This technique of removing negative space to create an image originated in China over 1500years ago. Predating paper, the designs were initally cut out of leather and gold leaf. Papercuts were attributed with metaphysical qualities.
One of the earliest historical references to the practice dates back to the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC to 24 AD). When Emperor Wu lost his favourite concubine, a Sharman in his court was said to have summoned her presence using a papercut. They also played a significant role in funerals either being burnt or buried with the body. Providing paper replicas of commodities was thought to assist the deceased in the afterlife.
Papercuts were also employed during daily life as a form of talisman. Pasting up a papercut was through to attract different kinds of good fortune. Depictions of roosters were thought to provide protection to dwellings. Fish are thought to bring financial prosperity. Chrysanthemum were thought to promote longevity. Papercuts remain an integral part of Chinese celebrations such as the Spring Festival or as it is also known as Lunar New Year.
In a domestic context, papercutting was a craft passed down from mother to daughter. Proficiency in it greatly enhanced the marriage prospects of a woman. Papercuts also had their merit outside of its ceremonial applications. They enhanced the appearance of windows, doors and smoke grates.
The craft spread along the Silk Road through trade. The tradition presently exists in several versions across the world. During the 18th Century in France, they obtained the title silhouette. A Mexican version of papercutting is also employed to celebrate the Day of the Dead.
Papercutting also evolved into several different media, the most significant of which is screen printing. The Japanese cut designs out of mulberry paper create the screens for kimono designs. From textile motifs to 20th Century poster art in America the technique continued to evolve. Corporate logos are a contemporary permutation of this centuries-old craft practice.
A traditional papercut editioned by Xu Yifeng in Weifang, Shandong Province.
Chen Jie Rong explains the conventions of traditional Chinese papercutting.