Veteran paper-cutting craftswoman's designs impress

Updated: Oct 18, 2021 Print
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With a pair of scissors in her right hand and red paper on the left, Ji Yulan, creates the image of a smiling child on the paper within five minutes.

The 53-year-old craftswoman, an inheritor of the intangible heritage paper-cutting from Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, has been engaged in the art for over 40 years.

Exquisite red paper-cut decorations stand out against the white dress she is wearing, a paper-cut image of a child on her chest and two clusters of grape paper-cut earrings dropping to her shoulders.

Paper-cutting, the traditional Chinese folk art of cutting colorful paper into patterns with scissors or a knife, was included in the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009.

Ji was born and grew up in Turpan, a city in Xinjiang where the oldest surviving paper-cut pieces, from about 1,500 year ago were found. The craftswoman is proud when it comes to this history and she brought the ancient pieces alive by replicating them.

She formed her ties with paper-cutting at age seven. Growing up with her grandmother in rural Turpan, Ji was deeply influenced by her grandmother's fondness for the folk art.

"I will never forget the scene when my grandma was cutting various patterns that cast shadows on the wall through candlelight," she said. Her grandma was the person who cultivated her lifetime enthusiasm for the skill.

The craftswoman devoted all her spare time to paper-cutting before retiring. She always takes a pair of scissors with her so that she can create something when she wants to, Ji said.

Ji draws inspirations from the culture and people's life experiences in Turpan, a city famous for its grapes and importance on the ancient Silk Road, and integrates them into her works. Her pieces feature grapes, grape vines and Uyghur children.

"I am moved by the land where I grew up," she said, adding that as she learns more about the customs and culture of her hometown, the desire to create grows more intense.

Her masterpiece is a blue and white porcelain-color paper-cut depicting a women from Loulan, a vanished civilization along the ancient Silk Road.

In the picture, the woman in the center is silhouetted by fluttering grape leaves, and her headscarf looks like a raisin house, a ubiquitous hut in Turpan used to dry grapes.

The woman holds a pomegranate on her chest, which symbolizes the unity of ethnic groups in China, the closeness just like the seeds of the pomegranate. The camels below the woman represent Turpan's role as an important city on the ancient Silk Road.

"The woman is like the breeze in March in my mind. Her eyes are closed, but the sweetness of the grapes from her hometown is in her heart," the paper-cut artist said of her creation.

Ji said a complete paper-cut work needs to have its language symbols, regional characteristics and thematic ideas. Each of her paper-cut works has a story behind it.

A symbol that appears often in Ji's work is the sawtooth pattern. The sawtooth pattern is shaped like a burning fire, symbolizing Turpan. The place is known as "the city of fire" with the temperature reaching 50 C in summer and lacking rain all year long, benefiting its grape-growing industry.

In 2019, Ji started her paper-cutting studio in the Grape Valley scenic spot, a famous tourist destination in Turpan. Free space was provided in a bazaar to more than 20 craftsman like Ji to promote the protection of local intangible culture heritage.

Other intangible cultural heritage at the autonomous region and municipal levels are expected to be introduced into the bazaar this year, said Zhang Mingming, deputy general manager of the Turpan section of a local tourism company in charge of the project.

In an intangible cultural heritage products fair held by the scenic spot last year, Ji's paper-cut series themed on fighting the COVID-19 pandemic attracted many tourists. One piece features a medical staffer with long, beautiful hair wearing a mask.

Ji was deeply impressed by female medical workers who cut their long hair short to better fit into protective suits while fighting in the front line against the epidemic.

"Women are charming in long hair and it took a lot courage to cut it," she said. Ji created a paper-cutting work illustrating the image, in which the medical staffer has her long hair back. She named the piece The Angel in Harm's Way.

She also made paper-cut images for people from other walks of life who fought on the front line. Common knowledge of epidemic prevention and control, including hand washing and ventilation, have been designed in her paper-cut works to foster awareness.

To promote the paper-cutting culture, Ji regularly teaches in communities, nursing homes and other places, and often goes to rural areas to learn about local paper-cutting customs and draw inspiration for her works.

"The paper-cutting art comes from the folk and it should return to the people," she said.

Ji has 12 apprentices, aged from 3 to 23. "They found their interest in paper-cutting and came to me to learn it," she said. Ji often encourages her students to create something using a younger mindset.

Xiao Wenxuan, 13, a junior school student, has been a veteran in the field since she started learning from Ji when she was about 4 years old. Ji said the girl often told her that she also wants to be an inheritor of the craft.

"I am positive of the future of the craft. Younger generations have the sense of cultural heritage," she added.

Ji keeps practicing paper-cutting every day, and her works hang in her studio and appear in every corner of her home. She also learned to share her works on video-sharing platform Douyin to increase her audience.

"Choose one thing, love it for a life time", she said she likes the saying and has been practicing it.

Liao Yifan, GaoYaman, Li Yifan, Xing Zuyi in Turpan contributed to the story.

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