Cultural heritage losing out to economic reform

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 March, 2006, 12:00am

For Shanxi shepherd Shi Zhanming, singing folksongs to his 200 sheep was the most natural thing in the world as he herded them across mountain pastures.

Mr Shi would crack his whip and give free rein to his voice as he sang the rustic tunes.

But for Tian Qing, director of the National Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage Study and Preservation, Mr Shi's singing was an example of the country's rich cultural traditions, which range from handicrafts to holidays, and have been passed down through the generations.

These legacies make Chinese people who they are. But despite efforts to preserve them, the pursuit of economic development has pushed them towards extinction.

'For years we just talked about GDP and meeting international standards, meaning we Chinese should live like Americans and Europeans. Now you find the lifestyles of young people in China's big cities are much the same as those in New York and Tokyo. Their similarities are much greater than their differences,' Mr Tian said.

As an example, he cites how more Chinese now celebrate Valentine's Day instead of its Chinese equivalent, the Lantern Festival.

For people such as Mr Tian, who see preserving traditional culture and folk art as a mission, the similarities translate to a loss of Chinese uniqueness under the weight of globalisation and modernisation.

'At the end of the day when we finally reach the destination of economic development, we will realise we have lost our identity as Chinese,' Mr Tian warned.

The need to hold on to these traditions has attracted the attention of the central government. A national centre for folk arts was set up in 1998, and three years later authorities began a major ethnic and folk art preservation campaign.

In the past five years, Unesco declared Kunqu opera and then Guqin music examples of humanity's oral and intangible cultural heritage, and the State Council ordered agencies to compile a sample list of traditions that should be protected. Offices were set up at each administrative level and 501 applications for national status were selected for consideration. An administrative law has also been drafted and is under review.

'The higher levels have realised the importance of the uniqueness of the Chinese nation to maintain social cohesion. We have been given full support and enough funding' Mr Tian said.

The latest showcase of these efforts was a month-long exhibition at Beijing's National Museum of China, which dedicated 4,000 square metres to the rewards of safeguarding intangible heritage.

Almost half a million people visited the exhibition, which ended this week, to watch dancers from Yunnan try their hands at Shanxi papercutting, or listen to the original recordings of a celebrated erhu master.

But a supportive government and dedicated experts do not guarantee success when it comes to preserving cultural legacies.

'The issue here is not about money, nor mechanism. Our biggest enemy is the changed mindset of the Chinese people that has come with economic development,' Mr Tian said.

It is a view echoed by Li Song , director of the Ministry of Culture's Centre for Ethnic and Folk Literature and Arts Development, who blames the media and the drive for economic success for making preservation efforts such a challenge. Mr Li says the media have encouraged people to judge heritage in terms of its economic value, and such a misguided value system could be devastating to the cause.

'People have come to judge whether intangible cultural heritage is worth protecting by whether it will bring about economic success. It will inescapably lead to some protection projects getting a lot of attention and others being marginalised,' Mr Li said.

In addition, economic development could encourage those inheriting some art forms or traditions to discontinue the practice and go in search of a better living.

'When people from poor places, where traditional practice has been well preserved, want to change their lives, we can't tell these people to live like their ancestors just because of cultural heritage,' Mr Tian said.

In 2002, Mr Tian discovered Mr Shi's talent and recommended the shepherd to take part in a singing contest, which he went on to win. He has since been invited to perform at events across the country and been recruited by the People's Liberation Army as a professional singer.

'For him, it's a good opportunity to get out of poverty,' Mr Tian said. 'We can't tell him not to go, but his singing style will change after so many stage performances. That's the dilemma.'

While preserving heritage in its original form remains a challenge, researchers are pushing ahead with a back-up - documenting the traditions while they are still alive.

Mr Li oversees a mammoth project to record 10 categories of folk art, myths and folklore. He says the work started in 1979 and 100,000 researchers have gone out into the field in search of material.