How would you react if you were told that your ethnic identity is wrong and that you belong to an ancient ethnic group that thrives to this day, or that your home town is the very cradle of that ethnic group?
Tian Changjie, 53, a member of the Tujia ethnic minority, did not realize his identity until 1984, when a group of experts from the State Ethnic Affairs Commission undertook an investigation in Tian's village and identified Tian as of Tujia ethnic minority after studying his family's genealogical tree and dialect of his family. Then he had lived there for more than 30 years as a Han Chinese farmer/photographer.
"For decades, I considered myself a member of the Han people living peacefully with the Tujia folks around me," recalled Tian, who runs China's first private museum of Tujia ethnic arts and culture.
"Suddenly, I was told that I am one of them! And when I learnt that my home town of Ziqiu is now widely believed to be the cradle of the Tujia ethnic group, I decided to do something for the Tujias and their culture."
Changyang is believed to be the place where King Wuxiang, or Lin Jun, a mythical leader of the ancient Ba people, ancestors of today's Tujias and several other ethnic groups found in Hubei Province, established a kingdom some 5,000 years ago.
Today, the Tujia people are mainly scattered in Sichuan, Guizhou, Hubei and Hunan provinces.
Over the past two decades or so, with local economic growth and an influx of tourists, more and more local people, especially the younger generation, looked at other lifestyles and choose to abandon their own traditional ideas, and even local costumes and adornments, Tian said.
"In recent years, Tujia cultural heritage is once again becoming fashionable. People have started to see their ancestor's traditions in a new light," Tian continued.
"However, many of them know very little about their traditions. My museum will help them understand more about this."
Since 1984, Tian has traveled to every corner of his mountainous county, searching for his ancestors' cultural relics.
In late 1984, he got the first item for his collection Tujia clothing from a local family.
The clothes were later found to be ones made during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and considered to be "an invaluable example of ancient Tujia women's clothing" by Liu Xiaoyu, a researcher at the Central China University of Nationalities in Hubei Province.
Liu's remarks greatly encouraged Tian to continue his mission to find out more about the Tujia ethnic minority.
In January 1986, Tian came across an ancient statue in a dilapidated temple. This was later identified by experts to be an icon of King Wuxiang, which existed during the Xia and Shang eras (c. 21st century-11th century BC) in today's Changyang. There was also a statue of Madame Deji, his consort.
"According to experts I consulted, no similar object has ever been found outside Changyang. That made me believe even more firmly that my home town is the birthplace of the Tujia ethnic group," Tian recalled.
However, Tian's mission to preserve his ethnic culture has not always gone without a hitch.
For instance, in the summer of 1993, Tian was badly injured when he fell into an animal trap in the Yinlongshan Hills.
But Tian did not give up his search for Tujia ethnic relics. He returned to the hills and, in a rundown Tujia temple, found a Qing Dynasty statue of a mythological figure, the "General with Eyes Wide Open," a close follower of King Wuxiang.
Trekking in the mountains, Tian collected mountain produce and brought with him some local products from his home village. He got most of the relics from villagers by exchanging with them his produce. Sometimes, he took pictures of them and got something he wanted in return.
At first, Tian's family did not support his "hobby," but his dedication finally persuaded them to give him a helping hand.
Tian's wife, Tang Daoxiu, said that although the family finds it hard to make ends meet, they are very proud of his endeavors.
"What he is doing is meaningful, so I cannot complain too much," said Tang.
In fact, Tian admitted that his wife has been the strongest supporter of his "hobby."
"Without her support, I may have given up very early," Tian said with a sweet smile.
In order to amass his impressive collection, Tian has visited many caves, ancient tombs and old temples around.
In 1997, he published a book entitled Bashihua (The Flower of the Ba People), a collection of folk stories and songs garnered from elderly Tujia farmers.
By 1993, Tian had collected more than 1,000 cultural relics, including old books, clothes, weapons, religious items, sculptures, clothing, furniture and ceramics.
One of the most precious items in his collection is some 4,000-year-old "seashell" money, while he is also very proud of a stone axe, which archaeologists believe was an implement belonging to primitive people living in the areas around today's Changyang County and the basin of the Qingjiang River, now recognized as the "mother river" of the Tujia ethnic minority.
He has also taken more than 6,000 photos of Tujia people and their cultural life with his old-fashioned Seagull camera.
In 1993, after staging his first exhibition of cultural relics gathered in Ziqiu Township, Tian decided to donate all of the 1,000 items to the local museum.
He then kicked off another round of collecting, and amassed more than 1,600 items over the course of the next decade.
In July 2000, Tian opened his private museum of Tujia ethnic arts and culture. When building the museum which cost 70,000 yuan (US$ 8,642), Tian got support from his fellow villagers and local government. The three-storey building covers a floor space of at least 280 square meters, adjacent to his old, one-storey house constructed with cobbles, clay bricks, straw and bamboo.
Tian is always proud to tell visitors to the museum with free admission, who number around 3,500 annually, that it is the first of its kind in China.
The same year, Tian brought his exhibits to the Kunming World Horticultural Expo on behalf of Hubei Province, where his ethnic art exhibition won three gold medals in the local culture sector.
"That made me think that Tujia culture is not inferior to any other indigenous culture in the world," Tian said.
Tian hopes to bring his collection to a wider audience in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and even New York and Paris.
(China Daily July 25, 2006)