There are several items that most women would consider to be daily essentials that they need to have in their purses at all times. Few would consider a pair of scissors to be among these items. But for Shi Qinling, this tool has been with her everywhere she goes for the past decade-not as a means of self-protection but artistic expression.
To this paper-cutting artist, scissors are like what brushes are to painters, or what pens are to writers. Always having a pair of scissors on her also allows her to create art whenever inspiration hits. Most of her paper-cutting works are inspired from moments in daily life, such as a neighbor's dog, her own pets and scenes on the streets.
"Some people like to pen their feelings in diaries. I prefer to cut them out," says the 35-year-old, who is currently working at the Fenglin community cultural activity center in Shanghai.
Shi developed an interest in handicraft when she was a child who often found herself alone at home. Out of boredom, she would play with scrap paper, folding and cutting them into different shapes. This interest later developed into a passion, one that she decided to pursue by majoring in arts and crafts design during her time in university. After graduation, however, she found herself working at a ship design company as she was unsure about what she wanted to do with her future. About a year later, the Shanghai Arts and Crafts Research Institute offered her a position in their paper-cutting department.
Realizing that she still had a love for the craft, she made the career switch. The initial experience, however, was not something she enjoyed.
"It was very boring at the beginning as I had to spend at least eight hours cutting one single shape every day for a whole week. However, when I was deemed qualified to attempt a more difficult shape, I gained a sense of achievement, and this encouraged me to soldier on," says Shi.
In 2010, she started learning paper-cutting from Xi Xiaoqin, the national inheritor of the intangible cultural heritage for paper-cutting. Three years later, one of her works, The Fighting Fish, won third place at the Baihua Cup, a competition for Chinese arts and crafts. Six years later, Shi was named a Shanghai paper-cutting inheritor and become the city's "youngest inheritor" of the paper-cutting heritage.
Over the past decade, Shi's works have been exhibited in 23 exhibitions.
Similar to local dialects, paper-cutting comes in different styles, depending on the region. In general, the paper-cutting artworks in the country's northern area are usually rough patterns used as decorations on windows, walls, roofs, lanterns and other household items. In southern China, paper-cutting is used as the base pattern for embroidery and requires more exquisite workmanship. Shanghai paper-cutting, on the other hand, is a combination of these two styles. Since the 1960s, Shanghai paper-cutting has been more frequently adopted in artworks and handicrafts.
Shi and her colleagues are now planning to produce cultural and creative goods to attract more people to learn paper-cutting.
"About seven to eight years ago, more and more young white-collar workers started to show an interest in paper-cutting, which seems to be easier to pick up compared with other traditional handicrafts such as embroidery," says Bao Lifeng, Shi's colleague at the Fenglin community cultural center.
Bao is also an inheritor of Shanghai paper-cutting, which was included in the first national intangible cultural heritage protection list in 2008.
There are now more than 100 people working on a Shanghai paper-cutting project, which aims to promote and develop folk arts. The project involves organizing courses, activities, exhibitions and competitions in the Fenglin community.
"We are very proud to have this unique folk culture and art project. As we have the responsibility to protect and inherit this cultural heritage, we will make more efforts to attract people from different age groups and different fields to try paper-cutting," says Liu Li, director of the Fenglin community development office.
Although Shi is already so skilled in the craft that she can create an animal pattern in 10 minutes without even having to trace the outlines, the artist continues to hone her skills every day. The reason is that she views paper-cutting as not just an art form, but also a form of learning about traditional Chinese culture.
For example, one of her recent pieces, which is related to the Naxi ethnic group in China's Yunnan province, required her to spend nearly a month performing research on the traditions and costumes so that she could create an artwork that accurately reflects the ethnic culture.
"Paper-cutting is not about cutting random patterns from paper. Writers tell stories using words. I do the same, but with a pair of scissors," says Shi.