Chinese Paper and Art — Paper Cutting, Oil Paper Umbrella, Kite, and Other Delicate Art Forms

Chinese Paper Cutting Artwork by Wen Tao.

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 hadn't been widely used during that period. 

Paper Map of Western Han Dynasty Unearthed from Fangmatan Site

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 the year 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, later spread worldwide, and made significant contributions to preserving and disseminating history and culture. 

Characters and Articles Written on Chinese Paper, by Zhao Mengfu (1254 — 1322)

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 as secretary and counselor of the emperor, and head leader of the Palace Workshop, when he reformed paper-making, as well as other production techniques, such as high-quality imperial swords. 

Chinese Papermaking Steps Depicted in Encyclopedia "Tiangong Kaiwu", Complied by Song Yingxing and Published in 1637.

Chinese Papermaking Steps Depicted in Encyclopedia "Tiangong Kaiwu", Complied by Song Yingxing and Published in 1637. 

The Invention of Xuan Paper or Rice Paper the King of Papers

 

In Tang Dynasty (618 — 907), Xuan Paper (or Rice Paper), the best paper for Chinese Calligraphy and Painting and long-term preservation, had been invented and popularized. 

 

Xuan Paper or Rice Paper is soft and smooth as silk, clean and strong 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)

Part of "Five Oxen", the Earliest Extant Paper Painting in China, Painted by Han Huang (723 — 787) — Palace Museum

Today, 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. 

Exquisite Paper with Golden Dragon and Cloud Patterns, on Which has Calligraphy Work of Emperor Huizhong of Song

Exquisite Paper with Golden Dragon and Cloud Patterns, on Which has Calligraphy Work of Emperor Huizhong of Song (1082 — 1135) — Liaoning Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

 

Paper Cutting — The Exceptional Paper Artwork

 

Chinese Paper Cutting or Jianzhi is exceptional and popular folk art, which 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.

Chinese Paper Cutting Rabbit and Auspicious Gourds, by Li Zhimei.

Therefore, in history, unless exquisite ones were made for sale or for 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 exceptional paper-cutting art form, which now is listed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Chinese Paper Cutting Figures, Picture from Juzi Shuijing.

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 popular.  

 

The original and most traditional Chinese paper cutting is symmetry and monochrome, usually red color. 

 

Gradually, more technics have been applied, which developed colorful and three-dimensional paper-cutting artwork.  

Traditional Chinese Paper Cutting Flowers

Traditional Chinese Paper Cutting Flowers by Wen Tao.

Designs and Popular Patterns of Chinese Paper Cutting

 

Since Chinese Paper Cutting is mostly used for specific festivals and occasions, there are some famous patterns throughout history. 

 

 

 

  • Other pictures to pray for good luck. 

 

Click to Read More Auspicious Patterns and Symbols

Chinese Paper Cutting For Character Lucky "Fu"

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;

Porcelain Vase with Paper Cutting Applique of the Northern Song Dynasty (960 — 1127)

Porcelain Vase with Paper Cutting Applique of the Northern Song Dynasty (960 — 1127)

  • Decorate houses, usually stick 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;

 

Chinese Shadow Play

Chinese Shadow Play, Picture from Jianghun Studio.

  • Exorcise evils and bad luck;

 

  • In spiritualism and other divine worship ceremonies. 

Traditional Chinese Paper Cutting Horse by Qin Shijiao.

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 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 clear representations of one's social status. 

Umbrella Gai on Bronze Chariot Unearthed from the Terracotta Army of Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang (259 BC — 210 BC).

Umbrella Gai on Bronze Chariot Unearthed from the Terracotta Army of Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang (259 BC — 210 BC). 

The Umbrella for civilians to shield from rain, in folklores, 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 or bamboo, or animal fur. 

Bronze Umbrella Handle of The Western Han Dynasty (202 BC — 8 AD) Inlaid with Exquisite Gold and Silver Decorations

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 cheaper price and way more practical. 

 

Moreover, an authentic Oil Paper Umbrella, though made of paper, is of very good quality, which can shield people from heavy rain and scorching sunlight.

Chinese Umbrella the Oil Paper Umbrella

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

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.

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 for Oil Paper Umbrella in Chinese sounds like "having kids". 

 

In Traditional Chinese Weddings in some places, the bride would use a red umbrella when she's outdoors, meaning a happy family with many wonderful kids. 

Shield and Protection

 

The commonest use of umbrellas is to protect people from the rain. In some places, people would hang Oil Paper Umbrella to dispel evil and bad luck.

Hanging Chinese Umbrellas

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 symbolizes 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. 

Imperial Umbrella "Hua Gai" on Painting "The Qianlong Emperor's Southern Inspection Tour" by Xu Yang in 1751

Imperial Umbrella "Hua Gai" on Painting "The Qianlong Emperor's Southern Inspection Tour" by Xu Yang in 1751, Preserved in National Museum of China.

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

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 has been the brilliant and delicate paper art flying across clouds in the sky. 

 

Invention and History of Chinese Kites

 

The earliest Chinese kite was believed a wood-made bird that can 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

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 the kite-making since then.  

 

As time goes 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 would produce 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

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 he was enclosed by rebellious armies; 

 

  • 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"

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 some famous local schools, such as Weifang, Beijing, Tianjin, Nantong, Kaifeng, Yangjiang, etc. 

 

According to structures and shapes, traditional Chinese kites include:

 

Soft Winged Kites

 

Usually shaped like birds or insects, with a hard backbone and big soft wings that can flip while flying in the sky. 

Dragonfly Shaped Soft Winged Kite

Dragonfly Shaped Soft Winged Kite, Made by Liu Bin.

Hard Winged Kites

 

Made of an integrated bamboo skeleton, with two wings bend backward. 

Hard Winged Kite Painted with Goddess Magu

Hard Winged Kite Painted with Goddess Magu

Flat Kites

 

Usually are symmetric and have long tails, the easiest kite to make.

Chinese Flat Kite

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

Composite Kite With A Dragon Head and Facial Designs of Peking Opera, Picture from Yafeng.

Three Dimensional Kites

 

Kites that consist of one or more cylinders or cuboids as main bodies, such as palace lanterns and vases, usually are quite lifelike and exquisite. 

Three Dimensional Kites of Figures on Famous Novel "Journey to the West"

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, paper has been used in other art forms throughout history. 

 

Famous Chinese paper art includes paper fans, paper lanterns, paper screens, paper flowers, paper models, paper folding, paper carving, and so on. 

Three Dimensional Paper Carving of Chinese Dragon and Phoenix by Artist Lai Jiawei.

Three Dimensional Paper Carving of Chinese Dragon and Phoenix by Artist Lai Jiawei.

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