Chinese Paper and Art — Paper Cutting, Oil Paper Umbrella, Kite, and Other Delicate Art Forms
Chinese Paper Cutting Artwork by Wen Tao.
History of Paper in Ancient China
Invention of Paper
Paper appeared in ancient China no later than Western Han Dynasty (202 BC — 8 AD), with clear archaeological evidence.
The quality of the earliest Chinese paper was not very good, hence wasn't widely used during that period.
Oldest Existing Piece of Paper in the World. Paper Map of Western Han Dynasty (202 BC — 8 AD), Unearthed from Fangmatan Site and Preserved in Gansu Museum.
Reform of Paper Making by Cai Lun
In 105, Cai Lun presented his reformed version of the paper to his emperor, which was smooth, high quality, and quite suitable for writing and painting.
More importantly, the raw materials of Cai Lun's paper are cheap and easy to find, and his reformed paper-making techniques can guarantee mass production.
Since then, the paper has been widely used to write and paint, spread worldwide, and significantly contributed to preserving and disseminating history and culture.
Characters and Articles Written on Paper, by Zhao Mengfu (1254 — 1322) — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Therefore, sometimes Cai Lun is regarded as the inventor of paper.
Cai Lun (61 — 121), a eunuch court official, contributed significantly to assisting Emperor Liu Zhao's (79 — 106) ascending to the throne and gaining authority and was highly trusted by the emperor and Empress Deng Sui (81 — 121).
Hence, he was promoted to secretary and counselor of the emperor, and head leader of the Palace Workshop, when he reformed paper-making and other production techniques, such as high-quality imperial swords.
The Invention of Xuan Paper or Rice Paper - the King of Papers
Xuan Paper or Rice Paper is soft and smooth as silk, clean and robust as jade, and with an excellent ability to absorb water and resist corrosion, moth, and mold.
Part of "Five Oxen", the Earliest Extant Paper Painting in China, Painted by Han Huang (723 — 787) — Palace Museum
Xuan Paper is still the most popular paper for calligraphy and traditional Chinese painting, and its production process has been listed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Meanwhile, more colors and patterns have been added to make different types of paper, and more materials and techniques are applied to make the paper smoother and finer.
Paper Cutting — The Exceptional Paper Artwork
Chinese Paper Cutting, or Jianzhi, is an exceptional and widespread folk art that has been underrated in history.
Unlike supreme art forms welcomed by royals and scholars, the Three Perfections (Poetry, Calligraphy, and Painting), or persistent crafts produced by professional artisans, such as Ceramics, sculpture, and Jade articles, Chinese Paper Cutting has been regarded as temporary decorations for holidays and ceremonies, which would be taking off with the completion of the specific events.
Chinese Paper Cutting Rabbit and Auspicious Gourds, by Li Zhimei.
Therefore, in history, unless exquisite ones were made for sale or nobles and royals, most paper cuttings were made by women as one of their necessary household duties.
Over thousands of years, however, their intelligence and great love for families have developed the distinctive paper-cutting art form, which is now listed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Chinese Paper Cutting Figures, Picture from Juzi Shuijing.
Origin and History of Chinese Paper Cutting
In ancient times, before paper was invented, people would cut or carve patterns on leaves, leather, silk, gold, or silver foil and use them as decorations to beautify their clothes and house.
Since paper-making techniques had been reformed in Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), the cheaper and mass-production paper spread into the civilian world and rapidly made paper cutting famous.
The original and traditional Chinese paper cutting is symmetry and monochrome, usually red.
Gradually, more technics have been applied, which developed colorful and three-dimensional paper-cutting artwork.
Traditional Chinese Paper Cutting Flowers by Wen Tao.
Designs and Popular Patterns of Chinese Paper Cutting
Since Chinese Paper Cutting is mainly used for specific festivals and occasions, there are some famous patterns throughout history.
Double Happiness symbol for Chinese Weddings;
Other pictures to pray for good luck.
