Korean Air: A Thousand Tiny Paper Cuts / by Thomas O'Malley

I wrote the cover story for the May 2017 edition of Morning Calm, the inflight mag of Korean Air. 

Korean Air feature

The art of jianzhi, or paper-cutting, has been a fixture of Chinese life for centuries. Regionally diverse in style, form and function, it can be both popular folk craft and high culture.

Two millennia ago, China was ruled by the Han Dynasty, a golden age in the epic history of the Middle Kingdom. While the Roman Empire was busy conquering the tribes of Europe, thousands of miles away, a Chinese court eunuch named Cai Lun, serving under Emperor He, was writing official inscriptions on bamboo tablets and pieces of silk. These materials were costly, weighty, and inconvenient, however, so Cai, an enterprising man, experimented with making a writing material by suspending tree bark, bits of hemp, and other odds and ends in water, which he then dried into thin sheets. Though his exact formula has been lost to history, he had invented paper. It would be a thousand years, over which time the Roman Empire would vanish and others would rise to take its place, before the secret of paper finally found its way to Europe.

This historical context is key, because we can assume that the art of paper-cutting followed not long after the invention of paper. Very few ancient pieces of paper-cutting survive. The earliest known example is believed to come from the Six Dynasties period (222-589 AD), found buried in the bone dry sands of what is today Xinjiang Province in China’s far west, along the ancient Silk Road.

What’s wonderful about this find is its simplicity – a folded, symmetrical paper floral motif of much the same type that adorns windows and doors in China today. Thanks to this discovery, we know for certain that the art of jianzhi has a history spanning at least 1,500 years.

“Paper-cutting in China is for everyone, it represents their needs and aspirations, or simply just comforts the soul.” The words of Zhang Fanglin, a fourth generation paper-cut artist from Nanjing, a city on the south bank of the mighty Yangtze River.

Zhang explains how for centuries paper-cut art permeated every aspect of Chinese peasant life – weddings, childbirth, harvest, birthdays, Chinese New Year. As an art form it is transitory by design, often displayed in the open air and lasting only until the spring rains. At funerals it is burned or buried with the dead. Almost exclusively red, these folk images, such as a carp leaping over a dragon gate or goldfish among lotus flowers, symbolized good fortune and happiness, and were affixed to windows (also made of paper) and entranceways. Most common of all were - and still are - the Chinese characters fu (lucky) and xi (double happiness). Shou, meaning longevity, is used for birthdays of senior citizens.

“In the northern regions, paper-cutting was a folk art, created during the slack farming season, with bold, simple motifs of peasant themes, made mostly by women and passed down on the female side,” says Zhang. “But in the south, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the art-form evolved to new heights of refinement.”  Of which Master Zhang is a progeny.

Encircled by the remains of one of the largest city walls in the world, Nanjing was the birthplace of the Ming Dynasty. Within its stone battlements, Chinese arts attained new aesthetic heights before the capital decamped north to Beijing. One of these was silk brocade weaving, where garments were embroidered with intricately complex patterns rich with imperial symbolism, crafted exclusively for the Chinese imperial family.

Closely related to silk brocade was paper-cutting, another art-form that peaked in the Yangtze River region during the reign of the Ming. The intricate techniques of paper-cutting were also used for embroidery pattern design, and it became known as the Jiangnan School (meaning 'south of the Yangtze') with Nanjing and nearby Yangzhou at its heart.

Today, Zhang’s studio is based in a white-walled, 300-year-old mansion complex in the heart of the city. The former residence of a noble Qing Dynasty family, it’s one of the few complexes of its kind, whimsically known as “99 and a half rooms” for its scale and majesty, to have survived the 20th century modernization of the city. Appropriate, then, that it preserves the ancient art of paper-cutting within what is now the Nanjing Folk Museum.

“Here in the south,” explains Zhang, “paper-cutting was based on a rich embroidery style, with smooth, exquisite line work. It was the preserve of male artisans, who would master the form over the course of their lives.”

Zhang shows us his art pieces, impossibly delicate with filigree line work revealing leaves, flowers and auspicious symbols. Many are perfectly symmetrical, showing repeating images like fish following face to fin, or exquisitely rendered zodiac animals encircled by rural motifs.

Zhang is the fourth generation of paper-cutters in his family, a line that stretches back more than a hundred years. “My works represent the culmination of decades of effort,” says Zhang, who believes that each generation builds on what has come before, evolving and moving the art-form forwards a little each time.

But Zhang’s own artistic journey was nearly derailed by the political upheavals of China in the latter half of the 20th century. He first started to dabble with paper-cutting at age seven under the stewardship of his father, and at 14 he entered the Nanjing Folk Art Factory to study paper-cutting formally. The year was 1963. Zhang graduated three years later, the same year that marked the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.

Part of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution was a campaign aimed to destroy the “Four Olds”: old customs, culture, habits and ideas. Deemed a traditional, bourgeois pursuit, paper-cutting was banned. The Nanjing Art Institute, where Zhang hoped to complete his studies, was closed. His dream looked hopeless.

“Where could I go to learn? I had few options. It took great effort, but I managed to get hold of a few pamphlets from the former Soviet Union about sketching and oil painting, and these became my teachers. I copied them over and over, but failed to grasp the essence of them. I was going nowhere.”

