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Thriving Ethnic Culture
The China Central Ethnic Song and Dance Troupe is seen as the cradle for many ethnic artists in China. It has produced many singers and dancers who are active in China’s cultural scene today. They include Mongolian singers Dedema and Tenger, the ethnic Bai dancer Yang Liping, and pride of the Yi people, singer Qubi Awu to name just a few. Many Han artists have also become well known for their ethnic singing and dancing through this troupe. Recently, they came together to celebrate the troupe’s 50th birthday.

Li Yushan, head of the troupe, recalls the instructions given by Premier Zhou Enlai when it was established fifty years ago. The Premier encouraged the artists to put on good shows and to bring ethnic arts to the world.

Li Yushan says the troupe has been striving to do this for the past several decades.

“For the last 50 years, we have brought 50 to 60 performances every year to ethnic areas, and we’ve been to more than 140 countries introducing ethnic art forms.”

Li Yushan says that the ethnic artists are the pride of their people, and put passion into all their work. They have not only impressed audiences with their consummate performances, but have also bestowed Chinese culture with an array of classic songs and dances.

However, there were hard times for the China Central Ethnic Song and Dance Troupe when pop music and modern shows from Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as western countries, began to dominate the mainland stage in the early 1980s. Audiences, especially young people, turned to newer art forms. Li Yushan says that they realized they had to adapt to the times. Over the past two decades, the troupe has successfully won back audiences with their own unique performances.

“We stick to our own specialty, that is to say, rich ethnic arts. We give it a modern fell, for example, modern costumes, music or stage settings. Thus, we have won back audiences, especially younger people, who don’t like old and stereotyped performances.”

Now the Ensemble is trying to increase its market share. It has created new dances, songs and instrumental pieces for many ethnic minorities. China has 56 ethnic groups, and Li Yushan says that he and his team members aim to do a better job of covering every ethnic group in the country.

While the Central Ethnic Song and Dance Ensemble has grown steadily, another aspect of ethnic culture has also shared the same healthy trend. Literature has attracted broad public attention, especially with the granting of the Gallant Horse Award. We’ll hear more about that right after the break.

The Gallant Horse Award ceremony was held last week at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, and is the highest accolade in the country for ethnic literature. It was initiated in 1980, and this year is the seventh time the awards have been given. Fifty-five works written by writers from 21 ethnic groups won the prestigious accolade.

Dao Zhengming, of the Dai ethnic group in Xishuangbanna, in southwest China’s Yunnan province, was given the prize for his collection of short stories.

“I’m interested in reflecting different aspects of the lives of the Dai people, while its society has been developing from a small peasant economy to a modern one after the reform and opening up drive. I think the Dai people’s way of thinking and their lives have changed a lot. For example, in the past, they only cared about their own lives. Now, they have paid more attention to others and the outside world, and are more willing to participate in public affairs, for instance, building bridges and village schools. I want to record these in my stories”.

Dao Zhengming says another major theme in his stories is the relationship between the Dai people and other races, as Yunnan province is home to a number of co-existing ethnic groups. He says that his favorite story in the collection is the one that describes the harmonious lives of different ethnic groups in a remote small town.

Although the Dai language is used in people’s daily lives, Dao Zhengming is the first person to use it in a published story.

“I use the Dai language to write for the Dai people. In the past, the old Dai characters were hard for people to learn. After the reform of the Dai characters in the 1950s, they became very popular. I think my writings are a combination of modern techniques of Han Chinese and traditional Dai literature.”

Dao Zhengming’s collection of stories was one of the 22 prize-winning works written in ethnic languages. These pieces account for 40 percent of the total works that won the Gallant Horse Award.

Jidi Majia, a senior official with the Chinese Writer’s Association, was the deputy director of the judging committee for this year’s awards. Coming from the Yi ethnic group himself, he says that the award has greatly helped promote the growth of ethnic literature.

