One of China’s most popular folkarts is papercutting. Archaeological finds trace the tradition back to the 6th century; it is supposed that the beginnings of papercutting were even a few centuries earlier. Papercuttings are used for religious purposes, for decoration and as patterns.
As is still partly the case outside of China, various paper objects and figures used to be buried with the dead or were burned at the funeral ceremony. Papercuttings, which were usually of symbolic character, were part of this ritual. They also often served as decorations for sacrificial offerings to the ancestors and gods.
Today, papercuttings are chiefly used as decoration. They ornament walls, windows, doors, columns, mirrors, lamps and lanterns in homes and are also used for decoration on presents or are given as presents themselves.
They have special significance at festivals and on holidays. At the New Year’s Festival for example, entrances are decorated with papercuttings which are supposed to bring good luck.
Papercuttings used to be used as patterns, especially for embroidery and lacquer work.
Papercuttings are not produced by machine, but by hand. There are two methods of manufacture: scissor cuttings and knife cuttings. As the name indicates, scissor cuttings are fashioned with scissors. Several pieces of paper–up to eight pieces–are fastened together. The motif is then cut with sharp, pointed scissors.
Knife cuttings are fashioned by putting several layers of paper on a relatively soft foundation consisting of a mixture of tallow and ashes. Following a pattern, the artist cuts the motif into the paper with a sharp knife which he usually holds vertically. The advantage of knife cuttings is that considerably more papercuttings can be made in one operation than with scissor cuttings.
In the countryside, papercuttings are usually made only by women and girls. This used to be one of the crafts that every girl was to master and that were often used to judge brides. Professional papercutting artists are, on the other hand, almost always men who have guaranteed incomes and work together in workshops.