Marija Schranz uncovers a whole new world hidden between sheets of paper, exquisitely cut by Chinese artisans
The delicate art of paper-cutting takes centre stage in a new exhibition that kicks off the Chinese New Year celebrations and presages the Chinese spring festival.
A legacy of exquisite craftsmanship which has absorbed and perpetuated myriad elements of China’s folklore and cultures, the origins of this art can be traced back to the sixth century AD when, however, different materials were used, such as leaves and metal.
The oldest recorded history of paper-cutting dates back to around 200 years ago to the Yuxian County within the Hebei Province. This is where round flower-cut grilles used for window decoration were first conceived.
Commonly referred to as Tianpiliang (meaning ‘brilliant skin of the heavens’), these early forms of ornaments originally consisted of round cuttings made from translucent mica sheets, bearing hand-painted drawings onto which dyes were added.
With time, the methodology of production changed as practices from the Wuqiang County were assimilated, namely the use of engraved woodblocks and watermark colouring to produce imprints. Consequently, carving with a sharp knife replaced cutting with scissors in the creation of the Yuxian paper-cuts, as they are known today, adding to the charm of these ornate window designs with their characteristic translucent texture.
The expression ‘three parts work to seven parts tinting’, which has long referred to Yuxian paper-cuts, was in fact derived from the procedure established as it intricately combines the two techniques of carving out void designs and colouring in solid ones.
In ancient times, popular characters from Chinese operas were the most common choice of image, although naturally, trends progressively changed and diversified. The spectrum of themes was widened to include those of “flowers, birds and beasts”, “fish, insects, valuable and domesticated animals”, “mountain, water and tree scenery”, “pavilions and pagodas”, “scenes from classic operas”, “variety of foodstuff” and “customs and daily life”.
Paper-cutting art continues to thrive to this day and recently received worldwide recognition of the highest prestige, with inclusion in the representative list of Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Nowadays, paper-cutting is also a widely-popular pastime and is often used for educational programmes, community classes, cultural activities and art exhibitions. The values, ideals and aesthetic pursuits of ordinary Chinese people from different ethnic backgrounds are embedded and preserved in the imagery that paper-cuts depict, carrying forward elements of folk legends, oral literature and fragments of history.
The Whisper of Flowers – Exhibition of Chinese Paper-cutting Art endeavours to explore this art, with a focus on representing the artistry of Chinese peasant women and demonstrating the independent system of artistic expression that has emerged in the course of its development.
The exhibition enables one to gain insight into China through paper-thin glimpses, while revealing the ethos of the civilisation which forged China’s paper-oriented arts and the contemporary cultural approach that has evolved from them.
In addition, it introduces its viewers to the prime classifications of this genre and presents highly appraised representative works from Hebei Province. The works are categorised into four main themes: “heaven and earth”, “the world of man”, “peasant women’s craft and village life” and “the whisper of flowers”.
■ The exhibition opens on Friday and runs until February 2 at the China Cultural Centre in Valletta. It is open from Monday to Friday, from 9am to 12.30pm and from 2.30pm to 5pm. Entrance is free.
■ As part of the Centre’s “Chinese Culture on Campus”, Education and Training Programme, an introductory workshop on Chinese paper-cutting is also being held for school children in Gozo. The sessions will be conducted by renowned Chinese practitioners of this much–loved traditional folk art, invited to Malta by the centre specifically for the exhibition and related activities.