Papercutting art in Western Henan

By By Xu Chunyan / 08-01-2013 /


 Yuxi JIanzhi maintains traditional style.


“Cutting ribbon in January
Lanterns hanging in the foyer,
Shining off the central courtyard,
All year round tranquility.
Cutting dragons in February
Hanging before the big river,
Beckoning peace and good weather,
Fruitful harvest come next year.
Cutting peaches in March…”


These are the lyrics to the “Papercutting (or jian zhi 剪纸) Song in 12 Months”, widely sung in the Central Plain region of China. In the old days, village women gathered together, singing while they delicately sliced designs in ornamental paper; profiles of figures praying and auspicious signs would soon adorn the village doors and windows.  Even today, papercutting art remains one of the most popular local art forms, especially in western Henan province (Yuxi).


The symbol of Chinese Cultural Heritage Day is a picture of the Golden Sun Bird. Few know that the origin of this design is from papercutting art. The Golden Sun Bird is an art work dating back more than 3 millenia to the Shang Dynasty. Archeologists estimate that actual papercutting artwork probably began to appear during the Southern and Northern dynasties (420 to 589 AD), but had not yet widely spread. In the Sui and Tang dynasties, papercutting entered the homes of ordinary people. The art form really took off, however, during the Song Dynasty, when it enjoyed imperial advocacy.


A passage from Dongjing Meng Hua Lu (东京梦华录》) details the use of papercuts in the Northern Song dynasty officialdom: “During the beginning of spring, the emperor rewarded officers with gold and silver floral cut-outs to show royal grace. At the conclusion of the ceremony, officers returned home still wearing the flowers just to show their gratitude. Since then, the government commanded the Crafts Institute (文思院) specially to monitor flower cutting production. In addition, in order to distinguish officer ranks, princes and the prime minister were endowed with golden flowers while other officers were granted flowers of gold wrapped in silver or silk. During this period, papercutting art was also very pervasive in ordinary society, and professional papercutting craftsmen emerged one after another.


As one of the provinces known for the preservation of its rich traditions, Henan is home to array of scattered villages which still practice papercutting, particularly in Yuxi. Given Yuxi’s insulating geography—the region is located in the south of the Jin-Yu Canyon, north of the Nanyang Basin, and surrounded by numerous mountains and valleys, especially in Sanmenxia area—and proximity to Shan’xi and Shaanxi, which also have lurid papercutting traditions and similar artistic tastest to Henanese papercutting, it is only natural that it would be a haven for the traditional art form. Many doors and windows of Yuxi’s cave-houses still retain the traditional wood squares frames for residents to display their talent.


Papercutting in Yuxi is colorful: naturally colored (single colored), multi-colored and dyed paper are often used. Every spring, locals decorate ceilings, doors, windows, lanterns and walls with different papercutting artworks specially designed for their intended place. On certain special occasions, such as weddings, childbirth and seniors’ birthdays, family members and friends send papercutting flowers as presents. “Auspiciousness” is an overriding theme in the papercutting artworks of Yuxi, and signs of auspiciousness can be seen almost everywhere. The lifestyle and ideas manifest in Yuxi papercutting artwork reflect thousands of years of enduring farming culture, as well as the nature of traditional Chinese folk culture. Feng Jicai, chairman of the Chinese Folk Literature and Art Association, commented that Yuxi papercutting art preserves the distinctive characteristics of agrarian society, as the art form has yet to be commercialized. In contrast, Yuxian papercutting art in Hebei started to become commercialized as early as the Qing Dynasty.


Xu Chunyan is from the Institute of History and Archeology, Henan Academy of Social Sciences.

Chinese version apppeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 225, Sept.22,2011

Translated by Feng Daimei

Revised by Charles Horne