A piece of paper is simple yet complex; it could be cut, slashed, and engraved. It embodies a history that’s commonplace and ancient; it is a cultural medium that has been used by mankind for thousands of years. It can hold a plethora of patterns, and is a carrier of everyday memories, a gathering of groups and communities. Sensitive and fragile, it tends to breathe in sync with the humidity in the air, expanding and shrinking, accordingly. Used for decorative purposes and capable of transcending beyond words and rhetoric, it is stylistically intuitive; it is feminine. It is temporal, because every fiber of its being takes on qualitative changes along with the pH values of its surrounding.
The papercut tree grows and thrives on earth, and its tree rings are durable and strong. The recent bygone decades (from 1970s to the present, roughly around 50 years) only take up 3% of its history (approximately 1500 years). It has endured urbanization and rural demise and witnessed economic shifts and turns, the rise of modular buildings, and the mass production of artificial plastic goods. It has also been entangled in the cyclone of “progression”, without a clue of where to go next. Along the way, everyday activities of paper-cutting began to drastically dwindle. Since the 1970s, many whom had realized what was happening began to go into local areas to investigate. They began to archive and classify, founding an exhibition venue and incorporating the art form into academic curriculums. They put forth great efforts to try to salvage it and to allow its vital roots to continue to grow.
Human civilization is rapidly changing, and we are in the midst of launching into a blue light-filled digital era with everything contained underneath dark, reflective screens, with the needs for paper being replaced.
Perhaps because of paper’s fragile and ephemeral quality, it having beeen preserved and passed down from generation to generation makes the warmth that it embodies even more notable in a time when blue-light-blocking has become a thing to be aware of. It is partially because of nostalgia with intricately entangled emotions, and it is also because the cultural emblem of red papercuts is still actively present in many people’s everyday lives.
Salty Zone, Birthplace of Hung Tung, Where Water Birds Reside
Learning, to be in a state of learning, to hold an ideal that is uncertain, when a maker is immersed in such state of mind, the spirit that she or he naturally exudes is one of dedication and enthrallment.
Living water, to create a spring of living water, to strive forward, to pursuit after something, the questions and desires in life, to find an exit or to seek out an answer is not necessary the aim; more importantly is to do it with all your might, and you will find that the “journey” is what fascinates and captivates.
In the hands of those women are scissors that move between pieces of paper, as ideas are inspired and emotions freely flow. The gentle glow of the Mother is intimately connected to the vitality of the land.
At times, the scissors are put on pause, with a stroll enjoyed outside the house. By the area of the Great North Gate (Beimen) are various delightful sights, or by the seashore are rows of oyster racks made with bamboo, and by the oyster shack are mounds of white oyster shells. Perhaps you will run into grandmas with straw hats and floral headscarves, as they flip and dry pieces of mullet roe under the sun. The abandoned salt field glistens with white crystals, and sometimes a flock of water birds is spotted gliding by along with the ocean breezes. In front of the temple, underneath a banyan tree, people live their lives in harmony with the sun. With a game of chess played, glimmers of the sun reflect on the fishpond; the market bustles at sunrise, followed by sunset that dazzles briefly with its infinite beauty…
Papercut is deep-rooted within this landscape, and on the map, it is noted as a waterfront place, the backyard garden of Tainan. More than just delectable catch of the day, it is a place that mesmerizes with its vastness and history. It was the birthplace of Taiwanese painter Hung Tung; it is where water birds reside.
It is quite difficult to comb through, document, and classify this, and part of the reason is because these experts are local moms. Together with their families, those moms have devoted themselves in this project and diligently created papercuts and traveled to different places to interact and befriend with others. Motivated by their families, friends, schools and organizations in their neighborhoods, they were not secluded in their homes, and were willing to paste those papercuts out on the streets, even though, those papercuts were unable to withstand the elements and faded and disintegrated in just a few days.
If papercuts fade so easily, why cut them? Why not opt for another path that is more durable and long-lasting?
