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China Set to Preserve Intangible Heritage
As the world celebrates the millenary of the world's longest epic poem, King Gesser, the story of a Tibetan hero, China is making a list of music, art and artifacts that have been handed down in its history of many thousands of years.

On top of the list are the ancient Chinese zither, paper-cuts, the 800-year-old Ragoin school of Tibetan religious art, Sichuan opera and Yunjin brocade originating in Nanjing, capital city of Jiangsu Province.

The five artistic forms have also been shortlisted among applications for next year's masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Tuesday's China Youth Daily reported.

UNESCO defines oral and intangible heritage as "the totality of tradition-based creations of a cultural community, expressed by a group of individuals and recognized as reflecting the expectations of a community."

Kunqu Opera, the oldest form of Chinese folk opera originating in east China's Jiangsu Province, was honored by UNESCO last year as one of the world's 19 masterpieces.

"The honor has undoubtedly injected a new vitality into the development of the traditional art form," said Wang Lu, an official with a national art research institute.

Shortly after UNESCO's proclamation in May 2001, the Ministry of Culture organized a seminar on how to protect the 700-year-old Kunqu Opera.

Financial aid from the UN organization is far from enough to preserve China's inexhaustible cultural heritage, due to the long processing time required for the biennial applications and the strict limitations to the number of candidates accepted, said Yang Zhi, an official with the Ministry of Culture.

The US$30,000 aid from UNESCO was well below the amount needed for the preservation of Kunqu Opera and more funding is being called for from the Chinese government and assistance from cultural and heritage authorities, said Yang.

The ancient art form underwent a marked decline in the 20th century, and latest figures show only 200 pieces of music scores have survived, a sharp drop from the 400 reported in 1949 -- the year the People's Republic was founded.

"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 Jicai, a famous writer who is making great efforts to save China's folk art.

China now has less than 700 Kunqu Opera singers and only 100 Gesser ballad singers. Traditional art forms have gradually given way to pop movies, discos and rock'n'rolling.

"Few people are aware of the change. Actually most of them enjoy life as it is now," said Wang Lu, an official from the national art research institute, "But some day we will realize we have lost some of our most valuable cultural heritage."

Fortunately, the issue has aroused widespread concern among thinking people, particularly some non-governmental organizations.

The Xiyuan Publishing House plans to publish a series to promote Chinese folk arts to everyday readers.

In March this year, a non-governmental folk art association launched a large-scale "emergency" project to protect China's folk art. With the help of UNESCO, the association is doing verbatim recordings of ballads and operas and has released over 100 video tapes containing original performances.

Intangible heritage studies have been included in the curricula of college students nationwide to keep the essence of China's civilization alive among the younger generation.

(Xinhua News Agency August 6, 2002)

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