Paper cutting, known in Mandarin as jian zhi, goes almost as far back in Chinese history as paper itself. Invented by a Han Dynasty official in 105 A.D., paper became an instant part of Chinese life. The practice of cutting paper into ornate, delicate pictures started during the Northern and Southern Dynasty, sometime between 386-581 A.D. Slits and holes were made in colored pieces of paper to form scenes and pictures that were often very elaborate.
These paper scenes usually reflected the themes of Chinese life contemporary to the times in which they were cut. They often showed images of prosperity in farming, harmony among family and good fortune in life. Traditionally, paper cuts were hung near the entrances to houses or buildings, which were always the most auspicious spots where good or bad fortune entered.
Paper cutters learned their art from family members or village experts and passed the tradition down through the years. Very often, the best paper cutters were women who could accurately portray the sensitive subjects of Chinese life. The papers were very often used during important festivals, such as the Lunar New Year or Mid-Autumn Festival, to usher in a positive atmosphere. Sometimes, paper cuts were used as other types of decor, such as hair ornaments or window decorations, giving rise to the nickname as chuan hua, or ‘window flowers’.
Paper cutting is still an important form of Chinese folk art. Generally, the cutting is done with scissors and a special pattern, or sometimes with a sharp knife. Usually, several papers are stacked and cut together very precisely by hand on a soft foundation. Sometimes cheaper versions are made by machines in factories, though, to an average Chinese person, this rarely depreciates the valuable symbolism of the paper cutting. Other types of cuttings are made by folding the paper in special lines and cutting into a crease, creating a mirrored double image. On occasion, 3D cuttings are created in a lantern style that pops out, revealing several layers of scenes.
Most paper cuttings are crafted from red paper and reflect the traditional themes of prosperity and good fortune. Sometimes, very ornate cuttings require multi-colored papers, specially folded paper or other unique materials. You can often find interesting paper cuttings done from black, purple or other colored papers, and other more modern themes, Western images and modern artistic touches are also now being included in Chinese paper cuttings.