This year before the annual Lantern Festival, although still in winter, there were days in Southern Taiwan that felt like summer. The moms went to the old downtown area of Tainan and pasted papercuts in the narrow historical lanes and alleyways near the city’s old roundabout. The area is where one of the pathways to Memorial Hall of Shitao Ye is located, and at that time, the Puji Temple was bustling with preparation for the Lantern Festival. With a festive vibe filling the air, the moms pasted papercuts on the wall of an old house with peeling paint, by a wall where a family’s laundry was hung out to dry, and on a glass window of a newly opened coffee shop. Along the way, a 90-year old grandma from one of the alleyways joined in to cut some paper. More and more people began to join in on the fun, including a little boy whose family runs a barbershop at the end of the lane, a backpacker from abroad that happened to walk by, and tea was offered by a woman that owns a small eatery nearby. Perhaps those moms were not experienced with managing group activities, but the energy exuded from their self-initiated action was infectious and resonated with those around them.
These people are not professional artisans; they are homemakers, pillars of their families. Where then do they find their motivation?
Having pondered extensively on this, I have then concluded with the following possibilities. For one, they hold the desire for art, or in other words, people have the natural desire to pursuit beautiful things. Another possibility is they wish to set good examples through the action they take, and to be role models for their families and friends. Coming from Jiali District in Tainan, because of the unique geographical location of the area, this small town has always exuded a sense of self-sufficiency, and compared to bigger cities, the people there seem to be more willing to learn together and to engage in acts of self-learning. Moreover, through the process of continual social interaction, the moms felt like they have gained from what they have given, because they experienced a sense of enjoyment from the action and discovered happiness through interacting with others.
Books and papercuts were also donated to schools in remote areas. The project lasted for a whole year, with a workshop held once every month, which explored the Pingpu tribal history in the Kabuasua Village, visited the night festival of the Pataran community, and witnessed a religious ceremony taking place at the Jintang Temple in Jiali District. Festive papercuts were created for Lunar New Year, followed by Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, Teacher’s Day, Water Chestnuts Harvesting Festival of Guantian, a literary seminar on Taiwanese novelist Chung Li-Ho, winter solstice, a literature exchange program, traditional pigeon competition, Mother’s Day, Dragon Boat Festival, and more. Papercut served as a simple and fundamental core element throughout these celebrations and events, with the lives of these women documented.
Besides making papercuts, these women are no strangers to self-initiated co-learning activities, which have included a scripture reading class, a children’s musical that has been passed down from generation to generation, a choir, a poetry study and writing class, and they have also recently begun learning the ukulele.
Stepping out of their homes and neighborhoods to socialize with other communities, these women are active doers.
Although unlike in big cities where there are an endless supply of events and entertainment options, these small towns are, nevertheless, full of life. This vitality comes from ordinary everyday details, from the desire to “find something to do” outside of their means of securing the necessities of life. It is a drive to be a part of a community, to give back to society, to return to the countryside, to dwell by the salt field or next to the harbor; it is an inspiration to live life, differently.
These are the reasons why I think the area of the Great North Gate is full of inexhaustible regional humanity and culture.
Papercut and Taiwan
Fundamentally, papercut involves picking up a pair of scissors to cut geometric shapes, lines, or patterns on a folded piece of paper; technically, it is not hard to start making papercuts, and most people are capable of doing it in a short span of time, especially since the materials required are readily available. This is why it has become a widely practiced and historically extensive form of folk art. It is used by people in specific regions to depict the notable features in their surroundings, with distinctive styles shaped and created. In studying folk art field archives, it is observed that nearly every region has, more or less, a papercut style that is uniquely its own.
In Taiwan, red papercuts are seen everywhere during Lunar New Year and other holidays. It has become a traditional cultural element that the people of Taiwan are familiar with. However, due to several periods of colonial rule and division of history, Taiwan, an island that borders the Pacific Ocean, does not have enough human resources to massively and collectively conduct field research for papercut. The culture of papercutting does not hold an obvious or dynamic regional symbolism or stylistic foundation in the history of Taiwan.
