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Cultural Progress
Intangible Heritage Lives
Experienced craftsmen share their works of art in downtown Beijing
By Ge Lijun & François Dubé | NO. 9 MARCH 2, 2017

Director General of UNESCO Irina Bokova (second left) visits the experience center (COURTESY PHOTOS)

On Beijing's Qianmen Avenue, hidden between two alleyways a few steps from Tiananmen Square is the small workshop of Yao Huifen. From the outside, you would have a hard time believing that this new and modern-looking shop contains a world of millennial treasures.

Yao is a master craftsman of traditional Suzhou embroidery, which is listed as an intangible cultural heritage of China. Originally from Suzhou City in east China's Jiangsu Province, this art form—famous for its refined designs and elegant colors—was struggling to find its relevance in modern society. But since her personal workshop opened a year ago, Yao is increasingly optimistic about the future of Suzhou embroidery.

Aside from an increase in sales and a proportionate raise in her income, the most

important change to Yao, 49, is that her craft now benefits from an important platform in the very heart of the capital.

"More and more young university students want to learn Suzhou embroidery; they visit my workshop to understand its history and then ask us to teach them the technique. There is a demand for long-term embroidery training courses, and we are working toward that," she told Beijing Review. Passing on her passion for the elegance, refinement and beauty of the ancient art of Suzhou embroidery to a younger generation has become this craft master's life ambition.


Suzhou embroidery (COURTESY PHOTOS) 

Making the intangible tangible

Yao's embroidery workshop is the result of a successful partnership between the Beijing Municipal Government and the Yongxin Huayun Culture Industry Group, which aims to turn Beijing's historic Qianmen Avenue into a district dedicated to the dissemination and safeguarding of China's intangible cultural heritage.

Yao's booth hangout is the first of 16 craft workshops planned to open in the coming months. These workshops form a separate part of a larger network covering 200,000 square meters across the Qianmen area, with the Intangible Cultural Heritage Experience Center, which opened its door to the public in December 2016, at its core.

Once the $3.8-billion project is completed, 1,000 specific art forms from 12 major kinds of craftsmanship will be available to the public, showcasing the excellent skills of more than 1,000 Chinese masters from all over the country.

On the two floors of the Intangible Cultural Heritage Experience Center, more than 200 forms of craftsmanship are already on display, ranging from pottery to calligraphy, as well as embroidery, sculptures, paintings, copper and metal handicrafts. Each art form has its own dedicated area, where visitors can understand, examine and purchase artworks produced by the masters and their apprentices.

Far from limiting itself to merely showcasing or selling the creations, the experience center goes one step further and allows visitors to physically engage in China's rich heritage. Experience stations have been set up and visitors are encouraged to create their own works of art, free of charge.

With the help of trained staff, visitors can try their hands at pottery, painting or paper-cutting, among others. With their creative urges satiated, the budding craft masters can purchase their own little piece of art for a modest fee.

"It is by physically and emotionally experiencing the various crafts that visitors come to really appreciate the art forms," Ye Jing, Brand Manager at Yongxin Huayun, told Beijing Review.

Masters and craftsmen also spend time at the experience center, where they enjoy meeting people and sharing their passion for art. Such exchanges put a human face to the artwork, often leaving a strong impression for visitors of all ages.

"Looking at the assiduous eyes and skillful hands of the masters at work, I was touched by their artistic charm and felt very proud of our traditional art. They also introduced some of the core techniques and explained its cultural significance. All of this makes me want to be creative myself," said Wang Ning, a 20-year-old student from Peking University.

In addition to physical experiences, the project also seeks to harness the power of the Internet. Yongxin Huayun launched the e-commerce website as an extension of the experience center and workshops. This provides craftsmen with an additional channel to disseminate their art and boost income, according to Ye.

There are also big plans for the future, when virtual reality and augmented reality technology will be used to showcase ancient production techniques to visitors. "By using new technologies, we can go back in history and go beyond the limits of time and space; this brings culture to life," Luo Yong, Vice President of Yongxin Huayun, told Beijing Review.

This system will be closely linked with the network in Qianmen. In the experience center, each creation is already accompanied by a QR code. By scanning the code, visitors can access a full intro on the product and its creator, and even purchase it on the spot.


Visitors experience paper making

Avoiding pitfalls

Efforts to fully integrate traditional crafts into modern society, however, are not without their pitfalls, which stakeholders must strive to identify and avoid, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

In particular, some measures aimed at popularizing and "selling" products derived from intangible heritage can sometimes lead to disruptions and imbalances in the market. UNESCO noted that in the context of excessive marketing, artisans tend to focus on elements most favored by the market at the expense of other heritage aspects with cultural value of equal importance.

Well aware of this risk, Yongxin Huayun is taking concrete steps to prevent the artistic creation process from falling entirely under the influence of market trends. "The masters only focus on creating their artworks, and we take responsibility for disseminating the information and selling them on our online platform. This way, we ensure that the creative process is not influenced by the market, and the masters can devote all their energy to their creation," Luo told Beijing Review.

Moreover, rather than focusing on solely selling art, the experience center employees are trained to maximize visitor satisfaction. "It's important to not just show visitors the products but also make them understand the stories behind them," said Chi Hongge, an experience center staff member.

Once the Qianmen neighborhood is fully established, Yongxin Huayun plans to build a dozen similar experience centers over the next decade, extending operations to other parts of China, and all the way to Paris and Australia.

Delighted by this prospect, Yao hopes the project can now unfold more quickly. "The more craftsmen who join, the larger the Qianmen cultural district will become." For the moment she continues to do what she does best—sharing with the younger generation her passion for Suzhou embroidery, motivated by the fact that her beautiful creations will soon be accessible to enthusiasts all over the world. n

Copyedited by Dominic James Madar

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