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A Glimpse of Chinese Culture through Papercuts

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Prior to the invention of paper, the ancient Chinese used silver and gold leaf to create patterns and ornaments, some of which were discovered in burial sites dating back to the Shang Dynasty (sixteenth–eleventh century BC).1 During the Western Han period, the emperor Liu Che (156–87 BC) was comforted by a court artist who, in order to relieve the emperor the agony of separation from Lady Li, his deceased wife, did a life-size papercut of her and placed it behind a screen. When light was applied, the emperor on the other side of the screen was entertained by the illusion that his wife was standing there in front of him once again. However, the credibility of this anecdote is doubtful, for paper was not readily available at that time. Paper was invented by Cai Lun in the year AD 105. Due to the complex process of making paper, the new commodity was a luxury item only to the affluent and the elite who preferred to write on paper rather than bamboo slats or silk. In 1959, ingotshaped paper money was excavated from a gravesite in the Xinjiang region.2 These patterns, with writings that dated back to the year AD 541, were found scattered around the site. Silver ingots were used as a form of currency by the ancient Chinese people.