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Ethnic Culture Saved from Extinction
Salar, a small ethnic group in northwest China, has, despite the lack of a written language, successfully preserved its unique ethnic culture with persistent government support and protection.

A dance drama recording the history of the Salar ethnic group, entitled "The Camel wellspring", was recently staged in Qinghai Province, one of the two major Salar population centers in China.

According to this tragic legendary drama, the ancestors of the Salar group left their homeland in central Asia in the 13th century with a white camel laden with a Koran to escape the intolerance of the local lords. Upon arrival in Xunhua County in Qinghai Province, after a long and arduous journey, the white camel disappeared, reappearing the next day in the form of a wellspring. The Salar named the wellspring after the camel and settled in the county.

Han Fucai, director of the troupe, said this dance drama dates back more than 800 years. It has been performed at wedding ceremonies for hundreds of years to remind young people of the Salar.

"However, this is the only Salar dance known to modern-day Salar. Many ethnic performances have been lost due to the lack of successors," he said.

The Salar ethnic group, one of 56 ethnic groups in China, immigrated to northwest China's Qinghai and Gansu provinces from central Asia during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Xunhua County, the only Salar-populated Autonomous County in China, is home to 70,000 Salar people, accounting for 90 percent of the total Salar population in China.

To protect the unique Salar culture from extinction, the Qinghai provincial government has set up a Salar Cultural Society, repaired Salar-style buildings, trained a series of experts on folk culture and held regular Salar cultural festivals.

Apart from the "Camel wellspring", a dozen Salar dance dramas are being adapted and will soon be performed on stage. Local troupes have sent some Salar players to Beijing to learn Salar dance.

Han Zhanxiang, an authority on Salar cultural research, said, "Salar culture is part of rich Chinese culture. It should not be lost in the course of development. On the contrary, it should shine more brightly. Ethnic culture belongs to the world."

With the government support, Han has compiled books on Salar literary and folk customs totaling 1.1 million Chinese characters. He also works with two of his students to collect Salar folk stories from among the Salar people.

Under Han's guidance, a Salar musician learned to play a traditional Salar instrument popular among Salar residents in ancient times.

The inch-long mouth organ, made of copper and silver, is considered the smallest folk music instrument in China. It got its name, "pillow organ", from the custom of traditional arranged marriages.

According to the custom, the music is played by the bride on her wedding night to express her love for her husband, because, traditionally, this was the first meeting, and the bride was too shy to utter a word.

When it was time to retire, the bride played the mouth organ, producing melodious and vibrant sounds. The music was so faint that the husband could hear it only if he slept on the same pillow with his bride.

"The mouth organ is the gem of Salar culture. It must be handed down through the ages," said Han Fucai, adding his troupe has trained a dozen mouth organ players.

Meanwhile, mouth organs are on sale at many shops in Xunhua County as a symbol of traditional Salar culture.

(Xinhua News Agency March 29, 2003)

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