New roadmap for better protection of heritage items

Many of China's traditional lifestyles have disappeared owing to the country's urbanization and modernization.

But before more vanish, cultural authorities have vowed to keep them alive through a raft of initiatives.

Last week, on the 10th anniversary of the country releasing its first registered list of intangible cultural heritage items, the Culture Ministry announced a new blueprint for better preservation.

China has inscribed 1,372 national-level and 11,042 provincial-level ICH items so far.

But Li Xiong, director of the ministry's ICH department, says previous plans focused on individual inheritors rather than expanding traditional techniques or helping craftsmanship in groups. Each registered item is represented by one or a few top-level artisans, who get government aid, but the larger pool of artisans that are involved to crafts don't get equal attention.

"The living spaces of many ICH items, like traditional villages, have been severely compressed," Li says, citing another concern.

"Some fine handicrafts have also been replaced by machine production."

China promulgated its national law on ICH protection in 2011, but relevant regional rules and funds are still not enough. Registry is often more emphasized than follow-up protection activities, according to a report released by the ministry in January.

"Monotonous design (of crafts) is a common problem," the report says.

Many traditional products derived from daily life only serve as decorations today, it says.

"When their consumers become a small crowd, the original goal of ICH items is lost."

Consequently, the ministry launched a nationwide training program last year, involving sessions over a month at colleges of some 1,800 craftsmen.

The ministry announced last week that the project will expand to 57 institutions this year, including Tsinghua University, the Central Academy of Fine Arts and the China Academy of Art.

"The program is mainly to offer basic fine-art theories to ICH inheritors to complement the traditional master-apprentice pedagogy," says Ma Shengde, an expert on a panel for the Culture Ministry's program.

The program is open to all artisans-not just registered ICH inheritors.

"We have to be very cautious and develop in a steady pace," Ma says of doubts that may exist about the program's effectiveness in transforming ICH items.

"The training program doesn't claim to replace the original masters. We are here to improve people's capacity to understand old crafts and are looking at ways to make them easily acceptable among today's youth," he says.

Folk music and dances are temporarily excluded from the program due to the complexities of such art forms.

A withdrawal system will likely be introduced to ICH listing in the future. After a general survey of the registered items, those found to have already lost their relevance today will probably be removed from the list. Some songs that farmers chanted in the fields earlier are no longer heard as the sounds of machines have overtaken them.

"Intangible cultural heritage items shouldn't be destined for the museums and archives," Ma says.

"They need to live among the people."

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