“The Gallant Horse Award has contributed a lot to promoting ethnic literature in China and cultivating ethnic writers, especially new and promising ones. It has also helped to narrow the gaps between different ethnic groups in literature. The Award is not only the highest for ethnic literature, but also a major literary award in the country as a whole.”

Jidi Majia says that the works submitted for this year’s award were mainly written between 1999 to 2001. These works cover a variety of literary forms, from full-length novels and short stories to poems and literary commentaries.

Jidi Majia points out one noticeable feature of this year’s award-winning submissions.

“One thing that distinguishes these works is the fact that they reflect modern lives in ethnic minority inhabited areas. The thinking of ethnic writers is very active. They go into the thick of life, reflect the changes, especially in their people’s mentalities. Such works based on real lives are moving and convincing. They represent a big step forward in terms of both content and skill in ethnic literature.”

Jidi Majia adds that that special attention has been paid to writers from remote and small ethnic groups, those who write in their own ethnic languages, and new upcoming writers.

Meng Hui is one such new writer, whose maiden work was one of the prizewinners. The writer is from the Daur ethnic group, who live mainly in northeast China, and won the award with her full-length novel. It is set against the background of the Tang dynasty, a golden period in ancient China. Meng Hui says it was an open time, which witnessed large-scale national unification. Her novel, which takes a unique look at ancient Chinese culture, has received much attention in literary circles in recent years. Meng Hui was very excited to receive the award.

“My first full-length novel won the award, which is a great encouragement for me. I believe the news is inspiring for people of my ethnic group, which has a small population.”

Deputy director of the Award’s judging committee Jidi Majia says that all these things have helped change ethnic literature for the better.

“In the past 22 years since its establishment, all of China’s 55 ethnic minorities have had writers who have won the Award. Many ethnic groups have their own writers. Some are renowned nationwide, such as the Tibetan writer Zhaxi Dawa and Alai, and the Hui writer Zhang Chengzhi. Some of their works have been introduced to other countries. Before, a number of ethnic groups didn’t even have their own written literature or writers, but this is now history.”

Jin Binghua, vice chairman of the Chinese Writer’s Association, says that ethnic literature has seen healthy and rapid progress in recent years. Ethnic art is an indispensable part of Chinese culture, and ethnic writers are playing an increasingly important role in raising the standards of Chinese literature. While the new era provides ethnic writers with enormous opportunities, it also poses many challenges. Therefore, ethnic writers should constantly improve themselves to meet the challenges of the future.

“Ethnic writers should keep abreast of the country’s economic and social progress, as well as scientific and cultural developments in the world. They should preserve and promote their own fine cultural traditions, and at the same time learn from the essence of other cultures so as to maintain their own unique charm.”

To enable ethnic writers to make further improvements, the government has undertaken a series of measures, such as holding training programs. Jin Xinghua, director of the Cultural Department under the State Ethnic Affairs Commission, says that the development of ethnic literature lies mainly in the competence of writers.

“Next year, we’ll hold a one-year training course for ethnic writers. We plan to let them travel around the country to help them broaden their horizons and to keep abreast of what’s going on in the country.”

Jin Xinghua says that the training class will be one of many programs planned for the many talents that exist in different fields. Such training programs have been held over the past several years. For example, last year, a training class for ethnic dancers was held in south China’s Shenzhen. Dancers learnt about the latest trends in the art in China and around the world, and attended lectures given by many famous artists.

Jin Xinghua says that in addition to this, various activities have been held to promote ethnic culture.

“Last year, the second Ethnic Arts Theatrical Festival was held, and was a grand get-together of the country’s top ethnic performers. Some 100 shows fully demonstrated how ethnic arts have flourished.”

The official says that more awards for ethnic arts and culture have drawn greater public attention. The Gallant Horse Award is given for ethnic Literature as well as TV programs and dramas, and the Peacock Award is given for ethnic dancing. Next year, the 7th Ethnic Games will be a competition of sports and also a showcase for ethnic culture. Jin Xinghua believes that along with the all round growth in ethnic culture, ethnic-inhabited areas will also taste the benefits of its development.

(cri.com.cn September 16, 2002)

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