Paper cutting is an art form where beautiful designs and patterns are cut from a single sheet of paper, using only scissors or a blade. The art of paper cutting has a long history — more than 2000 years to be exact! Thought to have originated from China along with the invention of paper in the 2nd century, paper-cut art was believed to have spread to the rest of the world during the 14th century, when its popularity in China was at its peak.
Despite so, there has been evidence that paper cutting was already an art form in other countries as early as the 7th century!
The art of paper cutting has become an integral part of many cultures around the world. It can be practised in many ways, from traditional to contemporary, which are all nothing short of amazing. From Asia to America, let’s take a look at how paper cutting has evolved in different parts of the world!
In Japan, the art of paper cutting is known as kirie, which comes from the two kanji, 切 kiri meaning cut, and 絵 e meaning picture. The art of making pictures through the cutting of paper took root in Japan in the 7th century, as an import from the Chinese mainland. Originally, kirie was used to decorate Shinto shrines. In the Edo Period, kamikiri (meaning paper cutting) was performed live in front of an audience. Masters of the craft would take requests from the audience and transform sheets of paper into cut-outs right in front of their eyes!
Modern kirie has since developed into a contemporary art form for Japanese artists, who create intricate pieces of work that can take mere minutes, or as much as many months to complete. We are really not exaggerating when we say their works are a feast for the eyes! Just take a look at this incredibly-detailed octopus cut from a single sheet of A2 paper by artist Masayo Fukuda.
The detail. We’re truly amazed.
Sanjhi is the ancient art of paper stencilling originating from Mathura and Vrindavan, India. Sanjhi artisans first cut stencils out of paper, then fill them with powdered dyes to create rangolis, an integral part of Indian culture. Often, the designs are inspired by nature and range from trees to animals such as peacocks and cows.
Traditionally, the stencils are used to create rangolis on water, also known as Jal Sanjhi. That’s right, the canvas is water. Using a fine sieve, coloured powder is slowly added, layer by layer onto paper stencils to create paintings that float on a vessel of water. These paintings usually have religious meanings and are created during festive periods.
The Mexican craft of party bunting is called papel picado, which is Spanish for cut paper. Individual flags of varied shapes and sizes, in a huge array of vibrant colours, are cut from tissue paper or plastic (the modern alternative for increased durability). The flags are then strung together to form banners that can be used for just about any occasion — street parties, birthdays, weddings... just think of any Mexican fiesta!
Papel picado is commonly used as decoration during Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a widely celebrated Mexican holiday. You must’ve seen the tradition famously portrayed in the Disney Pixar movie, Coco!
Did you spot the papel picado?
San Salvador Huixcolotla, a town not far from Mexico City, is considered to be the birthplace of papel picado. There, artisans first began carving out papel picado banner designs on tissue paper, a practice that eventually spread to the rest of Mexico in the 20th century. Unlike the paper-cuts of China where each piece is crafted individually, papel picado is made by placing a plastic template on a stack of fifty (or even a hundred!) pieces of coloured tissue paper. The designs are then cut out using a chisel and hammer, by cutting into the layers below.
In Poland, paper cutting is known as Wycinanki (pronounced vee-chee-non-kee). In the 1800s, shepherds passed quiet hours by snipping designs from leather or tree bark. Since the mid-1800s, wycinanki has been a popular folk craft and was traditionally used by Polish peasants to decorate their cottages.
The art is mostly separated into two regions. Cuttings from the Kurpie region are often symmetrical and intricate, usually of a single color. Those from Łowicz in central Poland, however, are multi-coloured and achieved by layering multiple pieces of cuttings together. They often depict peacocks, roosters and other birds, as well as a variety of rural scenes.
Europe & USA
Scherenschnitte, the art of paper cutting, is German for ‘scissors cutting’. After spreading from China to Europe, paper cutting became a popular tradition in countries such as Germany and Denmark. Early cuttings were usually palm-sized, and many antique cuttings have been found inside old pocket watches. These were thought to have been collected by the wealthy.
In the 18th century, when German immigrants moved from Europe to Pennsylvania, they brought the craft with them, beginning the art of paper cutting in the United States. Paper cutting then spread across America, and common designs included silhouettes, valentines, and love letters.
Hans Christian Andersen, the Danish author, may be famous for his books, such as ‘The Little Mermaid’ and “The Ugly Duckling’. But did you know that he shared a love for paper cutting? In a letter from July 1867, he wrote:
“Paper cutting is the prelude to writing.”
He was said to have been snipping away at designs while telling his charming tales to his audience. At the end of his story, he would open his finished cuttings and amaze everyone listening. Many of his famous paper cuttings are featured at the Hans Christian Andersen Museum in Denmark.
Now, contemporary paper cutting is more commonly practised and is considered fine art, with works of incredibly skilled paper cutting artists showcased in galleries around the world. Take the paper microorganisms of Anglo-Irish artist Rogan Brown for example.
Using both hand and laser-cut incisions, his impressive attention to detail creates eye-opening works of art. We can hardly believe this was made from paper!
Back to the place where it all started, Chinese paper cutting or 剪紙 (jiǎn zhǐ) was at its peak during the Ming (1368 – 1644) and Qing (1644 – 1912) Dynasties. Paper cuttings were widely used to decorate all sorts of objects, from ceramics to fans and lanterns. Read more about its history and development here.
However, in modern times, the traditional art of Chinese paper cutting has already started to lose its popularity. In a bid to preserve the craft, folk artists and cultural officers are pushing for greater awareness of the folk art, encouraging the younger generation to learn about it from masters of the craft.
In 2009, Chinese Paper-cut was added to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Rejoice! The art of Chinese paper cutting has since been shared worldwide, in the form of art exhibitions, museums and workshops dedicated to teaching other cultures about the craft.
The art of paper cutting is now an integral part of many cultures. We’ve seen it shift from a traditional art form to a prominent existence in contemporary arts. A big thank you to all the paper cutting artists worldwide that are helping to keep the craft alive! Paper cutting works have never failed to impress and we, at Culturally, believe that paper cutting is here to stay.
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Come join in the paper cutting fun with us at Culturally! We offer customised hands-on cultural experiences for you and your loved ones to enjoy and have fun whilst learning about other cultures! Find out more here.