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    From exam papers to paper-cuts

2004-03-18 07:07

SHANGHAI: When Wang Jianzhong gives you his business card you will notice that he is a senior engineer at Tongji University, but he has another job that might surprise you. He is one of the city's most greatest paper-cut artists, something very few people know.

Wang, 53, is the son of Wang Zigan, the famous Shanghai-style paper-cutter who passed away four years ago at the age of 80.

Even Wang's students in Tongji University did not know until a very short time ago about their professors' special talent.

Durign Lunar New Year this year, when the Year of the Horse stepped aside for the Year of the Monkey, Wang cut out a lovely monkey in front of his colleagues and students, who were amazed at his special skill.

In only one minute, Wang can cut out any one of the 12 animals used in the Chinese counting cycle for the lunar calendar.

His left hand holding the paper and turning it in various directions, Wang uses his right hand to cut out a great variety of patterns, such as wavy lines, spirals and spikes with a pair of ordinary scissors.

Many have said that the scissors have become an extension of Wang's hand.

One of Wang's students once said jokingly, "Wang is definitely not Edward Scissorhands, but his works are a match for Edward's exquisite works (in Tim Burton's film 'Edward Scissorhands')."

Wang admitted there is no secret to paper-cutting, but the maxim says that "practice makes perfect."

His right hand shows signs of the hard work. The joints of the thumb, forefinger and middle finger are covered with thick, hard yellow calluses.

In an interview with China Daily, Wang disclosed the amazing fact that he didn't take up the folk art until the age of 38, while his father Wang Zigan had started at the age of 13. Wang initially took a completely different path than that of his father.

After labouring in the countryside for several years after graduating from high school, he went to Tongji University, majoring in mechanical engineering.

He has been teaching at Tongji University ever since he graduated, and he is now a senior engineer at the school.

In 1993, Wang's father suffered a stroke and was confined to his bed. His health degenerated quickly after that.

"I suddenly realized the urgency of learning the art from my father. If he passed away without passing on his skills, the unique art would be buried with him forever," said the son.

Wang, as the only son of the noted folk artist whose works have been collected by foreign dignitaries, then shouldered the responsibility of carrying on his father's art, which is a precious part of China's cultural heritage.

Because Wang has a lot of work to do during the day at the university, he has to use his spare time in the evenings to practise his art.

"But it is such a pleasure for me I often forget the time and stay up until 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning," Wang said.

Wang has practised paper-cutting for over 10 years, perfecting the skills acquired from his father.

Wang believes that he should not go public with his skills until he has mastered at least 90 per cent of his father's techniques. He also believes that artists should inject audacious innovation into their folk art.

He said that Chinese folk art is always dubbed as a living fossil, a reflection of the fact that it is product of the historical development of traditional culture.

"However, the biggest issue is that we should make folk art really 'live' in the hearts of young people by adding more fun and knowledge and even new technologies into it. This in turn will make it aesthetically 'alive,"' he emphasized.

Being a scholar, Wang reads extensively. This has led him to sources of innovation. He has been developing the qiaose paper cut technique (literally translated as clever cutting with coloured paper).

For example, he used a photo depicting a red flower in a black vase to create a red rooster heralding the break of the day on a black hill.

The idea is widely acclaimed by the young, who think it is really funny and requires both excellent skills and brilliant creativity.

"To this extent, I have gone beyond my father by creating a new skill, though in other skills I still lag behind," said Wang.

Wang thinks he is more fortunate than his father, who depended on paper-cutting as his only way of supporting himself before liberation in 1949.

"For me, it is only my pastime; thus, I have a lot more time than my father did to think about how to make the works look better," he said.

(China Daily 03/18/2004 page13)