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In various languages:

Chinese                  chien-chih (with scissors)
                                  k'e chih (with a knife on a board)
Japanese                kiri-e (large, artistic cuts)
                                  monkiri (cutting shapes of mon, or family crests)
German/Swiss       scherenschnitte
Polish                       wycinanki
Dutch                        knippen

Soon after paper was invented in China in the second century, papercutting developed; first, as a way to accurately pattern embroidery and porcelain, and later as an art in its own right. Since paper was cheap, papercutting, or the art of cutting intricate shapes and designs out of paper, became a widespread Chinese folk art.

The basic techniques for cutting were developed in China, and carry through to this day. One method was to take a piece of paper and scissors with sharp blades, and snip out the design. This is called in Chinese paper cutting, or chien-chih. Another technique allows an artist to make several copies of the work, depending on the thickness of the paper. A board of wood, wax, or any other material is the cutting surface, upon which anywhere from one to several dozen sheets are placed and secured. Very sharp knives are the favored cutting tool, although chisels, punches, and stamps are used as well. This is known as k'e chih, or paper carving.

In the seventh century, papercutting spread from China to Japan. In addition to the beautiful artwork popular in China, the Japanese siezed upon this new craft as a way to duplicate mon, the circular emblems of various clans. These paper crests were used to mark family property, as most people could not read. Papercutting lost popularity in Japan with the advent of origami, but cuts are still used in katazome, or stencil dyeing.

The art spread with the trade routes, and had reached the Middle East by the eighth or ninth century. By the 1500's, Turkey boasted an entire guild of master cutters. Around the fifteenth or sixteenth century, papercutting had come to Europe, and Italy, Germany, Holland, and Switzerland had separate cutting styles. However, because paper there was costly and handmade, it was mostly reserved for use in monasteries. Most early cuts were thusly religious in nature. However, stenciling was popular, especially in churches.

The Swiss cut elaborate designs into many legal documents. This was not only decorative, but served as a guard against forgery, as each cutter's style was very distinct. There called scherenschnitte, it became a folk art, althought most were in black and white and relied on contour for effect. Valentines in Germany and greeting cards and bookmarks in Switzerland were very popular uses.

Another widespread form of cut work before the invention of the camera was the silhouette, an inexpensive alternative to a painted portrait. A silhouette is done by casting the shadow of a person's profile onto a piece of paper, tracing the outline, and cutting the image on black paper. Travelling papercutters often went from village to village, cutting entire families. When business was slow, they could always cut trees, flowers, and birds, and sell those. Many skilled artists did not even have to trace the shadow - they would cut by simply studying their subjects.

As machine-made cut work rose, mass-produced doilies and shelf liners took the place of handmade ones. However, there are dedicated artists today working to preserve this centuries-old tradition. Guilds are becoming more active, and more and more people are seeing the beauty of this ancient art. New materials and subjects are reviving interest, and thousands of novices and experienced cutters are making this once more an international art.

Translations and some history from The Joy of Papercutting by Chris Rich

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