Nonetheless, please bear in mind that Taiwan is a land with towering mountains and is surrounded by the vast ocean; it is a land of great biodiversity, a place where different groups mingle. Taiwan does have its very own unique accent, its distinctive voice.
When the Nationalist government retreated to Taiwan from China in 1949, people brought with them lifestyles and memories from their hometowns in China. Different regional papercut styles from China thus spread throughout Taiwan, carried by sentiments of nostalgia. Prior to this, the format of papercut was mostly used by the people of the Pingpu tribes or other indigenous Taiwanese tribes as templates for craftworks and religious articles or sketches for patterns. Actual papercuts were rarely preserved, and many intricately cut and engraved papercuts were burned in rituals. As for everyday usage, papercuts were used in garment or embroidery pattern making, but paper’s sensitive, fragile quality makes it hard to preserve in the densely humid climate of Taiwan.
China began to launch its “reform and opening up policy” in the 1970s, and during this time, folk art was faced with a time of rapid replacement and drastic change. After martial law was lifted in Taiwan, freedom of the press opened up, and a lot of field research archives from China were published in Taiwan. The culture of papercut was one of them, which gradually sparked some memories or a sense of familiarity in people, and readers in Taiwan began to resonate with different papercut styles, including the robust, rugged style from Northern Shaanxi; papercuts used in shamanic rituals; or the dot-dyeing technique practiced in Yu County of Hebei Province, China.
In recent years, many handcrafters, artisans, or visual designers have been drawing inspiration from papercutting, and subsequently, papercut has been indirectly preserved and transformed in Taiwan, blossoming into a medley of forms.
An ambiguous connection seems to have risen in Taiwan, as seen with the “Double Happiness” (a traditional papercut design on red paper, commonly used as a decoration symbol of marriage) and other pictorialized papercuts. The phenomenon signifies a rebirth, and one that is uniquely Taiwanese.
Mr. Li Huan-Zhang (1925-2015), whom had retreated to Taiwan from China, was a promoter and educator of papercut in Taiwan for several decades. The style taught by him consisted predominantly of replicas of Chinese papercut patterns, and he had taught countless people throughout his career. At the turn of the millennium, creative markets began to gain popularity in Taiwan, and it was during this time that a collective of industrial designers started the “Paper Cutting & Design FUNction Design Club”, with the objective of applying papercut concepts on designed goods. Doggku Ku is another artist whose practice is profoundly connected to papercut, and Ku creates artworks that are closely linked to everyday life, with subjects of nature and literature integrated. Unique styles have also been demonstrated by other artists, such as Hsia Hsia and ChiuYu-Wen.
Taiwan is free and earnest, which has resulted in an environment that is healthy and decent, and its youths are quite bold in voicing their opinions and willing to take risks in creating their own paths in life. Its local communities and neighborhoods strive to be good and work hard for the pursuit of a life that is beautiful; they do what they do out of joy and happiness and are not driven by political agendas.
There doesn’t seem to be a great divide between private or public, which are simply just terms used to facilitate communication. The private sector or folklore has always been changing but just more drastically in recent years. Looking back on the history of papercutting, papercuts that were found in rural areas in the past, which were pieces of paper that connected to a spiritual domain leading to the heaven and earth, have disappeared.
The shaping of a regional style doesn’t happen in just a few years or a few decades; sometimes, it may take several generations before such a style could accrue and take shape. Because of paper’s ephemeral quality, it requires an extensive period of time for it to accumulate.
The use of traditional Chinese characters in Taiwan denotes a unique cultural dynamic, which exudes a sense of temporality that is aligned with paper.
In the present time when the medium for writing is rapidly changing, a different epochal significance has risen from this ancient cultural material – paper. Compared to blue light screens, the contact with this fibrous material via reading, rituals, or other everyday details marks an intimacy that is more tactile and connected to the body.
