Almost lost, ancient traditions living on in a new generation

Updated 2017-03-13 09:57:46 Shanghai Daily
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Students at Zhongguo High School learning papercutting from Sun Jihai (center), a master of the folk art. The school set up programs of intangible cultural heritages to keep the nation's cultural heritage alive amid the hectic pace of modern life.(Ti Gong)

Papercutting used to be ubiquitous in China. Traditionally, housewives would cut designs from paper, often with good wishes written on them, and attach them to windows and doors during festivals and special occasions.

It's a skill that's been largely lost in today's hectic urban life. Some families still buy papercuttings for special occasions, such as weddings. Others just ignore the tradition completely.

But all is not lost for those who rue the passing of old, charming folk arts. During the recent Spring Festival, several students at Shanghai Zhongguo High School in the Xuhui District created stunning red papercuttings under a project sponsored by the district's culture bureau.

It's part of a push by the central and local governments to keep the nation's cultural heritage alive in contemporary society.

Zhongguo High School began its first intangible cultural heritage program with knot buttons in 2012. It was so successful that the project was expanded last year to another nine crafts, including scissor-cuttings, dough figurines, woolen embroidery, palm plaiting and sachet-making. Ten other nearby schools have joined in the program.

“Our school is very special,” said Xi Yunfei, vice headmaster of Zhongguo High School, noting that Zhongguo.

“We are dedicated to passing on traditional culture.”

Sun Jihai, 68, an expert scissor-cutter, began teaching 30 students in the high school last year.

It's not particularly difficult to learn, he told Shanghai Daily.

He said that last semester, he taught basic cutting methods, such as symmetrical cutting, hollowing and side-entry cutting, turning out well-known figures such as the 12 Chinese zodiac animals.

“This year, I am encouraging students to use their own creativity to cut out their personal favorite figures,” he said.

“Handicrafts can survive only if they change to reflect contemporary life. If you just copy designs, you will soon lose interest.”

Li Guoqing, who teaches how to make dough figurines, said he also encourages innovation among young students.

“Traditionally, we make the Monkey King and some other well-known classic figures,” he said. “Now, we make other figures that the children like. Handicrafts stay alive when people are interested enough in them to take them out of the classroom.”

Sun, who learned scissor-cutting from Lin Ximing, a famous Chinese painter and paper-cut artist, said his teaching used to be confined mostly to older people in community classes, but the increased public emphasis on traditional cultural heritage is drawing white-collar workers to his classes.

He said folk arts passed down through the centuries teach a lot about traditional values that are still important today.

“The 24 stories of filial piety are very popular themes in papercutting,” he said. “When we teach this handicraft, we pass on that knowledge.”

The deep-rooted concept of filial piety involves children putting their own lives aside for a few years after their parents die.

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