China is losing most of its folk arts, forcing enthusiasts and government officials to take effective measures to rescue the valuable cultural heritage.
Folk cultural heritage embraces three major categories, namely folk customs, folk literature and folk arts, which are seen as significant carriers of the national spirit and emotions of China, according to Feng Jicai, a well-known writer and folklore scholar in Tianjin, north China.
"Every minute folk heritage, no matter whether it is an ancient village or a small pouch, is fading away from our fields, mountains and corners of most remote inhabited areas," said Feng.
Statistics show that in Beijing the wealth of 300-odd varieties of folk arts and crafts in the mid 1960s had dropped drastically to some 30 at the end of the 20th century.
South China's Guangdong Province used to have around 1,200 folk art genres, but now only 600 or so remain, according to the local folk artists association.
"Many ancient art forms are on the verge of extinction, as the older generation of artists have passed away and few young people are qualified to take over," said Feng.
"If no action is taken to rescue the folk cultural heritage, nearly half of it will disappear forever in the next two decades," he warned.
In Sichuan, Shaanxi and Zhejiang provinces many folk arts have only one generation of successors and one foremost exponent each, the majority of whom are old people. Some of the folk arts have been lost.
Wang Wenkun, a famous shadow play entertainer in Shuiguan Town, Langzhong City of southwest China's Sichuan, passed away several years ago, and his consummate skill disappeared with his death.
Wang once participated in an art festival in Vienna, Austria, and his performance ignited quite a stir there where the local media praised China's shadow play as the "father of the film", according to Li Shiqiang, a cultural heritage official in Shuiguan Town.
However, "None of Wang's children were willing to learn the skill, and they would rather take jobs as migrant workers to make ends meet," Li said.
"It is more and more difficult for the folk arts to be lucrative, as cultural consumption has diversified in China," Li said.
Given similar factors, many folk arts are on the verge of extinction in northwest Shaanxi and east Zhejiang provinces.
Cang Shulan, a representative of paper-cut art in Xunyi County of Shaanxi, has given several lectures abroad, but the 90-year-old craftswoman has no successor for her unique skill of paper cutting accompanied with singing.
Now only a few old people are able to perform the miniature local opera, "Wanzi", in Qianyang County of Shaanxi, and in the provincial capital of Xi'an, "Dongcang ancient music", which was passed down through the generations from the courts of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), now boasts a youngest exponent more than 70 years old.
Wang Miao, a local cultural heritage official in Zhejiang, said that under the impact of a dynamic market economy, most folk arts and crafts were withering in the province.
Wenzhou-style dough modeling has only 20-odd craftsmen left, a sharp drop from more than 200 in the 1980s and Wenzhou-style embroidery has only a dozen or so exponents, down from more than 400, said Wang Miao.
The phasing-out of folk arts is ascribed to limited channels to pass on skills and reluctance among the young people to take over.
Worse, there is a drain in the nation's reserves of ancient folk artists' works, according to Wang Miao.
Wang said that many foreign institutions and individuals were going from village to village in China to collect works and smuggle them abroad.
In the 1980s, provincial cultural authorities across the nation each compiled 10 folk art collections, covering folklore, folk rhythm, dances, songs, music, proverbs and documents about local operas.
But the collections focused on only literal records and failed to include enough objects.
In Zhejiang, the collections were even stacked randomly and under no special preservation, and some of them were lost as a result, said Wang Miao.
Over the past few years, more folklorists and cultural regulators in China have started to investigate and rescue the folk cultural heritage.
In March this year, east China's Jiangsu Province established a research institute to bring local consummate folk arts and skills, including embroidery, clay figurine, brocade, lacquer ware and Spring Festival pictures, into the collegiate classrooms.
Meanwhile, folk artists and craftsmen have been prompted to safeguard their intellectual property rights, as many of them were being copied in a rough and slipshod way.
According to Wu Haiyan, head of the local folk arts association of Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu, some folk artists were reluctant to have their works auctioned at galleries for fear of imitation, losing good chances to enter the market and have their arts and skills survive in a modern society.
In February, a nationwide heritage rescue program started a general survey of China's folk cultures using a wide range of methods, including text, audio and video recording as well as photography. Besides folkloric specialists, the program will also recruit college students and volunteers.
The program will take about 10 years, according to Feng Jicai, also chairman of China Folk Arts Association.
Shortly after the start of the program, a national center for preservation of China's ethnic and folk cultures was founded at the China Research Institute of Art in Beijing. Provincial branches will be gradually established.
In addition, a series of regulations on safeguarding and preserving folk literature and art works are being drafted in China.
(Xinhua News Agency July 8, 2003)