Li Yang in Beijing and Sun Ruisheng in Daixian county, Shanxi province, tell the story of paper-cutting artist Zhang Yansong, who is determined to take the ancient art forward for the benefit of the people
When she travels back in time to her childhood in Xinzhou, Shanxi province, Zhang Yansong hears the sweet, melodious chirps of magpies combined by the controlled yet euphonious snips of a pair of scissors her grandma used to employ to cut papers. This is how the 49-year-old paper-cutting artist remembers the days she spent in her hometown.
With a few controlled but elegant snips, Zhang's grandma used to shape lively magpies out of mundane pieces of paper, without ever having to draw the patterns of the bird in advance. Zhang's grandmother was a self-taught paper-cutting artist, famous for her work which could be pasted on window panes as decoration in Xinzhou, an ancient town with more than 2,000 years' history. In particular, Xinzhou is known for its traditional paper-cutting style.
It was from her grandma that Zhang learned the time-honored skill that dates back to making patterns for sacrificial ceremonies in ancient times. But she learned the art as a hobby rather than a means to make a living. That is, until her paper-cutting talent was discovered by the local education bureau after she had been working as a kindergarten teacher for 20 years since graduating from college.
That fateful occasion was the presentation of a story, Little Tadpoles Look for their Mom, by Zhang through paper-cuts at a New Year's gala in 2012.
Intangible cultural heritage of Daixian
After that, she was transferred from the kindergarten, where she had also honed her paper-cutting skills, to the Youth Activity Center of Daixian county of Xinzhou to teach paper-cutting to the students. Five years before her transfer, in 2007 to be precise, Daixian paper-cutting was recognized as an intangible cultural heritage of Xinzhou.
Zhang and her husband founded a paper-cutting company in 2012. And thanks to her achievements and contribution to the traditional art, Zhang was identified as an inheritor of the cultural heritage in 2014.
Whether the ancient art form will survive in the information age is a question that has always haunted Zhang. To develop her company's core competitiveness, Zhang learned the nuances and gained advanced knowledge of the fine arts from Zhang Jun, a local fine arts master in Daixian. Zhang Jun also helped her greatly improve her paper-cutting designs.
In 2014, Zhang Yansong went to Yuxian county in Shanxi's neighboring province of Hebei to learn multi-layer paper-cutting skills from a local master, Li Min. While Daixian paper-cutting focuses on details, Yuxian paper-cutting lays more emphasis on shapes. Zhang believes it is important to draw on both styles' strengths to become a better artist.
The learning and training she received from the masters have broadened her vision and paper-cutting style and designs, which encouraged her to try her hand at creating scenic spots using her paper-cutting skills. She has successfully produced such scenic spots as the Yungang Grottoes in Datong and Yanmen Pass, both in Shanxi, and other folk art patterns in a bid to spread the Shanxi culture across the country.
Real turning point in Zhang's career
In July 2017, Zhang's works were exhibited at the Prince Kung's Palace Museum in Beijing, thanks to a poverty alleviation project sponsored by the museum. At the museum, Zhang demonstrated an exclusive paper-cutting technique, "just one cut", before visitors. Using just one cut of the scissors, she could make any of the 12 Chinese zodiac signs. Her "tricks" enchanted the visitors so much that the 30-odd paper-cutting works she had taken to the exhibition were sold out in less than an hour.
"At first, I was not that confident about our creations in a city like Beijing. So I carried only a small part of our inventory to the museum," Zhang said.
The response she got at the Beijing exhibition boosted Zhang's confidence, as well as that of her colleagues, and assured them about the future. Minutely studying the customers' feedback, Zhang created more than 2,000 new designs of 40 different kinds within a short time. Today, the retail outlet in the museum has become the main sales channel for her products in Beijing.
To attract more customers, Zhang explores new contents, and adds new elements to the products to increase their appeal. For instance, her portraits of the Chinese gold medalists at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics (which was held in 2021) proved very popular.
But Zhang's quest is not limited to creating new designs or attracting more customers for her products. She teaches local farmers the basic paper-cutting skills for free, and makes the designs herself according to the customers' requirements. And the farmers cut the paper following her designs and instructions. Thanks to her efforts, at least 300 local families have lifted themselves out of poverty in recent years.
"Many women in the village know some basic paper-cutting skills," Zhang said. "They can make good products with just a little guidance. Some of them are even better at using scissors than me. They have nothing to do in their spare time, so they can devote it to paper-cutting to increase their income, somewhat. "
Niu Meisheng, a local farmer in her 60s, said: "We learned paper-cutting when we were young. Zhang helps us to transform the skill into income, so that we can take better care of our family and do farm work instead of migrating to cities in search of higher income." Niu added that paper-cutting has helped increase her income by 3,000 yuan ($471) to 4,000 yuan a year.
The most difficult part of paper-cutting, according to Zhang, is the basic skill, followed by design. "It is an art that relies heavily on experience. It is only through practice that a paper-cutting artist will know where to cut and where to connect." A paper-cutting master must be a fine artist with rich imagination, Zhang said. "We have many paper-cutting workers but few paper-cutting artists."
Zhang now focuses on research and development, so she can help integrate other folk arts of Daixian with the techniques and product derivatives of paper-cutting.
Zhang owns 20 appearance patents and one invention patent, and her company sells more than 1 million pieces of paper-cutting products a year, both at home and abroad. To pass the skills to future generations, Zhang, with the support of the Daixian local government, started teaching nine lessons on paper-cutting a week at the local primary and vocational schools from last year.
According to Ji Liangsheng, a deputy director of the cultural and tourism bureau of Daixian, who is in charge of the intangible cultural heritage work, introducing a paper-cutting course in schools is necessary to raise the students' awareness about China's traditional art forms, and is conducive to cultivating potential talents.
Shen Xin, a student of the Daixian Vocational School, said: "Paper cutting is 'easy to learn' but 'difficult to excel in'. Zhang's classes have increased my knowledge and broadened my vision." Shen added that: "Zhang is meticulous… She takes every piece of work seriously."
Nowadays, enterprises are using computer-controlled paper-cutting machines to increase production. Zhang said: "True, modern technology can make paper-cutting more convenient. But at the core of paper-cutting will always be the people, the artists, whose thoughts, creations and cultural knowledge can never be replaced by machines."
In her own words, Zhang's love for paper-cutting and achievements are "gifts" from her hometown. She draws inspiration from the land and the people that have helped her become the artist she is today. And she is committed to repaying their debt, by taking the ancient art form forward for the benefit of more people.
Peng Ke'er contributed to this story.