Just like other traditional artifacts and legacies, how to preserve good and precious spirits from the past seems to have become something that people are habitually considering.
Sometimes I would imagine that no matter how something has changed, but as long as it takes on a unique look in each and every moment of its existence, it is then able to dwell confidently in the flowing river of time and accept itself throughout the changing times; the same goes for papercutting.
The Conception of Papercut Field
During my college years, Xiju Island of Matsu was a place that I conducted extensive surveys, as I used the foundation of architecture to engage in the area. It was an experience that opened up my path of personally getting involved in local communities. Subsequently, I later by chance became a visual artist, with my creative journey divided into two directions: one that consists of artworks that are more personal, and another has to do with projects that focus on forming connections with communities or others.
“The Long March Project: Yanchuan Papercutting Archives” in China is an example that is often mentioned in visual art discourses, and it was exhibited in 2004 at the Taipei Biennial. The approach of the project was one that was logical and planarized (without selective ways of seeing). It had placed on display papercuts collected from surveys done in various areas in Luochuan County of Northern Shaanxi. A big part of the project consisted of artworks by or styles made known by Gao Feng-Lian, and the rest were more common papercuts (with styles that were not uniquely from the area of Luochuan County). From the overall perspective of fieldwork done on China’s folk art, this project provided a section that focused on Northern Shaanxi, and Gao’s highly dynamic personal style acted as a pillar that supported the unique visual appeal when the project was put on display.
Field research was fervently conducted in China in the 70s and 80s, which led to the development of different schools and thoughts. Sequentially, it was faced with the collective issue of how to incorporate “the collection and the archive”, “the demands”, and “the future direction” for folk art into the modern lifestyle. The Chinese government has in recent years implemented many census surveys and archive buildings in local regions, with private and academic sectors dictated by top-down decrees via political policies.
It is further observed that traditional culture has turned into a double-edged sword, with it used to service agendas of economy, politics, cultural and creative industries, and production.
An obvious example would be to look at papercuts created by people as decorations for their homes, as expressions of their emotions or to use in rituals and ceremonies; those personally created papercuts are quite different from wholesale papercuts sold at tourist destinations.
Shifting the focus back to Taiwan, I’ve been thinking about how to use a “backward planting” approach with papercut, which could bring the focus of my personal creative endeavors back to things that are local and regional. Imagine papercut as a simple carrier, how could it be used to contain Taiwan’s regional cultures? Bearing this in mind, I began thinking about what kind of papercut is emblematic of Tainan? What does Paiwan tribal papercut look like? How about Hakka papercut?
In the winter of 2015 at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, I and some members of the audience were making papercuts together inside the small house installed for the exhibition. I met Ms. Hsieh Mei-Ling from Jiali Township, Tainan during that event, and this serendipitous encounter would later lead to “Papercut Field - Soulangh Project.”
Subsequently, the Soulangh Cultural Park founded on old sugar refinery warehouse extended an invitation for us to realize the project there. The interim progress of the project was presented at the cultural park’s Children’s Art Museum and shared with people from the area.
For ease of project implementation and communication, the plan was to invite 20 women to take part in the project, and they were also encouraged to incorporate their families in the project. Participants were quickly gathered from Jiali District because of Hsieh Mei-Ling’s enthusiastic recruitment.
A series of workshops was then organized to gather everyone together and to start “doing something” with everyone. Preparation work was conducted prior to the workshops, including collecting information on the Jiali District, such as its history, culture, geography, local affairs, and other data, and the information was used to help people discover things about their hometown that they were unfamiliar with before. Rural schools around the area of Jiali were then visited to introduce the project and to seek help from the schools to invite the families of their students to partake in our mobile workshops.
