the women.
The art and life of 22 Chinese papercut artists, all of whom are farmers, are the focus of an exhibition titled "Getting Close to the Origin of Chinese Papercutting," in the northwestern wing of the National Art Museum of China, which ends tomorrow.
Hosted by the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Beijing office, the event and an accompanying symposium are major elements in the Chinese application to get traditional Chinese paper cutting included on UNESCO's Intangible World Heritage list.
The enthusiasm and high hopes for the future of the folk art of paper cutting have been in the ascendant since the early 1980s when some senior Chinese artists returned to the art after the "cultural revolution" (1966-76). On their sketch tours in the countryside, they discovered that farmers were still creating magnificent and imaginative paper cuts.
A move then swept the country to "seek the roots" of the tradition which had suffered badly during the 10 years of turmoil.
"Paper cuts survived the tide of negative criticism because of the information conveyed by the traditional patterns, which have been handed down for hundreds of years, and because of their prominence in Chinese rural life; and also because of the emotions and hopes expressed through them by the talented farmers who make them," said Wen Weiqun, a researcher on paper cutting.
One can feel the pulse of life when looking at the brightly colored paper cuts with their mostly happy stories and reading the short biographies of the artists at the exhibition.
All 22 artists whose works are on show are more than 60 years old, about half of them even over 80, while a few have already passed away. Only three are men.
The artists come from north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, northeast China's Jilin Province, northwest China's Shaanxi Province, southwest China's Guizhou Province and east China's Zhejiang and Fujian provinces.
Ku Shulan, 85, is one of them. Even though her feet are small, a result of the cruel custom of binding women's feet in childhood, the joke-loving woman is often seen in her home village on the Loess Plateau in Shaanxi hurrying home with a large roll of paper.
She usually uses a large pair of scissors and never hesitates when she is working on a new paper cut. If she gets part of a pattern wrong, she simply cuts it off and uses it somewhere else and the finished products look flawlessly conceived.
Her passion for paper cutting leaves her with little time for her children and neighbors, and she is often scolded by her husband when she forgets to make his meals.
In 1996 she fell down and was knocked unconscious. The family had prepared her coffin. When she came to, however, she asked for her scissors.
Her cave dwelling is decorated with bright red, pink, yellow and green paper-cuts.
The figures in her works all have big eyes, long, curving eyebrows and mouths in the shape of a crescent moon.
Cao Xiuying, 72, who also comes from a rural village in Shaanxi, tells her life story through her paper-cuts.
With scissors she describes how her father left home and her mother was re-married to a man in a distant village, how she was sent to live with her aunt at age 10, how she ran for her life from the invading Japanese during the War of Resistance Against Japan (1937-45), how she was sold to a middle-aged man to be his wife at the age of 13, and how she learned paper cutting from the man's mother.
She also cuts out images of those who have been good to her, like an old granny who gave her food during the war, and a dog that kept her company.
Liu Jieqiong has another way of looking at it: "It's a rural woman's instinct to use scissors. My mother never willingly accepted her poverty-stricken life. We make our own happiness as we beautify life with our scissors." she said.
It is a tradition in Liu's family to memorialize important family events with scissors. In 1986, Liu's mother created a paper-cut titled "Woman Riding a Tiger," which is displayed at the exhibition, to mark the passing of her second eldest daughter.
The mother hopes that the tiger will protect her daughter in her afterlife.
When Liu first learned paper cutting, her mother told her "to cut according to her heart," instead of teaching her traditional patterns.
"It's paper, not flesh. It won't ache or cry when you cut it," said the mother.
"Girls naturally get clever at paper cutting when they grow up, just as naturally as dogs learn to bark," she often says, quoting an old local expression.
Among the exhibited works, those by members of ethnic minority groups including the Hezhes from northeast China's Heilongjiang Province and the Miaos from southwest China's Guizhou Province, stand out quite strikingly.
In addition to reflecting themes from daily life, a number of their paper cuts record ethnic legends.
The Hezhe women's "paper" is actually dried fish skin dyed black, blue and purple.
Animals and birds worshipped in Shamanism are common subjects in the "paper" cuts of devout Hezhes.
The deer depicted often have spiral horns and exaggerated large tails like those of horses.
The hawks always have fish in their beaks, one of their wings attached to their breast instead of the back, small spiral tails and often two heads.
Swans, owls, wild ducks, dragons, frogs, snakes, tigers, bears, wolves, dogs, foxes, squirrels, butterflies and spiders often appear under Hezhe women's scissors.
(China Daily April 12, 2004)