Cultural roots need deeper protection
By Zhao Huanxin (China Daily)
Updated: 2008-03-18 07:22
The country's top official overseeing intangible cultural heritage has tangible reasons for redoubling protection efforts.
Every time Vice-Minister of Culture Zhou Heping hears about a folklore artist or a master craftsman who passes away before passing down their arts, he feels "sorrowfully pitiable".
The Ministry of Culture recently proclaimed 551 artists as "inheritors" of intangible cultural heritage, including those of Peking Opera and Mongolian pastoral song - the second batch following 226 designated last June.
"But in between, some 'masters' died before they were conferred the inheritor titles and so did the arts which only they mastered," Zhou said during a webchat session on China Daily's website with columnist Raymond Zhou last week.
"This is extremely regrettable."
Intangible cultural heritage is defined by the United Nations as "the practices, representations, expressions, as well as the knowledge and skills - as well as the instruments, objects, artifacts and cultural spaces associated therewith - that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage".
Also regrettable to Zhou are reports that some Chinese villages were demolishing houses with unique architecture and ancient structural decorations only to replace them with modern but monotonous buildings.
"There is a compelling urgency for protection," Zhou said. "We must provide conditions including funding for inheritors to transmit their art."
He said that to prevent urbanization and industrialization from encroaching on intangible cultural heritage, it is important to raise awareness about the need for protection.
Among handmade teapots, for example, different styles employ different traditional techniques, endowing each with a distinguishing "character". However, people are increasingly using machines to mass-produce clay teapots, dramatically diminishing their value.
People must understand that they will ultimately kill traditional arts by resorting to industrial production, he said.
The vice-minister is a staunch proponent of including Peking Opera and calligraphy in elementary and high school curricula to expose youngsters to cultural traditions.
Nearly 100 ancient styles of opera have died out since the middle of the last century, when the country had more than 300, according to the ministry.
"I think we could mull over fine-tuning the subjects (to be taught at schools) by increasing education on traditional culture, so young people will receive such an education at an earlier age and preserve this heritage - the 'DNA' of our nation," Zhou said.
In order to rescue China's disappearing intangible cultural heritage, the country in 2005 organized government departments and specialists to select 518 examples from hundreds of contenders and award them State-level protection.
The second batch, covering nearly 700 items, will be announced soon, Zhou said.
Those items listed at the national level of protection are outstanding representatives of the country's intangible cultural heritage, but compared with the size of the country and the diversity of its culture, the number listed is rather small, Zhou said.
(China Daily 03/18/2008 page5)