The first thing that greets visitors at Gao Fengying's home is a stocky, floccose burro foal. "It was born just last week ...," says Gao Lailiang, Fengying's father, apologetically. "Even Fengying has not seen the new member of our family. She is too busy with her paper-cutting course in the town," Gao Senior says.
The cave-house of the Gao family is no different from others on the Loess Plateau in Ansai, Northwest China's Shaanxi province, except for the eye-catching red-colored paper cuttings on the walls and windows, whose reflection lits up the dark inside of the cave.
"My daughter was born in this cave. She dropped out of school because of poverty and has worked as a farmer since childhood. She started learning paper cutting from the age of 8. She is a bright girl ... (but) I didn't think she can make a living out paper cutting," Gao Sr. says.
The art of paper cutting has a history of more than 1,500 years on the Loess Plateau. Paper cuttings are used to decorate the windows, beds, rice containers and flour vats, and exhibit the homeowners' longing for good luck.
In fact, Chinese paper cutting is on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List thanks mostly to farmers, who in their spare time used either scissors or knives to create intricate designs, patterns and fashion fascinating objects. Scissors are used by most papercut artists, though.
The dedication and hard work of the farmers-cumartists have transformed what originated as a method of cutting patterns on paper for embroideries into a rich folk art form.
"I learned paper cutting first from my mother when I was 8," says Gao Fengying, 36. "My work was liked by the whole family and neighbors. That encouraged me... and boosted my confidence."
Gao Fengying fine-tuned her skills under the guidance of Li Xiufang, a 70-year-old paper-cut artist in 2012, who also inspired her rise to greater heights. Without her, she says, she might not have been so "innovative, and ...win provincial and national awards."
After achieving fame as a "paper-cut master", she founded the first paper-cutting company in neighboring Ganquan county, and soon bid farewell to her hand-to-mouth existence. Later, she submitted a proposal to the township government to run a workshop to train local farmers in the art of paper cutting, so as to help them emerge out of poverty. Her proposal was endorsed by the government, and the workshop has become very popular among the local people.
The dramatic improvement in people's livelihoods, however, means paper cuttings might no longer adorn the cave-houses. And that will endanger the survival of the folk art form.
So why did Gao Fengying set up the company and the workshop.
"I want to pass down the folk art form to future generations. But I also want to show it can be used to make money ... and change people's lives. Only when the business is sustainable can the art form live," she says.
Thanks to the support of the local government, her workshop started operation on March 5 in Xiasiwan of Ganquan. She is happy to see the classroom is full of people, mostly unemployed rural women, with some standing and listening to her instructions.
"I like drawing pictures since childhood," says Liu Dongdong, 29. "I am very happy to attend the workshop. Ms Gao's teaching method is lively and informative. It is easy to understand... she wants to help us. I want to acquire the skill and ability to design and operate independently ... so that I can increase my income."
And Tuo Zhenqin, a 34-year-old mother of three children who is a reserve drum performer for tourists, says she has always wanted to learn paper cutting, and the workshop provides her with that opportunity. "If I master the skill I can sell my works to tourists. She (Gao Fengying) teaches a skill ...she also teaches local culture to the young people."
Gao Fengying is happy to learn that her burro back home has given birth, because she has "a new model in the paper cutting".
"I cannot wait to see it" she says about her new "model".