Cutting remarks: The hidden meanings of festive decorations

Updated 2019-02-01 08:35:00

Yang Huizi teaches children to make paper-cuts in a nonprofit activity in Beijing.

A tradition of the upcoming Spring Festival is to stick paper-cut decorations on windows and doors, and hang lanterns to usher in blessings and good luck for the coming year. The all-red effect in the house creates a joyful atmosphere for family gatherings.

Paper-cutting was recognized as a national intangible cultural heritage in 2006 and made UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009.

The simple combination of scissors and paper, after folding, drawing and cutting, can create sophisticated pictures in mere minutes in the hands of craftspeople-a skill passed down from generation to generation for more than 1,500 years.

There is a saying that "culture has no national boundaries", and, according to experts, paper-cutting conveys the culture shared between China and the West to wish for family reunions and maintain links with loved ones, alive or dead.

In the movie Coco, for instance, the 12-year-old Miguel and his family dance and sing to celebrate the Day of the Dead, a traditional festival in Mexico, when colorful paper-cuts are hung on the street.

Human skeletons made of paper are said to build connectivity with and pray for the dead. Chinese people also cut images of small figures hand in hand to call back the spirits of the dead. The film resonated in many ways with Chinese audiences and took in 1.2 billion yuan (0 million) in box-office earnings.

Fairy tale writer Hans Christian Andersen liked to cut characters, such as princesses, witches and angels, out of paper while telling stories to children.

In China, close female companions and family members used to chat and make paper-cuts together.

The difference is that most Chinese paper-cuts are red, while those in other countries are often made in many other colors.

"Though the patterns and colors may be different, paper-cuts share the same function of maintaining emotional ties among people," says Yang Huizi, an art teacher at Beijing Union University.

The movie Coco features colorful paper-cuts.

Yang has studied and performed the art for over a decade. Besides routine university courses, she also organizes nonprofit paper-cutting activities that are open to the public in Beijing to promote basic knowledge of the history and culture of paper-cutting.

Chen Xiaohong, who's the mother of an 8-year-old boy, attended one of Yang's courses in January.

"I often bring my son to such activities, though he cannot operate the scissors fully," she says.

"Sometimes we play together at home. He paints whatever is in his mind and I cut it out. He would explain to me what the patterns mean."

Yang says paper-cutting is an intangible cultural heritage that is well suited for sharing with the public. "It's easy to learn. The tools are cheap, and it can help you learn to be patient by doing delicate work."

Since the fragile material is hard to store, Yang designs products, such as lamps and Tangram puzzles, to "bring traditional art into modern life".

Every pattern on paper-cuts should have a symbolic meaning.

For example, fish swimming among lotus leaves, mice biting a pumpkin or an eagle grabbing a rabbit suggest fertility in ancient Chinese thought.

"Aggressive" or "mobile" subjects like the fish, mice and eagle usually represent men, while the lotus, pumpkin and rabbit represent the role of women, Yang explains. The invisible seeds represent babies.

"In the old days, the most important thing was to give birth to guarantee the continuation of the family line. That's why fertility worship is a common subject in Chinese folk art," she says, adding that paper-cuts with such patterns are often used at weddings.

Another important role of paper-cutting is to signify good luck. Patterns like clouds, flowers, bats, as well as the Chinese characters xi (happiness) and fu (blessed fortune), are considered auspicious and are commonly used as interior decorations during traditional Chinese festivals, such as Lunar New Year, Tomb Sweeping Day and Mid-Autumn Festival.

Images of toads, centipedes, scorpions and gourds are meant to stave off misfortune during Dragon Boat Festival. They represent the concept of "absorbing poisonous air and bad luck" and "generating fresh air".

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