Since the invention of paper by the Chinese in 105 A.D., paper has been put
to good use by mankind in so many ways. In the office, in school, in shopping
malls, in planes and even in the comfort rooms, we find paper in many forms and
uses. It's actually quite amazing to know that one of the first uses the Chinese
used paper for was as a media for cutting out shapes and forms.
During the Northern and Southern Dynasty (386 - 581 A.D.), cutting out intricate patterns out of paper has become a tradition. This was the beginning of the art of Chinese Paper Cutting called Jian Zhi. The early practitioners of this art depicted in their paper cut creations their simple life, their aspirations and their beliefs. A favorite subject are objects that are symbols for good fortune and happiness. These paper cutouts where used by the people to decorate their houses during festivals and even used by women as hair ornaments during the Tang Dynasty.
The Song Dynasty greatly improved the paper making process and introduced different colors of paper. The paper cut craftsmen of the time put the colored paper to good use in their paper cut outs. In the Ming and Qin Dynasty, paper cutting art reached its peak to the point that it became a required skill for women before they can get married. Subject covered in the Chinese Paper Cut creations also expanded to cover flora and fauna, scenes from their traditional tales and folklore and even rendering images of their famous heroes and mythical Gods.
Today, China has many paper cut artists specializing in paper cut outs. The knowledge usually was passed on by generations of paper artists in their family or home town. There are different styles of rendering paper cuttings in each region of China. There used to be only traditional Chinese themes but today western images and modern art touches are found in certain paper cut outs.
Paper Cutting also surfaced in other countries like in Germany and Switzerland they have what is called scherenschnitte, in Denmark they have papirklip, in Mexico its papel picado, the Polish have wycinanki , the Netherlands have papierknipkunst, the Japanese have kirigami and katagami and even a country like Lithuania have their own paper cut art style.
The Chinese Art of Paper Cutting is called Zhong guo Jian zhi (Chinese Paper Cut) is made either by cutting using scissors or by sculpting the patterns and shapes by using a scalpel like knife. The paper commonly used for Jian Zhi is called Xuan Paper. This paper comes from Anhui province where it is made from the fibers of a pine tree.
Scissor cutting involves folding and cutting the paper and the resulting patterns are usually symmetrical due to the folds. Non-symmetrical cutouts can also be made using scissors. Chinese Paper Cut masters just wielding scissors for a tool can produce the most ornate patterns on paper. Scissor cut paper art are usually bigger in size and scale than the knife sculpted paper cuts.
Knife sculpting of paper is currently widely practiced in China. The highly skilled paper cut artists can sculpt even the thinnest and delicate lines on paper. There is a paper cut art style in China called Xi Wen style or roughly translated in English it means "thin line" style. Thin line paper cut artists can carve 50 lines on a square inch of paper. Once, a thin line paper cut master carved out 100 flowers on a one square centimeter paper.
Various regions in China have nurtured their own styles of Jian Zhi. Some counties like Yu County in Hebei province have specialized in colored hand painted paper cut art. Each regional style has its own distinct characteristic. The Zhan Pu style of paper cutting from Fujian province even deviates in the kind of paper they use. They use a glossy paper called la guang (wax paper) instead of Xuan Paper. They also have a special cutting tool called pai jian which is like a fork which can carve out hair like patterns on paper.
Paper Cutting is a tradition in China and is part of Chinese life. During festivals and holidays like the Chinese New Year, every home has to have some jian zhi adorning their walls, windows or doors. This is akin to having a Christmas tree and mistletoe at home for the Christmas holidays in the western world.