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    Cherishing assets from the past
Xin Zhigang
2004-10-18 05:52

Hutong, the ancient narrow alleyways that divide single-storey, stone courtyard houses (siheyuan), exist only in China.

The picturesque hutong and siheyuan are undisputable symbols of traditional culture in the capital city of Beijing.

But they are fast disappearing to make way for new high-rise apartments.

Media reports said the number of hutong in Beijing had been slashed by half to 1,400 by the end of last year.

With the decline, the area of siheyuan has slumped sharply to about 3 million square metres from 17 million square metres in 1949. Beijing is not the only Chinese city having its artistic and monumental assets bulldozed. Great works of architecture, sculpture and painting are being flattened.

"Most Chinese cities seem to have misunderstood what modernization should be about as they compete with each other to present a modern look through lines of skyscrapers," says Zhu Tiezhen, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

"In fact, each city should cherish its cultural heritage because it offers not only a unique brand and identity but also an important basis for building a modern city."

The problem is testament to the huge impact of China's sweeping modernization bid on the survival and development of traditional cultures.

Drastic changes in the life styles of the people, even such intangible cultural manifestations as oral traditions, music, festivities and languages, are endangered or pushed to the brink of extinction.

The vulnerability of traditional culture in the face of modernization has actually become a dilemma for almost all countries, especially developing nations.

Does modernization in fact have to be achieved at the cost of cultural heritage?

How can best advantage be taken of economic achievements to better preserve and develop traditional cultures?

What measures can be taken to ensure different nations share experiences and co-operate with each other to promote cultural diversity?

These challenging problems have brought together more than 150 delegates and observers to the Seventh Annual Ministerial Meeting of the International Network on Cultural Policy (INCP) in Shanghai, China's economic hub.

Cultural officials, including 21 ministers from 39 countries and representatives from six international organizations, attended the event between Friday and Saturday.

The meeting focused on traditional cultures and modernization, as proposed by China. Discussions among the participants included the rescue and protection of traditional culture, opportunities for exchange and co-operation, and inheritance and innovation, all against a background of modernization and globalization.

In the Shanghai Statement passed by the ministerial meeting, the ministers called for the effective protection and appropriate use of cultural heritage in the course of modernization and to make it a driving force for social development.

Significance of traditional culture

The statement stressed the need to identify elements that threaten or challenge traditional culture and those that relate them to social cohesion.

Participants to the meeting agreed that special support should be given to preservation in developing nations.

Katerina Stenou, director of the Division of Cultural Policy and Cultural Dialogue of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), said fine traditions and colourful culture in these countries are able to offer more elements in world culture.

"We know that developing countries have more difficulties in preserving and developing their cultural heritage due to lack of adequate means and funds," she told China Daily. "But their bigger contribution to international cultural diversity deserves greater efforts in this field."

Bozo Biskupic, Minister of Culture from Croatia, said it would be a sad story if the whole world lived under only one predominant culture.

"A colourful world needs colourful cultures to support it," he said. "And that's why we should do more to protect tradition in the context of economic globalization."

China's Minister of Culture Sun Jiazheng said a greater diversity of international culture is an inevitable trend. That's because traditions from each nation can be a source of inspiration for creativity and development.

"It is a historical duty and an important responsibility for the government to preserve cultural traditions and promote cultural diversity in every country," he said at the meeting.

"Like other countries, China faces many similar difficulties in appropriately dealing with conflicts between protecting cultural heritage and socio-economic progress."

But the minister said his country is willing to share with other nations its experience in effectively protecting and appropriately using heritage during its economic development.

China, the world's largest developing country with a fast-growing economy, is a typical example of how to address the relationship between preservation and economic development.

Lessons and experience

The country has both lessons and experience from its history of more than 5,000 years.

After the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, the State and relevant departments devoted a lot of efforts to the protection of traditional cultures and fostering of artistic talents.

But traditions were once considered the remains of a feudal system and numerous artefacts were destroyed during the chaotic days of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

In the meantime, the inheritors of traditional and folk cultures and arts were punished for their preservation and dissemination of the past.

It was not until the late 1970s, when the Chinese Government launched its reform and opening-up drive, that preservation was put back on the right track.

A series of laws and regulations, including the Cultural Relics Protection Law, were enacted to ensure better protection of these remnants and greater diversity in the most populous nation and its 55 minority ethnic groups.

China has so far 30 places listed on World Cultural and Natural Heritage Sites. Around the country, hundreds of conservation areas at both national and local levels have been set up.

These successful practices and achievements, however, do not mean China's preservation efforts have been easy.

The focus on economic growth has inevitably led to tourism development at almost all heritage sites, especially those on the world heritage list.