In 1970, the Worker’s Cultural Palace in Nanjing started to offer amateur art classes, and Zhang enrolled. Freezing in winter and stifling hot in summer, nevertheless Zhang attended classes every single day after his work finished. But by the the time the Cultural Revolution came to an end in the mid 1970s, Zhang found he was too old to take the entrance exam for the Nanjing Art Institute. “I was heartbroken, but I realized there is more than one road to success. And my road would be hard work.”

Over the next forty years, Zhang dedicated his life to his craft. It was a tough road, but he was buoyed by the words of his father from years before. “When we cut the shepherd boy and cattle, it’s not about simply showing the detail in the cow’s hair - we must really care about the emotions between the two.” Since China’s reform and opening up in the 1980s, these words have helped guide Zhang through a career in which he has achieved national recognition and success, travelling around the world with his scissors to give classes and exhibitions, and spread jianzhi far and wide.

Today, paper-cutting is supported in China by both the government and private enterprises. Inscribed in 2009 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, it is growing in stature both at home and abroad.

A thousand kilometers north of Nanjing, a very different school of jianzhi blossomed in the Hebei countryside, in a county called Yuxian well beyond the mountains that guard Beijing’s western perimeter. A garrison town in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Yuxian was charged with protecting Beijing’s western flank from Mongol invasion. It was around this time that the ‘Yuxian’ style of paper-cutting began to flourish.

It’s fitting that it was here, in the heart of China’s arid North Plain, a region where the color washes from the landscape every winter, that a uniquely vivid school of paper-cutting was born. The Yuxian style employs ink pigments and a dyeing process after cutting to produce its colorful works, chiefly based around characters and masks from Chinese opera, harvest images, flowers, auspicious animals and themes of happiness and longevity. 

The avuncular Gao Dianliang, a dusting of white on his hair, welcomes us into his studio with a generous smile. His plain navy jacket contrasts with his technicolor art pieces, drawing on different Chinese art styles like silk painting, lacquer ware, and oil painting.

Gao was a boy of six when he first picked up a knife. Since then, he’s evolved a unique style that he believes is spiritual as well as practical, informed by the philosophies of Taoism.

“Yuxian style is the only form of paper-cutting that combines both yin carving and yang carving together,” says Gao, as he works. Yang carving, he explains, is where the central portions of the image are cut away to reveal just its delicate outline. Conversely, yin is the opposite. The fine lines of an image are cut to let the central shapes remain, giving the image the essence of realism. A little like the difference between a photograph and its negative.

And the cutting, explains Gao, is only part of a long and complex process. “A good knife technique is essential, but then there is painting, engraving, dying, stippling and pointillism. The techniques to master are many.”

In contrast to the scissors used in the Jiangnan School, Gao works with a set of small, razor-sharp carving knives on several sheets of ‘xuan’ paper, a high quality calligraphy paper from Xuancheng in Anhui Province. Once the cutting is complete, he moves on to the coloring process, then mounting. He must also sketch, inscribe, draw and paint.

Despite the differences between the Yuxian and Jiangnan schools of jianzhi, Gao echoes the words of Zhang when explaining how he insists on looking for artistic inspiration in nature before he starts a new work. “I go outside, observe nature and try to see its subtleties, experience it, think and learn from it.”

Inspiration also comes from other traditional Chinese art forms, such as ink painting, woodblock printing and fabric dyeing. In this way, Gao sees his works as the culmination of a deep well of cultural processes, disciplines and learned wisdom in China. The poet, the painter, the sculptor, the printer, the calligrapher. The spirit of all these artisans through the dynasties are present, tangibly or otherwise, in his finished pieces.

Receiving national support is something that Gao values deeply, and why he believes the future is bright for paper-cutting. When he started, a piece of jianzhi sold for just one fen in his home village. Then, moving to Beijing as a young artist, he discovered he could sell a piece for two yuan, twenty times the price.

Along with other master craftspeople engaged in everything from traditional Suzhou embroidery to to silk screen painting, Gao’s studio is located at Beijing’s new Intangible Cultural Heritage Center, a cultural incubator located on a recently renovated street south of Tiananmen Square. A mix of private and public investment of around CNY 25 billion (USD 4 billion) has brought this impressive new complex to life, hoping to do for ancient Chinese folk culture what California’s Silicon Valley has done for tech. As well as incubating and nurturing small businesses engaged in traditional cultural enterprises, it is set up to host expos, trade fairs, auctions, and be a hub for tourists, as well as spreading China’s folk art soft power around the world.

Qiao Xiaoguang, another Hebei artist based at the Intangible Cultural Heritage Center, created ‘City Windows’ in 2015 at the Chicago O’Hare airport in the US, transforming fifteen window panels into scenes of Chicago and Beijing. Xin Song, a female jianzhi artist from Beijing, created paper-cut installations at New York Grand Central Terminal in 2013 to celebrate its 100th anniversary. Born in 1970, her recent works have used paper from magazine pages to make a comment on hyper-consumerism in contemporary China.

As Gao says, it’s vital that jianzhi keeps evolving and spreading. In his own way, he has worked to improve the physical longevity of his work through the use of new mineral color pigments that don’t lose their luster over time, and the introduction of longer-lasting foil paper. It’s this sense of carrying something forwards for future generations, and making an artistic legacy that lasts the test of time, that is all-important for Gao.

“Craftsmen like me don’t just do it for fun, it’s more than a hobby or a profession. We use our whole lives and all our energy to carry this folk art forwards. Chinese paper-cutting comes from life, from the people. Nothing makes me happier than helping the world understand more about the culture of China.”

Morning Calm cover