In over 5,000 years of development, folk art has become a source of other forms of Chinese culture. It is now facing a perfect opportunity for further progress with the rapid social and economic development. However, the diversification of cultural forms and attack of foreign culture also bring unprecedented challenges to Chinese folk art. Then, who will act as its protector?
Chinese folk art has many genres, including painting, calligraphy, embroidery, carving and paper cutting. All of them reflect the profundity of China’s ancient civilization. Song Zhaolin, deputy director of the China Folklore Association, pointed out that it is hard to say how many kinds of folk arts exist in the country. On the other hand, Song said, it is also hard to tell how many folk arts have disappeared in the past millennia. The trend is accelerating, he noted. Some folk arts came to an end naturally, while others disappeared or faded into history because of lack of protection funds or personnel. “Isn’t it painful to lose so many kinds of folk arts purely due to insufficient protection?” Song inquired.
Amid economic globalization, cultural exchanges and integration are also accelerating. More and more people have accepted the notion of “no boundary for pop culture.” As a result, when Korean and Japanese culture causes a sensation among Chinese youths, few are surprised. However, can Chinese folk art step onto the path of globalization?
In the long process of development, folk art has become an important factor to carry forward history. For instance, the world’s longest epic King Gesar depicts the history of the Tibetan ethnic group, while the Dongba characters record the history of Naxi culture in Yunnan Province. In addition, the blue printed calico of Nantong, Jiangsu Province and wax prints of Guizhou Province are looked on as “living fossils” of China’s printing and dyeing techniques, which is of great value in studying China’s ancient science and technology, culture, folklore and history of fine arts.
Li Jinlu, professor of Tsinghua University and deputy director of China Folk Arts Committee, said: “In appreciating culture, folk art belongs to the whole nation, while the national art belongs to the world. However, in culture protection, Chinese folk art must be protected by China itself, for the creation and development of folk art is based on the specialty and customs of the ethnic group to whom it belongs.
Chinese folk art is drawing the attention of more and more foreigners with its unique charm and miraculous technique. Fan Xiaomei, a 25-year paper cutter who once performed her art for former US President Bill Clinton, is often invited to give performances and lectures to overseas audiences. She said: “I always feel very proud when my works attract a lot of foreigners and when my feet step onto foreign land. I think foreigners are acclaiming Chinese culture while they applaud my paper-cutting technique. Is there anyone who isn’t proud of his homeland?”
Fan is worried about the protection and further development of Chinese folk art. “The paper-cutting art of northern Shaanxi Province is now in an awkward situation with no successors,” she said. Paper-cutting usually conveys people’s happiness and wish for a better life. It carries on the folk customs and history of a local group. Some foreigners once asked her to transplant the art into their hometown, but Fan refused.
Against the background of globalization, Professor Li Jinlu pointed out, a culture without specialties will lead to a nation without peculiarity. If a nation has no culture of its own, it will not possess its due position in the world, thus impeding its further development.
Then, who will be the guardian of Chinese folk arts? It has to be the government, experts and scholars, folk handicraftsman, and even the whole of society.
Government as a functional department should play its due role. A Japanese businessman once told Professor Li that people have to go to museums of Japan to study Chinese folk arts for they have started collecting Chinese folk handicrafts on a large scale. Though China has drawn up regulations to protect its cultural relics, they don’t include the protection of folk arts. Li suggests that the government set up regulations in this regard to prevent famous handicraftsmen from going to foreign countries.
Experts and scholars in field of folk arts play a special role in hunting for, sorting out and analyzing folk arts. According to Zhao Yaoxin, a researcher with the Yunnan People’s Art Center, experts and scholars should go out among the people and find top-notch artistic works still unknown to the world. Also, publicity work should be stressed to enhance the excellent folk arts.
Handicraftsmen are direct guardians of folk arts. Since folk art works are always products of handicraftsmen’s inspiration rather than drive for markets, its development is hindered to some degree. The handicraftsmen with unique skills are now considering how to bring their works from workshop to the market. Folk artisan Shen Sheguo from Dafeng, Jiangsu Province, is writing a book about his 20 years’ experience of making straw pictures, so as to enable others imitate and learn.
The protection of folk arts also requires support of the whole society. Wang Zhong, editor-in-chief of the Arts magazine sponsored by China Artists Association, thinks that many have been westernized in the trend of globalization. In this process, people are likely to lose particularities of their nation. Therefore, all of society must strengthen their understanding of folk arts and folk culture. Only in this way, can a nation be distinguished from others.
Jin Zhaojun, a famous music critic, said, “By unearthing and protecting and then carrying forward excellent folk arts, we can let the world know more about the brilliant Chinese culture and let Chinese culture go out into the world. In this way we can cultivate people’s love for the Chinese nation. It is also of great significance to establish a well-off society and develop a socialism culture with Chinese characteristics.”
“Only when we gather forces from all sides, can we shoulder the responsibility of revitalizing the Chinese nation,” he added.
(china.org.cn edited and translated by Li Jinhui, January 20, 2003)