Symbolism in Chinese Paper Cutting (剪纸)

by Lily X. Yang

Chinese Paper Cutting, one of my favorite types of traditional Chinese design, has been adapted to the digital creative processes to reflect the contemporary Chinese social environment. The form of Paper Cutting itself is distinctive for the highly stylistic and symbolic design, while the themes cover a huge variety of activities that average people, particularly rural residents engage. With pleasant colors and shapes, this type of decorations are usually produced to serve the celebration of Chinese New Year. During the coldest days of a year, family members enjoy this simple yet captive creativity, and merrily “publish” their artworks by pasting them on the doors and windows (therefor they are also referred to Window Flower 窗花).

I find it is fascinating to observe the contrast between the two layers of imagery on a window – the ideals and happiness presented with the red paper cutting, and the grayish, chilly reality behind it. From the very beginning, I question that what is hidden underneath the seemingly hopeful, in fact rather bitter bright red, which gradually becomes ironically connected with the famous slogan educating our Young Pioneers of China, ‘The Red Scarf is dyed with the Martyr’s blood”…

The following digital images (by Lily) mimicking the style of Paper Cutting have been displayed in Land of Illusion since 2006:

Chinese Cutting Paper & Financial Crisis in 2008

At the end of 2008, the quiet city we’re located in southeast Massachusetts, is unexpectedly under the shadow of financial crisis. When the city community art center, Artworks! Gallery, asked us to join the New Year Eve celebrations along with the City Hall Opening Ceremony, the director particularly implied we might present some type of art with “hopeful messages” under current crisis resulting impact on most Americans’ lives. I randomly browsed a book by my hand, Chinese Cutting Paper, and pointed to the patterns and explained symbolic meanings behind. For some reason she was immediately responded to “Double Happiness,” and picked another called “good fortune/business going up” (picture below). I rather see it as a irony in the context of economic and political conditions for not only American, but Chinese, and their elusive relationship.


symbol of "good business" and financial crisis 2008
symbol of "good business" and financial crisis 2008

The particular pattern is a symbol of “Good Business” or “Good Fortune,” with clouds implying “high state” surround an ancient Chinese coin in the center. Lily & Honglei created the digitized the Chinese cutting paper in the circumstance global economic crisis 2008 -2009, or Chinese OX year. What does it represent? One can have completely understanding. For the artists, it is important to say, that we have seen the ill society, and we are not stop here, but suggest a reflection upon globalization’s impact on culture and individual, more importantly, ask ourselves, “where do we come from? What has made a life worth living?” If a meaningful life is rooted in our own cultural heritages, as artists in the Internet era, can we preserve them by visualizing our traditions with digital technology? We need a bridge connecting the deepest inside world and the globalize environment!

Paper Cutting in Land of Illusion in Second Life
Paper Cutting in Land of Illusion in Second Life

The gallery director suggested me to explain the relations of this type of folk art in China and America, the new year on lunar/solar calender, and their meanings. I consider despite the similar visual representations, techniques, Chinese cutting paper is distinctive because it retains highly symbolic tradition of design, which are mostly created by women, and produced at the turn of a new year. For these reasons, yesterday, I realized that a pattern, I previously made in digital format, might be appropriate for the year of ox coming up Jan.26th, 2009. It is a vision, a result of some interlaced dreams and nightmares (picture below).

Statue in Land of Illusion in Second Life
Statue in Land of Illusion in Second Life

2 replies on “Symbolism in Chinese Paper Cutting (剪纸)”

Note: History of Chinese Paper Cutting (excerpt)

Chinese culture have always tried to find symbols. Like Chinese Calligraphy expression, single Chinese characters are often used to describe some meaning or representation. Other symbols like the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac are symbolically found in paper cut arts, even today. The basic art is generally 2D. The more advanced paper cuttings are usually done in stacks where it unfolds into some 3D object such as a lantern. Red seems to be the most popular color.

Chinese paper cutting is considered the first type of paper cutting design, since paper was invented by Cai Lun in the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 to 220 B.C) in China. The art form later spread to other parts of the world with different regions adopting their own cultural styles.

Chinese paper cutting is a unique artform and has existed for thousands of years with a long history featuring both national and regional themes. Paper began as a precious commodity in the Han Dynasty. Most of the people with access to paper for an entertainment cause such as art were usually nobles in royal palaces[1]. The oldest surviving paper cut out is a symmetrical circle from the 6th century found in Xijiang, China[2]. From the 7th to 13th century, paper cutting became popular especially during Chinese Holiday festivals. The art spread to the rest of the world in the 14th century. Throughout the Qing Dynasty, many paper cutting skills were developed.

In the rural countryside in mainland China, papercutting is a traditionally female activity. In the past, every girl was expected to master it and brides were often judged by their skill. Professional papercutting artists are, on the other hand, usually male and have guaranteed incomes and work together in workshops.

1.Chinavoc. “[ Chinavoc].” Artistic Creations from Nimble fingers. Retrieved on 2007-04-26.
2. Needham, Joseph. Chemistry and Chemical Technology. [1974] (1974). Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521086906

a note for cut-paper piece “Vision”:

Wu Hong, “Remaking Beijing,” the University of Chicago Press, 2005, p.46 –

In the statue’s unveiling ceremony on 30 May, a young girl read a statement (signed by the eight art academies that had sponsored the project) that contained these sentences:

Today, here in the People’s Square, the people’s goddess stands tall and announces to the whole worlds: a consciousness of democracy has awakened among the Chinese people! The new era has begun! From this piece of ancient earth grows the tree of democracy and freedom, putting forth gorgeous flowers and a bountiful harvest of fruit! (Pierre Nora, ‘Between Memory and History’, Representations, xxix Sring, 1989, p.19)

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