"I still remember how as a child I watched my mother making paper cuts and sewing under the light of an oil lamp beside my bed. She looked mysterious when she held a paper cut in front of her face to amuse me," said Liu Jieqiong, a rural woman from Yanchuan County, in northwest China's Shaanxi Province.
The Chinese folk art of paper cutting, which uses scissors and knives to cut out patterns on paper, has been a major source of decoration in Chinese farm households for more than a thousand years, and has become an important form of artistic expression for farmers, especially women.
"I started to learn paper cutting all by myself when I was a little girl. I kept practicing and focusing on the skills. When I reached my teens, I was no stranger to this art form," said Gao Fenglian, Liu's mother, who at 73 is lauded as a model among the paper cutting artists of north China.
Gao's works reach across a wide range of subject matter. They recall ancient myth and speak to the reality of modern life. All are rich in artistic value and aesthetic sensibility, yet they remain earthy and bold and are crafted in a style all her own.
The paper cut master
Gifted with the flair for paper cutting, Gao is hailed as the master in her village. During the local festivals Gao is invited to show off her polished scissors-cutting skills. Images created under her scissors seem to exude vitality. She holds a deep reverence for the tradition but refuses to be confined by stereotypes. Her designs remain firmly rooted in the old ways yet they reveal a touch of contemporary individuality.
Jin Zhilin, a professor of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, said, "Taking this work from her as an example: She wants to express the vitality and flourish of the Chinese nation. The clock on the archway is accompanied by a lion and a dragon from primitive times. The horseback rider below serves as the door-god. All these patterns, the archway, the ornamental columns, lions, dragons, and phoenixes symbolize the perfect union of sky and earth. It speaks to the vitality of the nation that is the essence of Chinese philosophy."
Gao is a born artist in the eyes of many. She never went to school, not for one day. She's a typical rural woman who is kept busy doing everyday chores like laundry and cooking. She takes up her paper cutting implements for a little relaxation.
Gao's works made their first public appearance at a paper cutting exhibition in the mid-1980s. Soon critics nationwide were intrigued. In 1995, Gao competed with over 80 paper cutting artisans at a local competition. She won top prize for her entry "The Fairy Lady." That February, she was awarded the prize for "Special Contribution" at an invitational competition in east China's Zhejiang Province. Two months later, Gao was given another honor and won international acclaim when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) awarded her the distinction of "Master of Folk Art and Crafts."
Artist to preserver
What makes the folk artist even more extraordinary was that in 2005 she alone invested 300,000 yuan to establish the first individual art gallery in her home town, under her name. "I made paper cuttings and hire workers to carve them onto the walls. That took a lot of work," said Gao.
"You know Ku Shulan [another famous Chinese paper cut master] is dead and has nothing left behind her. I'm not going to be like that," Gao noted, adding, "I will not put down the scissors in my hand until the day I am too weak to hold them."
To pass down her skills, Gao also motivates her daughter Liu and two granddaughters to learn the folk handicraft. Liu's works have already gained a reputation and been collected by many museums and art galleries.
"Liu's works are something different from her mother's as Liu has added more modern life elements into her works," said Feng Shanyun, a local cadre in charge of cultural affairs in Yanchuan County.
In the Yanchuan County whose population is under 200,000, there are more than 10,000 who know how to make paper cuts. This is an astonishing figure but some experts do not think the large number of folk artists makes a difference.
"Paper cutting as a folk art form is closely associated with the farm lifestyle. It is more fragile than the art that is somehow independent from social soils. Folk arts, though popular, tend to pass out of existence unconsciously," said Jin Zhilin, a researcher on folk arts in northwestern Shaanxi Province. "It is even harder to rescue and protect intangible heritage than tangible cultural heritage," he added.
"Intangible culture runs in our blood, and it is this culture that distinguishes us from other peoples in the world. We can never afford to let the construction of modern society ruin our unique treasures," said Tian Qing, Director of the Beijing-based Intangible Culture Heritage Research Center.
But it is a cheering fact that not only the artists themselves are trying to preserve the traditional treasures but also the many experts, cultural officials and more ordinary people who are interested in and enthusiastic about folk arts.
In the meantime, the country has also given more attention to its slowly draining traditions.
The government in 2006 announced a list of 518 items of state-level intangible cultural heritage and 1,080 newly named key cultural relic sites under state protection.
"The number of such sites named this time is very close to the total number of those named the previous five times since 1961," said Shan Jixiang, head of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage.
Various means should be used to permanently preserve intangible heritage and to transfer it to a tangible one. On the other hand, efforts should be made to maintain a tradition's vitality by creating all conditions within the community to encourage passing it down from generation to generation, some culture heritage researchers have suggested.
China has established over 30 regulations based on the law of cultural relics protection. A law on intangible cultural relics protection is also on the drafting schedule of China's top legislature.
China has joined four international conventions concerning cultural heritage protection and investment in cultural heritage protection has also increased, said Sun Jiazheng, the Culture Minister of China.
According to Feng, funds and preferential policies are needed for the survival of folk arts and to encourage juveniles to be engaged in the arts. He listed a few ways to boost the juvenile participation in folk arts, such as through government payments to folk artists for guiding the youth, or the teaching of folk arts in schools as part of there curriculum. What counts most is to create an atmosphere, he added.