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Guardian of China's Folk Art

Sixty-four-year-old Chen Jing is very concerned about the future of Chinese paper-cutting, a folk art genre once popular in millions of Chinese households.


"If people of my age put down the scissors and papers, this kind of folk art might really die away," Chen said.


Paper-cutting, a traditional folk art form, used to be a favorite pastime of Chinese people. Trimming with a pair of scissors and carving with a knife on the paper, artisans could create animated, vivid and fascinating images in diverse patterns, such as flowers, animals, or complicated Chinese characters, for weddings and major festive occasions.


The elaborate paper-cutting seemed not only appeal to Chinese. The art has spread overseas in the early half of the 20th century thanks to efforts made by Chinese craftsmen, including Chen.


Born in a handicraftsman family, Chen grew up in the rich Chinese folk culture. His grandmother was known for her novel paper-cutting skills, while his grandfather had the aptitude for making exquisite decorative lanterns.


"I still clearly remember all the stories depicted on the lanterns in my childhood. When the Lantern Festival came, kids took lanterns from their home, showing to each other and enjoying great fun," he said.


In Chen's eyes, people passed on the folk arts to generations to come in those days with really natural ways, as "it was an integral part of their everyday life."


However, wars and social upheavals, such as the 10-year-long "Cultural Revolution" (1966-1976), interrupted the development of Chinese paper-cutting and other folk arts. Paper cutting, along with other traditional arts, were labeled as "feudalistic evils" during the cultural revolution.


In 1981, Chen read a newspaper story in which it praised the paper-cutting as "a bond of the Chinese and Japanese peoples" and said that even Japan had more than ten associations on Chinese paper-cutting. Chen felt hurt for "China, the home of paper-cutting, did not even have a single group dedicated to the art then."


Knowing that the art could be put at the edge of extinction, Chen proposed to form China's first national paper-cutting research society in 1984 in an effort to help the centuries-old art to regain its glory.


He also collected paper-cutting designs, compiled them into books and trained young artists. With his persistent efforts, the society built up the national recognition soon.


Chen, later praised as guardian of paper-cutting art, is also remembered for his efforts to help old artisans. His aid supported several paper-cutting maestros in need.


Cheng Jianli used to be a famous paper-cutting craftsman from Fuyang in east China's Anhui Province. The time when Chen found him in Jinan, capital of neighboring Shandong Province, Cheng had become a beggar.


To Cheng's surprise, Chen invited him to join the paper-cutting society and consulted him about paper-cutting techniques with full respect. Chen's help made a turning-point in Cheng's life and enabled Cheng to devote to paper-cutting creation.


Jin Yazhen, the late Manchu paper-cutting artist, is one of the 16 Chinese artisans for whom China has applied for the Paper-Cutting Master title to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). She was also discovered by Chen. "My family will never forget Chen and Chen's help," said daughter of Jin.


In 1994, Chen obtained a post in the prestigious Nanjing University for teaching Chinese paper-cutting, clay sculpture, embroidery and other folk arts to foreign students.


To further spread the traditional arts to Chinese youngsters, he invited folk artisans to campus and launched China's first folk art course open to all the students.


"The protection of folk arts can not be done by a single person, even a whole generation. It is a mission to be carried on for generations to come," said Chen.


"I am nothing but only do what I can," he said, with a pair of scissors at his hands.


(Xinhua News Agency June 17, 2004)


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