Li Yun Xia: The Soul in the Scissors


"I feel a connection with Shaanxi through the scissors," says Hong Kong-based paper cut artist Li Yun Xia. In a few words, she measures the distance between Hong Kong and her native Shaanxi province in China, crossing millennia as she remembers the home of an ancient art form.

Daughter of the Ocean, 2010, Papercut, Li Yun Xia

Daughter of the Ocean, 2010, Papercut, Li Yun Xia


"For centuries, paper cutting was the main pastime for both married and single women in the province, and it is linked to embroidery. Paper cutting skills came first, followed by embroidery and then looks. I was discovered while working at Hannan University in 1990 and shortlisted out of 400 students because I was able to improvise the cutting. The others had to draw the images first."

Li Yun Xia, a renowned Chinese paper cut artist, was taught paper cutting by her mother when she was six years old. As a teenager, she was recruited by the China Folk Cultural Village of Shenzhen. Her works became political gifts for figures such as former US president Richard Nixon and Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Soul in the Scissors, Papercut, 2006, Li Yun Xia

Soul in the Scissors, Papercut, 2006, Li Yun Xia

Shaanxi's rural setting has shaped Li's work, and the beliefs and aesthetic values of the people of the Loess Plateau are encoded in the artwork. While being a traditional art form that dates back to the sixth century AD, paper cutting transcends the artistic methods of painting and drawing. Not being confined by such principles has given the artists an essential freedom.

According to Chen Jing, vice president and president of the FolkArts Committee in New York: "The form is no longer shaped from observation from without, but rather from introspection and perception from within."

Daughter of the Ocean, 2010, Papercut, Li Yun Xia

Daughter of the Ocean, 2010, Papercut, Li Yun Xia

The cutting process lends itself to a representational art form as the scissors manipulate shapes that make the images symbolic. Unlike pencil and brush, which can manipulate shade, colour, and depth, scissors have the emotive power to shape the paper itself.

"Whether happy or sad, the women of Shaanxi express themselves through paper cutting," said Li. "I have found that this art form is directly attuned to my emotions, and the imagery is a reflection of my moods and ideas."

The emotional intensity of the line and the shape of the figure have a wavelike quality that reflects the artist's inner world. This also tells the story of Li's personal journey. In 2000, she moved to Hong Kong, where she had to find a new direction artistically.

In Hong Kong, she reconnected with Shaanxi through cutting her familiar folk art, and it looks to be a difficult form as she reflected on it from a different place. But, her reinterpretation was a melancholy longing for home rather than a cultural affirmation.

"These were touchstones of my homeland," said Li. "I began to cut images of pomegranates and rural people working the land, but with that came symbols of rebirth and feminine forms."

Universality came out of this imagery that was an essential response to personal experience. The cut has become a mode of individual expression rather than one of artistic tradition. Yet, rather than betraying tradition, she made full use of the creative scope that the art form has long provided for.

Her composition "The Lady of the Sea" depicts a female form rising out of an ocean. The long hair of the lady could easily represent turbulent waves. As it transforms into the image of the lady's exaggerated breast, a symbol of female power arises that is as coherent as any cultural motif.

This transformation is also evident in the use of black paper. According to the Chinese artist tradition, black is not a lucky color. But, tradition may not be an issue, especially with the folk art's essential versatility. Li's work is an example of how the art can still evolve while respecting its origins.

"I expressed a longing for my homeland in my work," said Li. "This transformed it in a way that makes me artistically independent. But, even if this best reflects my present situation, it is a departure more than a complete cut from tradition. I can never lose contact as long as I continue to express myself through the scissors."

Words Remo Notarianni

ProfilesDaryl Mitchell