Honor the past, live in the present

By Raymond Zhou ( China Daily ) Updated: 2014-01-04 07:40:53

Honor the past, live in the present
Gray skies, black humor
Honor the past, live in the present
Who's being taken for a ride? 
Honor the past, live in the present
Nation worked up over days off 
We used to cook every meal, but now we have all kinds of fast food and cooking has turned into a luxury. Overall, to live like a Chinese of old would require considerable wealth. But that's assuming the lifestyle of the ancient aristocrat. For the majority, life today is much improved as compared with the old times. Remember, even something as simple as the abacus was not really available in every Chinese home. It was much less ubiquitous than the calculator today.

Many of the things the ancient Chinese were enamored with were abolished a century ago, including bound feet and the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) men's hairdo; others are still tenaciously with us but are looking frayed, such as the preference for male heirs. Physical things have an easier time finding their new places. They can be housed in museums or collected by individuals who cherish antiques and can afford them.

It is intangible heritage that has caused the most headaches. Take local operas, for example. There used to be hundreds of varieties across the country but, with the rise of television, the loss of audiences for most operas has been so devastating they cannot survive. Should the government keep them resuscitated by subsidizing them unconditionally?

Mind you, it's not that their shows are not affordable, but their target audience has moved on to other forms of entertainment. Or should the government pick a few varieties still with a sizable, but ageing, audience to support? Or should it suppress modern competition, such as pop music, to divert audiences to the old forms?

The Chinese government has been searching for ways to preserve and protect much of this intangible heritage. In recent years, it has started to pay basic salaries to descendents of artisans for a few selective grassroots crafts. It encourages them to turn the inheriting of special skills into enterprising efforts that can sustain themselves in the marketplace, especially with the aid of the tourism industry.

The way I see it, the situation is similar with the abacus. In a nation of 1.3 billion people, there should be a few remaining masters of the tool, if not as a hobby then as a government-sponsored academic pursuit. The device itself can be a collector's item or a curiosity for travelers. But it's wishful thinking that it reappears on every accountant's desk.

There is a difference between loving something as a confirmation of one's cultural identity and loving it as a pragmatic instrument for getting things done.

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