Red Chinese paper cut of two ducks swimming

Chinese Papercutting: From Sacred Rituals to Contemporary Art

Red papercut decorations are a common sight during the Lunar New Year and other times of celebration in Chinese culture. Their beautiful and intricate designs adorn windows, doors, and walls in homes and businesses alike. But what do they mean and where do they come from?

Like almost everything in China, papercutting is very old

Depending on the source, the folk art of papercutting originated either in the second century — when inventor and politician Cai Lun invented paper — or the sixth century when it began as a sacred ceremonial practice. Eventually, papercutting became more common, and forms of the art spread to other parts of the world, including kirigami in Japan, pabalat in the Bulacan province of the Philippines, and papel picado in Mexico.

The decorations are also known as window flowers

What better way to take advantage of the complex negative spaces of these chuang hua than by placing them on windows and letting the light shine through?

There’s a wide array of designs

Chinese characters. You can't go wrong with fu, the Chinese character for fortune, especially for the Lunar New Year. Shuang xi, or double happiness, is imperative for weddings while shou, or longevity, is a must-have for birthdays of older family members.

Animals. The powerful dragon, legendary jade rabbit, and the animals from the Chinese zodiac are typical go-tos. Another popular critter is the crane, which represents longevity while a carp jumping over a dragon gate depicts a leap toward a better life.

Auspicious symbols. Peonies aren’t just beautiful, they’re positively royal. Known as the “king of the flowers” in China, they embody virtue, prosperity, and honor. Other lucky designs include the pomegranate for fertility and the pine tree for long life.

Scenes from daily life. Caring for plants or children are everyday scenes you might find in papercuts, and because these decorations are traditionally popular among farmers, you might also see agricultural displays such as farming or caring for animals.

Fantastic scenes. Other designs might portray scenes from myths, local dramas, and Peking operas.

The designs also vary depending on region

Chinese papercutting styles falls into three main schools:

Northern. The northern style originates from the cities of Yuxian and Fengning in Hebei Province, as well as parts of Shaanxi and Shandong provinces, the style is described as simple and rough yet expressive and magnificent.

Jiangsu and Zhejiang Provinces. Located on the east coast of China south Shandong, these provinces' variety is known for being fine and delicate.

Southern. From the cities of Foshan of Guangdong Province, Wuhan of Hubei Province, and Zhangpu of Fujian Province, the southern approach is at once delicate and vivid, and often shows scenes from nature such as birds and flowers.

Chinese papercutting is protected by the government

UNESCO added Chinese papercutting to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2006, giving this precious folk art government protection.

People are still papercutting today — and taking it to a whole new level

While some artists continue the more traditional design using red paper, others are giving this long-lived “farmer’s art” a contemporary spin. And we’re lucky enough to have one of those artists, Xin Song, in residence. You can learn more about Ms. Song in our interview with her.

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