Among the many colorful decorations on display at the 2004 Keelung Ghost Festival, a massive paper sculpture created by paper artist Wei Chun-pang (
Given the intricacy and splendor of the sculpture, most people would never guess that it was made of paper. In fact, according to Wei, the ancient Chinese divided religious sculptures into four descending categories: paper, terracotta, wood and porcelain. Depite being ranked first, paper sculptures are now a rarity.
According to Wei, the rarity of paper sculptures is because of the complex and highly labor intensive nature of the process, which is reflected in their high cost.
By the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1911), paper sculptures were already becoming a rarity, Wei said. There are now very few practitioners of this art in Taiwan and in China, the art form has almost completely died out due to the suppression of religion.
Paper sculptures originated in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618 to AD 960) in China and the technology required to create paper sculptures has been handed down through the centuries.
Very simply, the sculpture is based on a rough model made from stiff paper board. This is then covered with up to 20 layers of tissue-thin cotton paper, applied three layers at a time. A varnish is then applied, after which the detail is carved.
There follows the process of outlining, inlaying gold, painting and finishing. Wei said that the process is extremely arduous, and it would be possible to create a five or six wood sculpture of the same size and intricacy in the same time it would take to make one of paper.
The important difference is that the paper sculpture is more resistant to pests such as termites and can last much longer than wood -- up to 600 years according to Wei. Because of the enormous cost, there is not much market demand for paper sculptures any more.
The nine-tailed dragon created for the 2004 Keelung Ghost Festival is a remarkable testament to the subtle expression that this art form is capable of.
Translated by Lin Ya-ti