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Palpable protection of the intangible

Updated: 2024-02-02 14:50 ( China Daily )
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The author Stephanie Stone.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Working in news media, I'm privileged to travel around the country and gain access to inheritors of intangible cultural heritage. Cultural preservation is vital work, and the more I learn about it, the more I realize how many mechanisms need to be in place to make it a successful venture. It goes far beyond an artist and his craft. It's an entire ecosystem that ranges from the highest levels of government policy, to participation by local communities.

As the only province in China with no plains, Guizhou's terrain presents an incredible challenge to the work of protecting the province's intangible cultural heritage. Generations of master craftsmen have lived isolated in small villages, largely cut off from the rest of the country. Before preserving cultural crafts could even be considered, infrastructure was needed.

Now that there is access to the villages and the craft masters have been identified and bestowed with the title of "national level inheritor", how best to utilize their strengths? The master-apprentice model of learning a craft is all but obsolete in today's world. So these ancient arts must be incorporated into the education system, or offered in training workshops or intensive summer camps that work toward a degree program or fit into a young person's modern life.

From there the craft must be promoted, demonstrating its value to the public. This in itself takes many forms. One is leveraging online streaming platforms and e-commerce, so people can both appreciate the craft and purchase works. Other modalities may include documentaries on the master and his craft, using virtual reality and other immersive technologies in a kind of digital museum. The onus here is on private or government enterprises as, of the around 2,000 inheritors, most are in their 70s and don't have (nor should they be expected to have) the technological know-how to produce such things.

Then, of course, there's cultural tourism. China's been leaning pretty heavily into that modality as it's also tied into poverty alleviation and rural vitalization. This requires additional infrastructure and buyin from the local community who may discover in themselves an entrepreneurial spirit and establish B&Bs, restaurants serving local dishes and paying villagers to perform traditional dances and songs.

There must be marketing to attract visitors and that becomes a much more complex task if you also want to attract international buyers or visitors.

The boon to all these endeavors however is the economic benefit. Whole villages have been lifted out of extreme poverty as a result. Some livestreamers have gained fame by showcasing local crafts, and breakthroughs in technology have been made in efforts to preserve intangible cultural heritage.

The challenges, of course, are time, money and resources of which there never seems to be enough. Overtourism is also legitimate concern, as is the issue of towing the line between authenticity and commodification.

From high-level policies to motivated entrepreneurs and everything in between, preserving thousands of years of culture is no small task, but it is a joy of my job to see the processes at work and under development.




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