Although cultural tourism has brought huge economic benefits, it has, sometimes, become the main source of destruction and wear. One of the problems is the growing number of illegal facilities near some sites so as to attract more tourists.

This kind of damage is blamed on "blind and profit-oriented development" during economic development.

Emerging challenges

But what's more worrying in China is the looming crisis of the loss of more intangible traditions, such as cuisines, customs, folk music and festivities.

The preservation of this kind of thing relies more on the communities and individuals that started them.

Fast modernization has brought about changes in the conditions that allow those individuals, groups and communities to continue to develop culturally in accordance with their traditions.

As more old artists, craftsmen, designers and other creators of traditional cultures pass away, the younger generations are losing their interest and capability to carry forward their valuable legacies.

In an "e-era" world characterized by "fast food culture," young people prefer on-line games, shopping malls, salons and fitness clubs to traditional pastimes.

The embarrassment of Kunqu Opera, one of the earliest Chinese dramas with a history of more than 600 years, is a typical example.

In May 2001, it won the title "Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity" by UNESCO. Its survival, however, has been threatened as it has lost its special magic among younger generations.

Because few young people want to be Kunqu Opera performers, there are only two performers younger than 30 among the 91 performers of the Jiangsu Kunqu Opera Troupe, one of the country's largest troupes. The number of Kunqu plays that can be performed has plunged to less than 100 from about 800 in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Even China's most popular Peking Opera has a weakening appeal to young people.

A recent survey of teenage audiences suggest as many as 42 per cent of those respondents are not interested in Peking Opera.

A tremendous number of dialects and folk craft skills such as the making of silk, porcelain and lacquer are also under threat.

Even traditional Chinese holidays such as the Lantern Festival and Dragon Boat Festival have become less popular among young people.

Instead, the younger generations have demonstrated more enthusiasm in imported festivals such as Valentine's Day and Christmas.

"Although the spread of Western values and lifestyles may have some negative impacts in the cultural field, the decline of traditional culture is a problem of our own short-sightedness in preserving and developing these valuable things," says Ji Baocheng, president of the Renmin University of China.

"If we fail to come to their rescue now, the achievements of the Chinese people over the past 5,000 years may disappear."

The grave situation has prompted the government to take concrete steps to give priority to the preservation of intangible cultural heritage.

The ministries of culture and finance have officially launched a long-term project this year to focus protection on oral and intangible cultural heritage such as folk literature, music, festivities and languages.

This year alone, 20 million yuan (US$2.41 million) will be spent on a programme that aims to put in place a sound and systematic mechanism for protecting traditional and folk cultures by 2020.

Meanwhile, the National People's Congress, China's top legislature, is also drafting a law on the preservation of intangible cultural heritage.

More efforts needed

Jaipal Reddy, India's Minister of Information, Broadcasting and Culture, said he was impressed by China's work in preserving its heritage.

"I think India can learn a lot from China's experience and I hope we can strengthen bilateral co-operation in this field," he told China Daily.

Danny Yung, a representative of the International Network on Cultural Diversity (INCD), expressed his appreciation of China's work to promote cultural diversity and to support threatened cultures.

Given the successful practice in China and other countries, he stressed, it is not an inevitable result for modernization to threaten the survival of tradition.

"Traditional cultures and knowledge of them can contribute a lot to the modernization process," he said. "Technology can also be an instrument for promoting the development of traditional cultures and advancing cultural diversity."

He stressed that while governments and the private sector often measure development and modernization strictly in economic terms, the most fundamental measurement must surely be the humanity of societies.

In fact, most participants to the ministerial meeting agreed that despite the great importance of preserving traditional cultures, it is imperative to encourage its regeneration and growth as an inheritance of the past and the present, which will be passed on to future generations.

Meanwhile, there should be an adequate use of latest scientific and technological developments in preserving traditional cultures.

Modern technology is opening unimagined perspectives for the work of research, conservation, recording and dissemination of cultural heritage.

Despite its negative impact, the economic use of cultural heritage should still be encouraged because it contributes to social development, while representing at the same time a very substantial source of income.

The economic benefits can then be channelled into projects of research, study, exploration, reclamation, preservation and dissemination of cultural heritage, whether conserved in its place of origin or kept in museums.

Faced by a world moving towards an ever greater interdependence, co-operation between governments in these fields, as well as the participation from other sectors of society, is more necessary than ever.

UNESCO's Katerina Stenou said China has played a model role in co-operating with other nations and drawing resources from society to preserve and innovate its traditional cultures.

"China has been taking advantage of resources as much as possible in the preservation of traditional cultures," she said. "We are happier to see it is also ready to listen to the rest of the world and join efforts with other countries."

(China Daily 10/18/2004 page5)


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