Chinese Paper Cutting For Character Lucky "Fu", Picture from Qiuqiu.
Utilizations of Chinese Paper Cutting
Throughout history, Chinese Paper Cutting artwork has been used to:
Model for embroideries, in which women stitch refined paper cutting patterns on cloth, then made the exquisite cloth into beautiful clothes, shoes, hats, bedclothes, fans, etc.;
Print and dye cloth as plates;
Adorn porcelains before applying glaze;
Decorate houses, usually sticking to windows, doors, walls, furniture, and lamps;
Pray for blessing and fortune, mostly on worship ceremonies, festivals, and happy occasions; different types of paper cutting artwork would be placed on offerings, dowries, gifts, and unique ornaments;
Perform Shadow Play;
Chinese Shadow Play, Picture from Jianghun Studio.
Exorcise evils and bad luck;
In spiritualism and other divine worship ceremonies.
Chinese Paper Cutting Horse by Qin Shijiao.
Chinese Umbrella — Beautiful Oil Paper Umbrella Across Time
Origin and History of Ancient Chinese Umbrella
The earliest Chinese umbrellas were believed to be Gai or Deng, to protect nobles from rain, snow, and sun, and as shields from attacks.
The sizes, colors, and shapes of these umbrellas also followed strict hierarchies, which made them explicit representations of one's social status.
In folklores, the Umbrella for civilians to shield themselves from the rain was invented by the great architect and carpenter Lu Ban (507 BC — 444 BC) and his wife Lady Yun, who made a movable and foldable pavilion using bamboo stripes and animal fur.
Gradually, nobles used well-decorated silk to make umbrellas, while ordinary people used straw, bamboo, or animal fur.
Bronze Umbrella Handle of The Western Han Dynasty (202 BC — 8 AD) Inlaid with Exquisite Gold and Silver Decorations — Hebei Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
The Invention of Oil Paper Umbrella
After Cai Lun invented the advanced paper-making technics in Eastern Han Dynasty (25 — 220), people started to paint tung oil on paper to make umbrellas: the Oil Paper Umbrella, in Chinese is Youzhi San.
The Oil Paper Umbrella is light, smooth, and decorative as silk umbrellas, but with a much lower price and way more practical.
Moreover, an authentic Oil Paper Umbrella, though made of paper, is of excellent quality and can shield people from heavy rain and scorching sunlight.
Oil Paper Umbrella Making Process
Traditional Oil Paper Umbrella is handmade and complicated, with over 70 processes that usually take a professional artisan at least half a month to make.
The main processes of making a fine Oil Paper Umbrella include:
Choose bamboo with good quality;
Cut selected bamboo into components;
Precise use of water and sun to make those bamboo parts smooth, flexible, moth and mold-proof;
Assemble these bamboo components into the skeleton of the umbrella;
Colorful and Exquisite Threads that Connect Skeletons of An Oil Paper Umbrella, Photo from Handmade Creation of Wang.
Paste paper onto the bamboo skeleton, then dry it under the sun;
Paint pictures on paper, then dry them under the sun;
Apply tung oil on the umbrella evenly, with strict thickness requirements.
Pasting Painted Paper on Bamboo Skeletons to Make Chinese Umbrella.
Cultural Meaning and Utilization of Oil Paper Umbrella
Happy and Prosperous Family
The Chinese character for umbrella is some people under a roof, and the pronunciation of Oil Paper Umbrella in Chinese sounds like "having kids".
In Traditional Chinese Weddings in some places, the bride uses a red umbrella when she's outdoors, meaning a happy family with many wonderful kids.
Shield and Protection
The most typical use of umbrellas is to protect people from the rain. In some places, people hang Oil Paper umbrellas to dispel evils and bad luck.
Constant Promotion and Development
Oil Paper Umbrella's skeleton is made of bamboo, which has been the symbol of peace and development.
Honorability and Success
In ancient history, certain types of umbrellas were only allowed to use by royals, which symbolized authority and nobility.
