BY Rebecca Catching
Chinese paper cutting has a history of over one thousand years, surviving famine, war and countless dynasty changes. The motifs and patterns we see today bear the symbols of Chinese traditional culture, dragons, phoenixes and various deities. At the same time, they also bear more quotidian imagery of food, villages and domestic animals.
During his childhood, Chen Hangfeng saw paper cuts laid upon food, pasted upon windows and upon the “Wudajian” (the five major pieces of furniture and appliances which made up the hope chests of Chinese newly-wed couples). At the time, when state controlled production of furniture, meant little variety in home décor, the paper cuts added warmth and levity to factory-made goods. Hangfeng admits that he was so fascinated by the paper cuts, that he even pilfered one from a relative’s wedding.
At school, the young Edward Scissor Hands took to cutting up his textbooks, folding the pages in half to create symmetrical patterns. “Even though I wasn’t very skilled, the patterns still fascinated me,” says Hangfeng with a passion.
Despite his naughty demeanor, he managed to graduate from an art high school and went on to study at the Shanghai University College of Fine Arts, though he learned majored oil painting, there he developed a keen appreciation for Chinese folk art. “After all the art history, I looked back at the paper cuts and realized that the way they expressed ideas is very modern. It’s simple, symmetrical, powerful and graphic,” recalls Hangfeng, “I looked at these marvelous works and I thought that they were much cooler than much of the ‘so-called’ modern art.”
The more Hangfeng learned about paper cuts, the more he lamented their disappearance. After reading a book by Lu Shengzhong, Goodbye Tradition, he began to realize that the paper cuts available on the market, for weddings and other special occasions were of a limited number of patterns and lacked the creativity of the originals. Thus he felt compelled to do something with the art form.
On a trip to Canada, he had the chance to pick up a copy of Culture Jam, by Adbusters founder Kalle Lasn which introduced him to the concept of branding awareness. He grew up in a time when there was little need for such awareness because there were very few brands to choose from. He can remember his first drink of Coca-cola at the age of ten, “it tasted like cough syrup,” Hangfeng recalls. Now twenty years later, Coke, Pepsi and many other brands have penetrated into the far reaches of the Middle Kingdom.
Says Hangfeng, “Once I saw a three to four-year-old kid, barely old enough to talk, and his mom was pointing at cars saying, ‘This is an Audi, this is a Benz. A Benz is better than an Audi, you have to remember.’ When I was a kid, I knew nothing about that since nobody told me so. This is what the brands want. They want the kids to learn about them, so they will spend money when they grow up.”
Materialism, it seems, has out-paced traditional culture. Chen sought to revive this art form by employing the scenery of every day life. In a city such as Shanghai, that scenery is largely made up of advertising. Says Hangfeng in smile, “In the past, paper cutters were surrounded by nature, animals, flowers and trees, but now we’re surrounded by brands.”