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Passing the Baton
Chinese intangible cultural heritage skills promoted in schools
By Xia Yuanyuan  ·  2018-11-12  ·   Source: | NO. 46 NOVEMBER 15, 2018

Students from a primary school in Chengdu, capital of southwest China's Sichuan Province, pose for a photo after performing a Peking Opera on April 9 (XINHUA)

On the playground of the Zhongguancun No.2 Primary School in Beijing, students were amazed by the 55-year-old folk art expert, Zhao Xuejun, playing with diabolos. The spinning, buzzing juggling toy flew around like a bird. Inspired by Zhao, who is their teacher, all the students began to imitate her actions with their own diabolos.

Diabolo, or kongzhu in Chinese, is a traditional Chinese game using a double-coned bobbin that is spun, tossed and caught on a string secured by two wands held in each hand. It requires great skill and, when played rapidly, the spinning bobbin produces a range of buzz saw sounds that can be heard from a distance. The game dates back more than 1,000 years. It has been passed down from the hands of lords and dignitaries to become a household pastime. In 2006, it was included among the first group of national intangible cultural heritage items by the Chinese Government.

"In the past, playing diabolo was only popular among seniors who wanted to keep healthy. However, with its promotion in schools, this traditional Chinese game has been revived among the young," Zhao told Beijing Review. In addition, the diabolo is beneficial for children to gain upper body strength and increased flexibility.

"For my students, they may not know the profound history and cultural background behind the game, but they are aware of the traditional culture behind the game when they play it," Zhao said. "This is what inheritance means."

An All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese art troupe stages an acrobatics, song and dance performance at a theater in Colombo, capital of Sri Lanka, on October 23 (XINHUA)

Know it! Love it!

"I know this is the facial mask of Cao Cao (a famous politician in the late Eastern Han Dynasty, 25-220) because his mask uses white to indicate that the character is evil and hypocritical," answered 8-year-old Gao Mingyang. In the Peking Opera facial mask class of the same primary school, led by Shi Haoran, a representative inheritor of Peking Opera facial makeup, students are actively competing to be the first to figure out the character on mask cards shown by the teacher.

Peking Opera facial masks were listed as one of Beijing's intangible cultural heritages in 2009. Shi, 50 years old, inherited her family's legacy of drawing masks and she constantly develops innovations in the ancient art to produce works imbued with rich folk culture and diverse themes.

In her class, Shi demonstrated her creations, which showed the different roles the masks represent. All the children were instantly intrigued by the exquisite, festive and amusing works and were eager to try their hand at creating them.

Shi introduced the historic origin and cultural implications of each mask, as well as the painting techniques, to the children before they got to work on blank masks.

"You can create your color scheme but you must remember that the color on the facial mask should be fairly symmetrical," said Shi. About 20 children took part in the mask painting class, all fascinated by the ancient cultural legacy.

Supported by the Beijing Municipal Government, the class is one of the projects in a bid to introduce and teach intangible cultural heritage to children. Beijing Dingsheng Traditional Culture Institute was appointed to select qualified representative inheritors as teachers.

"I'm delighted that kids have so much passion and interest in learning to draw Peking Opera facial masks," said Shi after the class. "To pass on the traditional cultural heritage, the first step is to let people know it and then love it."

A teacher instructs students on hand-painted kites in Langfang of north China's Hebei Province on August 5, 2017. (XINHUA)

Difficulties in inheritance

In the past, cultural inheritors, like Zhou and Shi never imagined they could be teachers in a primary school; but a year ago, they became members of the Beijing Dingsheng Traditional Culture Institute. The social organization aims to build a bridge between Chinese traditional cultural craftspeople and communities and schools to protect and promote Chinese intangible cultural heritage. According to Tong Yanhong, dean of the institute, despite China's continuous efforts to strengthen protection of intangible cultural heritage, historical preservation still faces big challenges.

"It is not an easy thing to promote traditional cultural heritage in modern times," Tong said. "Most representative inheritors have not accurately grasped the demand of the modern market and have been weak with innovation. As a result, though intangible cultural heritage products have high technical and artistic content, they do not meet the aesthetic standards of current consumers."

Put simply, the craftspeople cannot make a living from their skills. Moreover, intangible cultural heritage was generally passed on via word of mouth in ancient China, making it one of the most vulnerable parts of tradition and a difficult thing to inherit.

"Without a systematic teaching theory, it is difficult for inheritors to train successors on a large scale," Tong told Beijing Review.

Into schools

Insiders say that schools are fertile ground for passing on these ancient skills, making the introduction of intangible cultural heritage into the syllabus of great significance. In recent years, the Chinese Government has taken measures to encourage institutions to help introducing intangible cultural heritage into schools nationwide, with the Beijing Dingsheng Traditional Culture Institute being an example. Financially supported by the government, the institute is responsible for selecting and training teachers to effectively pass on traditional crafts.

"This is an innovative and sustainable way of inheriting traditional culture," said Tong. "It helps relieve the financial burden of craftspeople and also creates a path for handing down the heritage to the next generations."

Now, traditional paper cutting, kite-making, palace lantern-making, embroidery, clay sculpting and other traditional arts have been introduced into the syllabus of many primary schools across China.

Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo

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