As for civilians, taking a red Oil Paper Umbrella on their important trips had been a custom to wish for safety and success.
Love and Perfection
Round-shaped Oil Paper Umbrella symbolizes perfection, while the classy paintings and poems on top are representatives of one's aesthetic taste, talent, dream, and emotion.
Hence, in some famous folktales and legends, Oil Paper Umbrella has been used as a token of sincere, passionate, and eternal love.
Traditional Chinese Oil Paper Umbrellas, Picture from Zuijiangyue.
Chinese Kites — Ancient Paper Art Crafts in the Sky
If the Oil Paper Umbrella is beautiful paper art on earth, the kite is brilliant and delicate paper art flying across clouds in the sky.
Invention and History of Chinese Kites
The earliest Chinese kite was believed to be a wood-made bird that could fly in the sky, invented and designed by the great philosopher Mozi (about 476 BC — 390 BC).
Later, his friend and opponent, some also say his apprentice Lu Ban (507 BC — 444 BC), used bamboo stripes to make a lighter kite, which could fly even longer in the sky and was shaped like a magpie.
Traditional Chinese Kite, Picture from Guihua.
Afterward, people started to glue leaves, animal skin, and cloth on bamboo or wood skeletons to make kites until cheap and mass-produced paper appeared and dominated kite-making.
As time went by, some people attached delicate bamboo tubes to kites. When the kite is flying in the sky, and the wind blows this bamboo tube, it produces a pleasant and melodic sound like the traditional Chinese musical instrument "Zheng".
These musical kites are named "Feng Zheng", and other Chinese paper kites are named "Zhi Yuan".
Chinese Kite "Biyi Shuangfei" that Represents Eternal Love, Made by Kong Xiangze.
Utilizations of Ancient Chinese Kites
To gain information about enemies for military purposes, such as general Han Xin (? — 196 BC) successfully used kites to test the distance to his attacking targets;
To send messages, as in the year 549, King Xiao Yan (464 — 549) tried to ask for help using kites when rebellious armies enclosed him;
To carry explosive weapons, in some folklores even soldiers, to the enemy's bases;
To dispel bad luck and all negative spirits, usually on Qingming Festival, people would fly kites, then let the kite float away by cutting off the string, which represents all unpleasant things would go away forever;
To entertain, as in today, most people design and fly kites as an entertainment activity;
To pray for good luck by writing dreams and wishes on kites and sending them to the sky.
Chinese Kite Painted with Deity and Character for "Longevity"
Types of Traditional Chinese Kites
Based on production places and styles, traditional Chinese kites can be classified into famous local schools, such as Weifang, Beijing, Tianjin, Nantong, Kaifeng, Yangjiang, etc.
According to structures and shapes, traditional Chinese kites include:
Soft Winged Kites
It is usually shaped like a bird or insect, with a rugged backbone and big soft wings that can flip while flying in the sky.
Dragonfly Shaped Soft Winged Kite, Made by Liu Bin.
Hard Winged Kites
Made of an integrated bamboo skeleton, with two wings bent backward.
Hard Winged Kite Painted with Goddess Magu
Usually are symmetric and have long tails, the easiest kite to make.
Chinese Dragon Kites or Composite Kites
A type of long composite kite, with the dragon as the most popular theme in history.
Nowadays, more creative designs have been used to make composite kites, such as a series of lanterns, deities, cartoon characters, flowers, and so on.
Composite Kite With A Dragon Head and Facial Designs of Peking Opera, Picture from Yafeng.
Three Dimensional Kites
Kites with one or more cylinders or cuboids as main bodies, such as palace lanterns and vases, are usually quite lifelike and exquisite.
Three Dimensional Kites of Figures on Famous Novel "Journey to the West", Photo by Song Hebin.
Other Chinese Paper Art Forms
Besides paper cutting, kites, oil-paper umbrellas, and kites, the paper has been used in other art forms throughout history.
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