Female Artist Uses Paper-Cutting to Tell Mulan Story

December 22, 2017  By Mei Jia  Editor: Yang Yang
Chinese paper-cutting skills are presented together with pencil sketches in I Am Hua Mulan, a picture book by Yu Rong. The book is out in Chinese, with an English version expected in the future. [China Daily]


A Chinese artist incorporates traditional craft into a new book about the legend of Mulan that has made a splash overseas. Mei Jia reports.

Illustrator Yu Rong tells a Chinese story by incorporating paper-cutting with international artistic styles in the book, I Am Hua Mulan.

She places paper-cuts inspired by the tradition of Northwest China's Shaanxi province over Western-style pencil sketches to create a presentation of Chinese elements that appeals to an international audience.

Hua Mulan is a legend from the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534) about a devoted daughter, who disguises herself as a man to serve in the military in place of her father.

"I practiced for more than a decade to find the best artistic expression-an expression from the heart and of myself," she says.

"The book is like compressing my entire life experience into one expression."

Maria Gil, a former judge of the Hans Christian Andersen Award, says: "Yu has made an extraordinary work… A really talented illustrator like Yu Rong not only illustrates the words but adds something new to the story, leading it to another level."

Writer Qin Wenjun worked alongside Yu to best tell the ancient tale in a new way.

Mulan has been featured frequently in modern media, including TV shows, video games and literature. Disney's announcement that it'll remake the 1998 cartoon has renewed interest in the story abroad.

"Mulan's characteristics, such as courage and resistance to adversity, kindness, filial piety and a disinterested attitude toward fame and fortune, made her the most respected of historical Chinese heroines-a woman distinguished in traditional culture and whose legend has been transmitted by generations," Gil says.

She believes Mulan is a first-class plot, and Qin "knows how to retell it with rhythm, structure and imagination".

Translator and British Museum researcher Helen Wang worked with Qin to create a concise and poetic narration that depicts Mulan as daring yet gentle.

A passage from Yu's book reads: "She went to the East Market to choose a fast horse, to the West Market to fit a good saddle, to the South Market to buy warrior's clothes and to the North Market to find a sharp lance. When Mulan returned at sunset, she looked every inch a warrior.

"On her last day at home, her heart filled with sadness, Mulan planted a peony in front of the house. The day came. Mulan the warrior set out with her horse."

Qin took inspiration from visits to sites of ancient battles and Henan province's Yuju Opera "to tell about the infinite possibilities for a woman's growth and to ascertain gender identity with pride", she says.

"I abandoned my inner novelist to make room for the illustrations. I kept cutting down the words and rewriting ... to only tell what the illustrations couldn't."

This isn't Yu's first successful foray bringing Chinese works to the international market.

She worked with Chinese writer Cao Wenxuan on Smoke, which won the Nami Concurs 2017 Purple Island Award and was a highlight of the Serbia International Book Fair.

Chinese publishers often pair internationally acclaimed illustrators with Chinese authors to enhance books' appeal overseas.

Yu is meticulous.

She cut nearly 20 versions of the cover image of Mulan on horseback before perfecting it.

The illustrator carries a notebook everywhere she goes to jot down observations and experiences in words and sketches.

She invites people she meets to add something to the notebook and uses these as her inspiration in her drawing room.

"It's my 'passport' to the world," Yu says.

China Children's Press and Publication Group editor Ke Chao says: "Yu is so hardworking, amusing and curious as an illustrator that working with her influences you and your outlook toward many things."

Yu taught in a primary school for two years before obtaining a Bachelor of Arts in Chinese painting and contemporary-art design from Nanjing Normal University.

"I've always longed to draw and create," she says.

She married a Cambridge University professor and moved to the United Kingdom in 1997.

She then earned a master's degree in communication and design from the Royal College of Art in London.

"I'd learned many different styles of painting and was a sort of at a loss in terms of finding my own," she recalls. That changed when she was assigned to create an artwork to introduce herself.

Her eye happened to catch a Shaanxi paper-cut she'd bought in 1992.

"I was lucky I found it," she says.

The piece she created impressed British illustrator and writer Quentin Blake and publisher Walker Books. It helped launch her career in the international market.

She says living in Cambridge's countryside with her husband and three children affords peace and quiet to think and create.

"Sometimes, after I return from short visits to China, I need more than two weeks to process my experiences because the country has so much vivid and interesting information for me to explore in my works."

(Source: China Daily)

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