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Slicing into the future

By Xing Yi | China Daily | Updated: 2020-02-14 07:17
Li Shiyi instructs a young participant in her paper-cutting course in her studio in Shanghai. [Photo provided to China Daily]

A father and daughter seek to popularize traditional Chinese paper-cutting.

After folding a piece of red paper in half, Li Shiyi carefully trims off a portion before unfolding the paper to reveal an auspicious design of two mice holding a gourd.

"The mouse is one of the Chinese zodiac animals, and the gourd represents great fortune," says Li.

It takes two minutes to turn an ordinary piece of paper into an outstanding artwork.

Li, 29, is among the few remaining artists of traditional Chinese paper-cutting, an intangible cultural heritage that was first documented by historian Sima Qian 2,000 years ago.

"I want to revive this form of art and popularize it among today's young people," Li says, when asked about her motivations behind choosing this line of work.

Li and her team, known as Yixiang Tiankai, work in a three-story shikumen-style house in Tianzifang, a historical tourist attraction in the old town of Shanghai that was converted into a studio. The first floor sells various art souvenirs. The second floor is used as an exhibition space and a classroom for paper-cutting, and the third hosts office spaces.

The studio offers a variety of paper-cutting courses for children, young people and foreigners.

To attract tourists and company workers, Li and her colleagues launched team-building programs as well as short courses that span from one to two hours.

"We want to break the stereotype that Chinese paper-cutting is outdated and that its designs are limited to 'double happiness' characters. I teach people to create designs based on their own ideas," she says. "Paper-cutting may be traditional, but it can also be fashionable."

Li was born into a family of artists. Her grandfather, Li Tingyi, was an art designer for the Shanghai Wave magazine in the 1960s and one of his paper-cutting works was published in a pictorial magazine in the Soviet Union.

Her father, Li Shoubai, is an award-winning painter and a municipal-level inheritor of the Shanghai-style paper-cutting technique. His works have been exhibited at home and abroad, in countries such as France, Austria, Japan and Singapore.

Li Shiyi learned painting and paper-cutting from her father when she was a child. She continued to hone her skills in these areas even when she was studying law in college. She later earned a master's degree in art at the University of Westminster in 2015.

"My father is purely an artist. I, on the other hand, have focused more on the business side of things," she says, adding that she has been responsible for efforts in expanding the family business since she graduated.

Today, 58-year-old Li Shoubai works on the fifth floor of A-Zenith, a company in Shanghai that specializes in retro-style furniture from 1900s Shanghai.

In a partnership with the company, Li Shoubai gets to use half of the level as his studio. In return, he helps the company to design furniture and decorative elements.

Li Shoubai learned painting and paper-cutting from his father before leaving the country in the 1990s to work as a painter for a company in Singapore.

During his time in the Southeast Asian country, he developed a passion for painting subjects related to old Shanghai.

"Shikumen-style buildings, women in cheongsam, the Huangpu River and Suzhou Creek-these are the subjects that I feel the most about," says Li Shoubai.

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