Folk culture is like a long river of human history, flowing from antiquity to the present, with shifts in direction, depth and speed dictated by the land through which it passes.
China's breakneck modernization, however, is acting as a dam on river, reducing the flow of the once-vibrant traditional culture to a mere trickle.
Recently, the Chinese Academy of Art (CAA) released the results of its nationwide survey on the current situation for local operas and troupes. The number of traditional opera forms has shrunk rapidly in recent years.
The Records of Chinese Traditional Opera compiled in 1983 showed that in north China's Shanxi Province, a total 49 forms of traditional opera were practiced at that time.
However, the number has now declined to 28; in other words, approximately one local opera form has died out every year during the past two decades, according to a recent survey conducted by the CAA's Traditional Opera Institute and Shanxi Traditional Opera Institute.
The city of Xiaoyi is famous for its shadow puppet plays. Sixty-six-year-old Wu Haitang of Bidu Village is a seventh-generation successor to the art and manages one of the nation's oldest shadow puppet troupes.
But Wu's troupe exists in name only now. Performances are no longer given, and even the city's shadow-puppet museum has fallen into disrepair, according to Zhu Wen, the museum's curator. Xiaoyi shadow puppetry, once a favorite popular performing art, is on the verge of being lost.
A couple of years ago, southwest China's Sichuan Province began to reform its cultural organizations, a process that forced many local opera troupes to disband.
The repertoire of Gaoxian County's Sichuan opera troupe has included nearly 300 different plays during the past three decades. It used to average more than 200 performances each year.
"In 1972 we first rehearsed Duquanshan, which had a run of more than 40 performances within a month," recalled Li Qingnan, the troupe's last deputy chief. "The play was later adapted as a 'model opera' with a new name, Dujuanshan, and was extremely popular nationwide during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976)."
But Sichuan opera has gradually fallen out of favor, especially with the younger generation. Things grew steadily worse for the troupe and it finally broke up.
Distinguished playwright Wei Minglun has said that vastly changed lifestyles and a wider variety of recreational activities are the cause of the decline of local operas.
For centuries, artisans in Shanxi's Changzhi City have been renowned for their "three-dimensional" brocade pictures. The weaving of this brocade, known as duijin or duihua, was first developed in the Sui (581–618) and Tang (618–907) dynasties, and became world famous when a suite of duijin screens made by Li Mo and his son Li Shizhong won the silver medal at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, California.
Despite the local government's efforts to revive it, the number of people skilled in the technique of duijin is dwindling. If the situation continues, only relics of a lost art's ancient past will remain.
The Shanghai Folk Culture Preservation Center, a nongovernmental organization established in 2004, sponsored a yearlong investigation of the living conditions of folk artists in the metropolitan area. It found that most of them were elderly and unable to make ends meet.
In 2002, only about a dozen people in the city still practiced gu embroidery, a technique handed down from the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), and no more than 20 were familiar with the 700-year-old art of lacquer carving. There were very few successors to the world-renowned art of Jiangding bamboo engraving.
"As the old craftsmen die off, traditional culture is disappearing at an astonishing speed," said Professor Tian Qing of CAA. "Without timely salvation and protection, without any successors, the deaths of these brilliant artists is like the demolition of a Ming Dynasty memorial arch or the excavation of a Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) garden."
The Tibetan thangka is a painted or embroidered banner hung in a monastery or near a family altar and carried by lamas in ceremonial processions. In recent years, thangka have been successfully introduced into Shanghai's art galleries. Despite their high prices, people vie to acquire them.
Marketization has been proposed as a possible means of salvation for beleaguered traditional folk arts. But many of the artists worry about whether and how the market will accept their crafts, and also how they will pass on their skills to the next generation.
Of paramount importance is maintaining the original flavor of their crafts, many of them simple and rustic. The guardians of the arts are concerned about being pressured to make flashy changes to satisfy market whims.
But already many handicrafts that were once made only by hand are being mass-produced.
"Nowadays they use a mold instead of scissors to make paper-cuts, and use a master plate to reproduce numerous carvings," complained a staffer at the Shanxi Folk Custom Museum. "Many so-called handicrafts flooding the market are actually slipshod products."
"They are just blinded by greed, disregarding the long tradition and folk customs behind the artifacts. By doing so, they are vulgarizing the folk culture," a collector says.
Two years ago China launched a folk culture preservation project. Since then a number of proposals have been submitted to the annual sessions of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.
In 2002 the Ministry of Culture drafted a law on folk culture preservation. Lawmakers are getting close to finalizing the draft.
Meanwhile, local governments are putting in place policies to protect folk art. During this year's Spring Festival, the Shanghai Municipal Administration of Culture, Radio, Film and Television for the first time granted an art subsidy of 30,000 yuan (US$3,600) each to 27 senior folk artisans. The Sichuan Department of Culture also took steps to revitalize the Sichuan opera.
As playwright Wei Minglun said, for any folk art there is a flexible "transitional zone" between prosperity and extinction. We can either prolong its life or cut it short.
Rather than destroying these endangered arts with our own hands, we are duty-bound to preserve the rich cultural heritage passed on from our ancestors, to benefit future generations.
(China.org.cn by Shao Da, May 7, 2005)