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Intangible heritage under threat
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By Wu Jin

Some of China's intangible cultural heritages, threatened by a dramatic transformation in lifestyle over the past two decades, are on the brink of extinction, experts warned at a recent symposium.

Overdevelopment of tourism is changing rural lifestyles and bearers of rural culture are modifying their native tongues to cater for urban tastes. In addition, those without a professional understanding may not even appreciate the value of their own cultural heritage.

Overdevelopment in tourism

Controversy arose when Guizhou Province spent 300 million yuan (US$ 43.94 million) renovating an ethnic village. People opposed to the project accused the government of excessive interference in the development of traditional culture. They said that not all cultural traditions should be on display to tourists, and the government should not exploit folk arts for financial gain.

But despite strong opposition, the commercialization of rural villages continues, often through a belief that this is the way to help villagers and to preserve traditional cultures and arts.

Folk song is one of the unique traditional arts. According to Liu Shouhua, a folk art expert, musical exchanges between young people in traditional dress in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region made a great impression on him in the 1980s. However, when Liu revisited the place this year, the tradition had been replaced by showbiz.

"Traditional cultures are being marketed before the necessary protection measures are in place. Such commercialization will ruin our intangible cultural heritage and achieve the opposite of what is intended," said Liu.

Li Song, Director of the Intangible Cultural Heritage Center of the Ministry of Culture, observed that since heritage is often strongest in areas long accustomed to poverty, local people often have no alternative but to market their traditions to visitors in exchange for economic benefits.

Traditional flavor lost

Sun Jiaxiang, an 80-year-old illiterate in Changyang Town, Yichang City, Hubei Province, has a repertoire of 600 traditional local tales. The Chinese Cultural and Art and Chinese Folk Literature and Art Associations honored her as an "outstanding bearer of folk art". The town government sent her to a home for the aged in the summer of 2003, and have provided her with a grant of 200 yuan (US$30) per month since then.

But according to Lin Jifu from Huazhong Normal University, Sun has added a lot of contemporary elements to her stories since leaving her hometown, causing her tales to lose their original flavor. Experts at the symposium argued that governments need to adjust their policies regarding the protection of bearers of cultural heritage. Lin said the government should provide an environment for those people to remain within their original cultures.

In addition to the environmental factor, experts also disagreed with the government's subsidy policies. According to Chen Jianxian, Deputy Dean of the School of Literature of Huazhong Normal University, an individual who won a prize at a folk song contest in an ethnic group in Hebei Province was rejected by his own people. The villagers no longer talked to him nor invited him to join their parties after he was rewarded with a cash prize. The winner soon took the money back because he wanted to be able to rejoin his community. "Intangible cultural heritage belongs to communities, so the government should not reward individuals," said Chen.

"Intangible cultural heritage has disappeared rapidly over the past two decades, for that people have striven to protect it," said Liu. Folk arts disappear quickly under the impact of economic development and urban life. Many villagers have moved from their hometowns to big cities where they no longer hum folk tunes but pop songs. A "Hua'er" is a herdsmen's folk band, popular even in the recent past. However, under the influence of the pop music singers no longer have their former passion for this folk art. "When a culture loses its vitality, no matter what protection is offered, its future becomes bleak," said Chen.

A need for professional understanding

Experts in the symposium suggest Universities inculcate in their students an understanding of intangible cultural heritage. Xu Jinlong, folk art researcher from the Huazhong Normal University, said that Universities do not pay enough attention to this education. Across the whole country there are no more than 40 postgraduate programs in folk arts. In Huazhong Normal University, only 20 postgraduates are involved in research in the field.

Experts like Liu and Chen are writing a textbook on folk arts. They feel an urgent need to teach people how to safeguard intangible cultural heritage for future generations.

(China.org.cn October 19, 2008)

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