The Lister List

Maying Soong: “The Art of Chinese Paper Folding.”

In a posting last night, Mike Kanarek asks about the book "The Art of Chinese Paper Folding" written by Maying Soong.

I have great affection for this book. After looking for a book about folding paper for many years I at last stumbled across this book in Harrods book department during a trip to London with my then fiancée to buy furniture for our future home. She bought the book for me and inscribed it with the date, 4th April 1956 and the words "Furniture Day at Harrods." In the circumstances I felt a little embarrassed by the dedication of the book which was “To Fumble-fisted Fathers"!

My copy of the book is the hard-backed British edition published by Thames and Hudson in 1955. I later learnt that the book was originally published by Harcourt Brace and Company of New York in 1948, also in hard-back. The British and American editions are virtually identical except that the American edition has some information about Mme. Soong on the back of the dust cover which is omitted from the otherwise identical dust cover of the British Edition.

Paper-backed editions of the book were issued and I have one published in 1967 by World's Work Ltd., of Kingsworth, Surrey, in England. The Foreword has a final paragraph which reads:" I hope that my American friends, especially the Junior Americans, will find great interest and enjoyment in the art of paper folding." This was omitted in the original British edition, so I can only suppose that the paper-backed edition was taken from the American edition and not that of Thames and Hudson.

Several books, including the notable "Paper Toy Making" by Margaret Campbell in England and Joseph Leeming's "Fun with Paper" in the United States survived in print from before the Second World War, but as far as I know, Maying Soong's was the first book on paperfolding to be published after the war. As we all know, it was the first of very many others.

As the blurb on the 1948 American edition says, Maying Soong came from a distinguished pre-communist Chinese banking family. They were as much at home in the West as in China and Mme Soong received a British education in Shanghai. One of her main interests was music. She studied further in England, France and Switzerland. After the Communist take-over, Maying Soong settled in the United States. She married a brother of Mme Chiang Kai-Chek , the wife of the Chinese leader, who was forced out by the Communists and who continued to govern in Taiwan.

My original copy didn't have any biographical information and I was inclined at first to take the "Chinese" in the title with a pinch of salt. All of the models seemed to be either part of the repertoire of paper-folded models we knew in the West or apparently newly created.

Since then I have changed my views. Mme Soong certainly learnt her paperfolding in China and so "The Art of Chinese Paper Folding" is appropriate. I have for many years tried to gather information about paperfolding in China and I have come to the conclusion that the traditional kind of paperfolding has long been practised in China, just as it has in Japan and the West. From time-to-time models which are certainly Chinese inventions still percolate to the West. Certainly the Chinese do not appear to have developed the elaborate ceremonial folding of the Japanese, not the advanced adult folding of the kind seen in the Kayaragusa (which is often known incorrectly as the Kan no mado). But because the simpler traditional models appear to have been so international, we should hesitate before attributing their origin to Japan without further evidence.

It is of interest that "The Art of Chinese Paper Folding" contains instructions for what is known as the "Chinese" Pagoda. While not the first modular fold, it is certainly an early example of this style and shows that modular folding is not at all a recent invention.

Lillian Oppenheimer, who sought out paperfolding wherever it might be found, told me that she tried to communicate with Mme Soong, but without any real success. She put it down to the elevated society to which Mme Soong belonged. It appears that Lillian and Maying Soong never met.

Some years ago I was bold enough to write to Mme. Soong and received a charming letter in reply. She confirmed that some of the models in her book were her own design and she also sent me diagrams for two of her models which were not included in the book.

Altogether I have found Maying Soong's book an interesting byway in the land of paperfolding.

David Lister.

Grimsby, England.

30th November, 2000

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