‘Loyal, Brave, True’ series inspired by Disney’s Mulan
Hand-cut Chinese mulberry paper, painted with watercolour
100cm diameter each, three units

Cutting through paper: dancing with a sword
Award-winning Chinese-Australian artist, Tianli Zu, was commissioned by Walt Disney (Australia) to create a series of three papercuts – ‘Loyal, Brave, True’ – inspired by the new film, Mulan (2020). 

Zu first learnt the technique of papercutting from her grandmother as a child. In the 1980s, during her studies at the China Central Academy of Fine Art, she studied the art form with Shaanxi peasants. She resided in Shaanxi, a rural province located in Northern China, adjacent to the Yellow River – the birthplace of ancient Chinese culture. Zu, along with the residents of Shaanxi, observed ancient traditions and customs, one of which was papercutting. The activity was usually undertaken by the village women, who gathered together and cut red paper into patterns of good fortune in preparation for Chinese New Year. 

‘Loyal, Brave, True’ uses recognisable elements from the story of Mulan, a folk tale with modern resonance. Three flowers – the lotus flower, the peony, and the magnolia – are depicted throughout, symbolising Mulan’s characteristics. Lotus flowers symbolise purity, beauty, and enlightenment; peonies symbolise romance, prosperity, and compassion; and magnolias, Mulan’s name in English, symbolise dignity and nobility. 

‘Loyal’ depicts Mulan’s devotion to her family. The depiction of Mulan’s home symbolises her strong connection with her parents and her sister. The cutouts of horses, mountains, and seas represent Mulan’s determination, overcoming any challenges encountered along her journey.

The main element in ‘Brave’ is Mulan’s sword. Eight swords radiate from the centre, symbolising Mulan’s enduring bravery. Between the swords lie the flowers. The outer ring is decorated with patterns of water, symbolising eternity.

‘True’ contains Mulan’s hair comb and fan, which represent her beauty, youth, and obscured female identity. 

Zu creates large-scale papercuts by hand that weave through history and the present, using shadow and light in powerful dynamic installations. Her work captures experiences of places and cultures through intuitive and metaphysical means. 

Explaining why she used circles for the series, Zu said: ‘In Chinese culture, the circle stands for fulfilment and oneness. Although there are opposing forces – Yin and Yang – these forces form a circle. The cutout and solid together create a whole.’ 

With over 40 years of art-making experience, Zu executes the papercuts by hand without any templates. It usually takes Zu several months to produce one large work. However, ‘Loyal, Brave, True’ was completed in 40 days. Zu worked 16 hours a day to complete the project. She painted each papercut more than 10 times on each side with peony red, a traditional Chinese colour, to ensure the colour was fresh and incisive. To let the work dry naturally, she painted the paper each night before going to sleep.

Zu said: ‘I felt like I was dancing with a sword when I cut through the paper. I even danced in my dreams.’