Final cut

Source:Global Times Published: 2010-7-22 10:53:00

Ren Zhenshan at his shop in Nanluoguxiang. Photos: Matthew Jukes

It was a year ago that UNESCO declared the art of Chinese paper cutting part of their intangible cultural heritage list, a follow up to China's own declaration of protection, but that hasn't stopped the once regular little stalls around the city from disappearing.

"A lot of people learn how to do it but are not willing to do it for a living," said Ren Zhenshan, who runs a paper cutting shop on Nanluoguxiang. Ren has been paper cutting for nearly 20 years, but has given up doing it as a profession because it wasn't paying the bills. "When I was young there were a lot of people doing it especially over the holidays. The formation has changed now, and so have the customers. In the past, every family used to decorate their homes with these chuanghua [paper cut characters of poems], now nobody does."

The art originates from the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD), and around the birth of paper, which was a hard to come by luxury at the time, perfect for showing off your wealth by arranging in attractive patterns on the wall. It is still reasonably common in some of the more rural areas.

"It hasn't disappeared because society is not developing that fast. The best folk art is very secretive; it's locked in the countryside. My goal is to bring it back out from the countryside," said Qiao Xiaoguang, the professor of intangible cultural heritage at the Central Academy of Fine Arts.

A far cry from Ren, his works are on show at the Onemoon gallery in Ditan Park, with some of the pieces going for a couple of hundred thousand yuan. "The most positive example of how paper cutting is a good art was to get acceptance from people all over china. There are 15 ethnic groups who specialize in paper cutting. A lot of women can do it too, it proves just how common it is in China that we have farmers with an interest in the arts."

Although different in approach, the common feeling that etching away with the knife evokes, they claim, is a reason to keep going.

Modernizing the art

"Unlike Western oil painting, paper cutting is more about experiencing things already in your heart. Like Chinese ink painting, it's different from Western art systems where the representation of images and light holds precedent. The images can be much more fluid in paper cutting," said Qiao. "Many Chinese arts like ink painting and paper cutting are two dimensional, but you're really working in four dimensions. The more brushes and paints, the more requirements you have to follow, it's very different using just paper and scissors, you have less requirements and can let your imagination run wild."

Rather than sticking with tourist friendly images of old China and historical symbols, Qiao is trying to slice his way into the modern age. Among some of the works he's hung up on the wall are the Beijing subway, complete with sexual predators and overcrowding, a depiction of a post 2012 ark complete with futuristic technology and images of the familiar city traffic and street vendors. As a passing nod to the old ways, there are also odd references to opera masks and zodiac animals. Some of his larger pieces take weeks before they're finished, and one mistake can be fatal.

"Every kind of art is equal, but has two different sets of rules, the first is very introverted and stable, while the other is very open to new experiments. What I'm doing is to test how open art is to reach out and experiment with new methods to make this kind of art open to changes and to keep it open with the development of society," said Qiao.

In taking the work to Finland he has also adapted to his audience, including issues like whaling, the country's national flag and other representations of their society.

"There's no clash of occidental or oriental now, it's a human world. Where you're from doesn't impact what you absorb from art and your impression of it. Art has no borders," he added.

"A side of modern art is imagination, and just because you're sitting here or I'm sitting there we are still communicating, but we don't do anything to change situations quickly. Every country and continent should hold hands to create love. Not just East and West."

Qiao continues to teach paper cutting as part of his course at the academy. After a four-week crash course both his Chinese and overseas students are ready to take the cutting back to their respective homes. At the moment Qiao is particularly impressed with a student from Sri Lanka. One day Qiao believes paper cutting will be all over the world as a communication between people.


Qiao Xiaoguang in front of his work at Onemoon gallery.

Passing on

Just down the road, Ren also takes on students, thanks largely to family contacts (his family are also cutting away), and a prime spot in one of Beijing's most famous streets. He has about 60 students. Working from his home, they contribute their pieces for sale just as much as he does. "Some of them are even better than me!" he added. "But there are some secrets that I'll only teach after many years of practice."

One of his trusted trimmers is Cao Yuehua, a housewife. She'd previously given up paper cutting, after becoming frustrated. "Paper cutting is easy to learn at the beginning, but to develop it into a profession is extremely hard," said Cao. "It needs careful work."

Cao couldn't begin to think of opening her own place, but admitted that she admired her teacher and what he does, even if she's not at his level. Even as a novice she can see untapped potential in the art. "Paper cutting might develop into a more prosperous industry, but it could take decades," she added. "There just aren't many people promoting it."

For all the elaborate designs that adorn his little kiosk, it takes relatively little time. Within three hours, Ren can have 20 copies of one design in the shop, already cut out and ready to be dyed. Most of the designs, unlike Qiao's, stick to the more traditional images of Beijing's hutong, landscapes from famous literary pieces such as A Dream of Red Mansions, and Chinese characters.

One of Ren's "secrets" allows him to make up to 80 copies at the same time. By soaking the paper in water, and compressing it together, he then cuts the designs and uses a dumpling roller to separate the sheets. They can then be dried and dyed according to preference. Working like this allows him to keep ahead of the game when it comes to keeping well stocked.

"Don't think this is just a small shop!" he warned, "Everything is hand made it takes a lot of work and people."

Ren reckons that the skills can be taught in about a week, but it could take nearly a decade before you're in at his level. He finds it a pity that none of his students were willing to take up the mantle in the future. "There is a market, but it's hard work and it's not recognized by society," he added. "I make enough to support my family. But I'll never be really rich."

Most of his works are bought by the tourists who swarm Nanluoguxiang, but with all his years of experience in paper cutting, he's never thought to increase the prices for fear of slowing down his family's income, and hasn't thought to branch out.

"It's a living art," he said. "It all depends on the artist himself, if your creativity taps into it that's all that matters. All these creations here are me or my students copying out the designs, little by little. When it comes to the things that they do at arts academy I can't reach that. There are three different parts in creating. First the image, then the cut, then the dye. I'm good at the second but not the first one," he added.

Professor Qiao's work is on display at the Onemoon gallery in Ditan until the end of the month. Check out http:// for more info. Ren Zhenshan runs his shop at 110 Nanluoguxiang 12-6 pm.

Yu Xinyan contributed to this story.

Posted in: China

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