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Origami from China

Marta Figueroa writes today to say she has recently started to learn Mandarin Chinese and she would like to learn to fold some models from China.

There has recently been a small amount of discussion about Chinese paperfolding on Origami-L, but so far there is little consensus about what folds are specifically Chinese. I have been collecting nfromation about Chinese folds for some years and Elsje van der Ploeg of Holland and David Mitchell of England are also interested in collecting folds that are specifically Chinese or which it seems are very probably Chinese. Unfortunately very little has been written about Chinese folding.

Many of the books published in Hong Kong or mainland China turn out to be pirated copies of Japanese books.

However, I have a photocopy of one book that does contain Chinese native paperfolding, although it does contain folds from the International repertoire of traditional folds. The book has a title transliterated into English on the cover, which reads "Er Tong Zhezhi. I don't know what "Er Tong" means (perhaps someone will tell us), but "Zhe Zhi" is the Mandarin for paperfolding. In fact Lillian Oppenheimer was considering using this name around 1956, but rejected it as being too difficult to pronounce and adopted the Japanese "Origami" instead. The corresponding words for paper folding in Cantonese are "Chip Chee".

Out of respect for the Chinese I hesitate to use the word "Origami" for Chinese paperfolding. I accept that "Origami" has been accepted into English and many other languages, but it seems to me at present to be discourteous to use the word for paperfolding in one eastern language for the folding of another very different eastern country which has its own culture and very ancient traditions.

Er Tong Zhe Zhi contains models which are curiously "different" from the ones with which we are familiar in the Japanese and Western traditions. Elsje van der Ploeg says that since she suffered a stroke her perception of folding has become more acute and she can tell a Chinese fold because it feels different to fold. I myself am tempted to say that some folds are Chinese because they have this different feel. Unfortunately, this is not and acceptable scientific method of defining which folds are Chinese and which are not.

Another point: just because a fold is called Chinese, doesn't mean it really is Chinese. The "Chinese" Junk is and example. The familiar paper fold makes a very strange boat, indeed. And among real boats, the Junk is a very strange boat to Western eyes. Junks are not peculiarly Chinese, but are used by all countries in the Far East. My conjecture is that Westerners called the paperfold a Chinese Junk, not because it was Chinese, but because it reminded them of the strange boat they knew as a Chinese Junk.

In fact, the Chinese Junk may be related to Chinese funerary offerings folded in the shape of gold nuggets, called "Yuan Bao". See Eric Kenneway's "Complete Origami" pages 41 to 43. Another reference is in The Origamian, Volume 14, nos1 & 2, for 1979. Her it is stated that the gold bars themselves gfo back to the Song dynasty (960-1276) One of the funeral offerings uses the same "pull-out" move as the Chinese junk. The book, "Er Tong Zhe Zhi" includes a model that appears to be a Junk, but it has two pointed ends (like some Japanese junks or Treasure Ships). It is folded very differently from our familiar Chinese Junk.

Yet another kind of Chinese paperfolding is what is often called "Golden Venture Folding". This is a kind of modular foling in which very many identical wedges of folded paper are built up to form such things ans vases, pineapples, swans or ships. The Japanese have pubished several manualls of this partiular form of folding in both Japanese and English.

During the past fifteen or twenty years, since mainland China has been opened to Western visitors, Chinese folds have been seeping out of that mysterious country. Perhaps the best-know is the Drinking Bird, and action model which Laura Kruskal, the daughter-in law of Lillian Oppenheimer found during a visit to China.

The only book specifically called "The Art of Chinese Paperfolding" was written by Maying Soong, a member of a prominent and cultured family of Chinese bankers and a sister-in-law of the Chinese nationalist leader, Chang Kai Chek. She moved to live in the United States in the 1940s, after the Communist take-over of mainland China and her book was published in New York in 1948. Maying Soong was brought up in China and it may be supposed that her folding really was Chinese in accordance with the title of her book. But we have to be careful. Many of her folds belong to the international repertoire and cannot be said to be specifically Chinese. it is known, too, that she designed some of the folds herself. She includes a Chinese Knight's Helmet , which is identical with a Japanese Samuai Helmet. did the Japanese get it from China or did the Chinese get it from Japanese. Unfortunately we do not know at present.

But some things we are learning. For instance, Maying Soong includes an "Easter Surprise Bunny" and the famous Japanese folder, Toshie takahama has clearly said that this is a Chinese model.

As I have said, apart from Maying Soong's book, there is, as yet no book in English or any other Western language specifically about Chinese folding. But we may not have long to wait. I have been informed by a well-known paperfolder that he is compiling a book about Chinese paperfolding and he has already compiled a provisional list of the folds he intends to include.

Gradually, we are learning about the "lost" art of Chinese paperfoling. In a few year's time, I'm sure we shall know much more. For the time being there are, perhaps twenty or so folds that can be conficently asserted to be Chinese, but they have to be collected together one-by-one.

David Lister

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