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Chinese Paper Cutting

In the middle of the year, the stress of teaching and constantly adapting to life in a wildly different country can take its toll on you. Relieving tension every once in a while is a necessary precaution to ensure a smooth finish down the last stretch of the semester. And what better way to relieve stress than to pick up a pair of sharp scissors and meticulously carve a piece of paper into a gorgeous bunny rabbit? Enter the art of Chinese paper cutting.

By now, most of us have heard of Adult Colouring Books. You know, the books with pages upon pages of pictures with extremely detailed lines, shapes, and contours that are supposed to be a way of relieving stress and bringing us back to a more joyous period in our lives?


Adult Colouring Books: make sure you don’t colour outside the lines!

Chinese paper cutting feels like an ancient equivalent to Adult Colouring Books, and though used more for decorative purposes rather than stress relieving, I felt strangely at ease as my scissors made soft little crunches into the paper, my concentration blossoming into a rosy wreath that sheltered me against the overwhelming weight of the world. Bit of an exaggeration, yes, but it was surprisingly fun.

Chinese paper cutting originated around the 6th century, chiefly being used as decorations for women’s hair and in sacred rituals to worship ancient gods. As time went on, paper cuttings were used to adorn windows and houses, either during festivals or just to spruce things up. As a folk art, it was and still remains quite popular with rural women, with brides to be sometimes being judged on their paper cutting skills. The art form is well-known throughout China, and the beauty and complexity of the designs makes them good gifts and even better tourist bait.

Our instructor made this colossal paper cutting

About 15 English teachers entered the room at our company’s office, unsure of exactly what we were getting into but at least we were promised a cultural experience which, in reality, has a fairly equal chance of being good or bad. After some brief chit chat and catch up, our paper cutting expert arrived and began her presentation. She gave us a brief introduction to the history of paper cutting, how the designs and uses changed through the rises and falls of different dynasties, and how the styles vary between different regions of China. In the south, designs are traditionally more elegant and decorative. In the central coast (Jiangsu and Zhejiang), the designs are more spiritual and focus on natural objects like fruits, flowers and animals. Northern designs are known for their complexity and eccentricity, unbounded by traditional patterns and aesthetics and pushing the boundaries of what paper cutting can be.

southern chinese paper cutting
Example of a southern style paper cutting. Elegant and detailed

Each of us was handed a pair of scissors and a design, mostly cute animals and a house. To be more precise, paper cutters usually use a knife and a board to achieve a more complex design, but since our designs were relatively simple, scissors sufficed. My task was to cut out a fierce tiger with minimal slip ups. It wasn’t easy. I focused my energies on cutting as elegantly and precisely as possible, but I soon found perfection elusive. My worries were calmed as I listened to the grumbles and complaints of the other teachers trying desperately not to cut too much outside the lines, giving me reassurance that I wasn’t the only one wanting to do a masterful job. Pretty soon, my fellow teacher friends were quickly finishing up their designs, providing me with the hope and motivation needed to finish my paper tiger. And just like a paper tiger, what seemed like a fearsome animal turned out to not be such a Herculean task after all. I’d say we all made passable, if somewhat impatient, amateur paper cutters in the end.

All the teachers vigorously carving into bits of paper, creating masterful designs with a mere pair of scissors


A cute lil’ bunny


An intricately carved ssssssnake


My paper tiger! Not the best, but not too shabby, eh?


This butterfly is lookin’ fly

For more info on Chinese paper cutting, check these links out:

China Highlights

Travel China Guide

Cultural China

Published inChina LifeCulture

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