Each workshop was then gradually adjusted according to the different spaces we were in. There were certainly some pre-planning or visions toward the project, but more often than not, improvisation was something that I preferred. When done appropriately, it could lead to more unexpected fun and surprises. Although some basic skills are required for papercutting, I do not think that is the most vital. What’s more important is to guide the participants to gain a little more insight on their surroundings and their lives and to encourage them to see things differently, to ponder more, and then to reflect on the purpose of their involvement in the project.
In a way papercutting is like a basic set of skills, and through time, it could slowly lead a person towards imaginative thoughts and gestures for art (or even for non-art matters).
Through interactions and collaborations, those participants, those women created woodblock prints, Taiwanese poetry, innovative recipes, sculptures, and even performances. They then frequently incorporated spontaneous creativities into their surroundings and interacted with local communities. We then presented interim progress of the project in an exhibition format at the old sugar refinery, starting at its Children’s Art Museum. The objective was to spark a sense of fun and new realizations in people.
Art’s Social Dynamic or Society’s Art Dynamic
The genre of papercut is highly in touch with humanity and handcrafted artistry, and it is connected to the education of aestheticism. The origin of papercutting is largely connected to shamanism; it is connected to life, faith, and is spirited like the warm, red blood. The participants of this project also demonstrated modern priestess-like energy, as they extended the dynamic of art to individual lives, to groups around them, and even showed compassion and love for the society-at-large.
New genre of public art, participatory art, art in communities and neighborhoods, and many other types of projects like these have slowly spread throughout Taiwan, with more possibilities provided to work with the changing space-times and for creative endeavors to be site-specific.
Issues raised through project-based efforts are rooted in a network of interconnected complexities. It is also a challenge to clearly define the artist’s role in a project-based artwork. Moreover, it is also difficult to categorize project-based outcomes in an archive, because it involves different ways of seeing, including through the perspectives of building and planning, visual art history, art education, or folk art. However, this potential to encompass a wide range of perspectives is what makes project-based endeavors richly appealing.
This book has extracted from the thousands of archived artworks created by this group of women. It is an attempt to preserve a part of the light that this project has sparked at this interim phase. Those small papercut trees were created through “self-initiated” actions, with creative gestures carried out to fulfill specific dreams, which then flourished and bloomed. The resources attained from their efforts were then given back to places in need, and all of this makes this group of people so lovable and admirable.
The endeavor is still ongoing, and perhaps, we are uncertain of what the project will ultimately lead to and nor do we want to nonchalantly define it. We will strive to fulfill any possibility, and it may be to meet the emotional needs of a small group of people, or perhaps, it could act as an art dynamic that could help to heal social problems. We invite anybody to pick up a piece of paper, and through folding or cutting, a light may manifest and guide our hearts and spirits forward.
( Translation by Anna Liao )
視覺藝術理論裡常常提到的例子，中國的「長征計畫 - 延川剪紙大普查」，於2004年臺北雙年展展出。這個計畫以理性、平面化（不帶有特殊挑選觀點）的方式，攤出於陝北洛川地區收集調查而來的剪紙，其中，以高鳳蓮的作品或風格為大部份奠基，另外則是較為普遍性（非洛川地區獨有風格）的剪紙，集合而成。如果從整個中國民間藝術的田野史來看，這個計畫似乎是陝北的一個切片，然而高鳳蓮的個人風格的強度，支撐了這個計畫於展覽時的視覺特殊性。
2015年末冬日在臺北市立美術館，我於現場參展的小屋與民眾一同進行剪紙創作，偶遇來自臺南佳里鎮的謝美鈴女士。「剪紙合作社 – 蕭壠計畫」始於這場偶遇。
「她們」這群參與者，以相互協進之力，實作了木刻版畫 ; 台語詩文 ; 新創食譜 ; 立體形塑 ; 乃至肢體展演，最後時時將即興創作，介入周遭生活環境，與地方社群交往互動。稍後，我們將階段性成果，以展覽形式帶回舊糖廠空間，從兒童美術館的屬性出發，希望呈現另一種好玩與啓發。
( 2019年寫，2020收錄於《剪花活》 )