Roving thoughts and provocations

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Worse Than the Cultural Revolution’: An Interview With Tian Qing

Ian Johnson
Tian Qing attending the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a government advisory body, Beijing, March 2012

Tian Qing may be China’s leading cultural heritage expert. A scholar of Buddhist musicology and the Chinese zither, or guqin, the sixty-four-year-old now heads the Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Center, an institution set up by the government to protect China’s native traditions in the performing arts, cuisine, rituals, festivals, and other forms of culture. As Tian notes, these are gaining in popularity but the nature of this revival is ambiguous: Are they being recovered as living traditions or as objects for urbanized Chinese to enjoy as tourists in their own land?

Tian grew up in Shandong province but his education was interrupted by the Cultural Revolution. He spent five years as a “sent-down youth” on an agricultural production team in Heilongjiang province. Nearly thirty by the time he graduated from college, he moved to Beijing to work as a musicology professor at the Chinese Academy of Fine Arts; in recent years he has served primarily as a cultural official. Along with running the Intangible Cultural Heritage center, he sits on the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress, a body of cultural and social figures that advises the government on policy, as well as half a dozen other government bodies. I spoke to him recently at his offices at the Academy of Fine Arts, which are stuffed with volumes of research, scrolls, recordings, and papers.


Ian Johnson: The government has declared culture to be a national priority. It’s also promoting Chinese culture abroad as a kind of soft power.

Tian Qing: I think it reflects a genuine desire by people to preserve their culture. It doesn’t matter what system you have, but governments often reflect popular desires. It’s the same here. It’s a very popular issue so the government is addressing it.

It sounds like a race in China to get UNESCO World Heritage designations. Every locality is lobbying to get its temple or city wall put on the list. And now the hot topic is “intangible cultural heritage”: China already has thirty six items on the UNESCO list.

It’s true. Every county chief began to want to get his local music or dance troupe on the list. It’s seen as a national honor to get on the U.N. list. But this new category is more than face. It gave Chinese society a new way of looking at culture. In the past, no one paid attention to intangible heritage, but suddenly now society does.

In 2005 we proposed an exhibition on Intangible Cultural Heritage to the National Museum of Arts but they declined and said no one would go. So instead we went to the National Museum, which back then was about to be renovated and agreed to let us exhibit. [The show included music and theater among other arts.] We thought that fifteen days was enough but then visitors came in droves. We extended the show to twenty days, then a month, then forty days. It was a huge success.

What accounts for this interest?

We wondered why it was like this. It’s because for thirty-five years we have opened our doors and studied foreign things with the aim of modernizing China. That became our top priority, our national priority. But modernization is a foreign concept, it’s a Western concept. We did whatever the West did, that was modernization for us.

And then there was the speed. When you run so fast you can only look ahead, you can’t look back. But after a while we realized that the little treasure my grandfather had left for me was falling out of my pocket. I’m not saying there haven’t been huge advantages but people are wondering what they’ve lost.

When did all this start?

The term “intangible cultural heritage” is in fact relatively new. It came to China in 2003 when UNESCO passed its convention on safeguarding cultural heritage. The term came from the Japanese, who have a long-standing program to protect their “national treasures”—singers, actors, and others who possess unique skills. At first, many Chinese people found it strange. People said “Non-cultural Material Heritage” (非文化物质遗产), which is quite funny when you think about it. But very quickly we adopted it.

It’s not that we didn’t have this idea beforehand. Look at this shelf of books—thirty volumes on Chinese folk music, most of it collected in the 1980s. In the past, we called this “folk culture.” (民间文化) But the new term sounded much grander—like the kid who went abroad to study and now comes home with a fancy degree. Suddenly everyone in the neighborhood wants to have a look at him.

Some critics say the government program to protect intangible culture is more about spending money on cultural bureaucracy than supporting Chinese performers.

We had to train people at the national level, provincial level, city and county levels. Our first thought was we should do a survey of every tradition in every county of China. But local officials didn’t know how to do this. So we actually produced a handbook—for example how to record a theater piece, how to survey it. Or vital questions like who the art form’s master is, who the disciples are, and how it’s transmitted. Or even simple things like how to properly use video recorders. So we did spend a lot of money on this, but it was unavoidable and the survey revealed that we have 870,000 intangible cultural heritage items, including 1,200 that are designated “national-level.”

And now money is flowing to the masters who practice this. Just like the Japanese have their “national treasures,” we have designated one person for each of these 1,200 national-level heritage items who “transmit” the culture. In 2010, each one got 8,000 yuan ($1,200) a year. Starting last year it is 10,000 ($1,600).

I’ve talked to some performers who say they don’t get the money.

The money is definitely being sent from the central government. Just the national subsidies alone total 12 million yuan ($2 million). The problem is that the localities are supposed to match this amount but some localities don’t have the money. That is not going very well. But overall the government is spending money on these people.

We’ve also set up Intangible Cultural Heritage experimental zones. We’ve found that you can’t separate the cultural product from the environment. For example the shamanistic Nuoxi opera [performed in southwestern China]. If you just say it’s a piece of theater that’s not right. It’s part of the Nuo people’s culture. It has a social use you have to consider. Another one is the Qiang people in Wenchuan [a county in Sichuan province, site of a major earthquake in 2008]. This zone includes the architecture, how they build things, their oral histories, their agricultural planting techniques, their clothing, how they cook and eat—we’re trying to record everything and protect it.

But I agree that all of this is too little. The difficulty is that China is too big. There are fifty-six ethnic groups and each one has its own special culture. Some art forms are very different—for example, Peking Opera but also local oral histories. So we have to keep changing how we do things.

Last year parliament passed a law to protect intangible cultural heritage. It required foreign scholars to obtain permission before taping or studying.

This is not a new requirement. Foreign scholars were always supposed to go through a local university or institute. But if you are genuinely studying a cultural issue, we welcome it. We’re mainly concerned with protecting people’s intellectual property rights—like you make a commercial recording and try to make money with it. That’s not permitted. But genuine scholarship is very welcome.

Sometimes I wonder if people want to have their old traditions protected. You note that people flood to museums, but in daily life it’s a different story.

The problem is that modernization and protecting heritage are at odds with each other. It’s like driving a car and then you tell someone to look back. You can’t do it. On the one hand everyone says yes, yes it’s great, wonderful, let’s do it. But you say, for example, to a Miao woman, “Your clothes are beautiful,” but she says, “No, I want to wear jeans”. The old clothes are so difficult, they take half a year to make and you can’t wash them easily; jeans are better. Or you say to a Dong person [an ethnic minority concentrated in south China’s Guizhou province], “Your homes are great—wow, it’s made of bamboo, it’s great!”—and they say, “I don’t want it. It’s cold and there’s no running water”. People want modernization.

Can’t one unite the two? For example, Bach’s sacral music is now more often than not performed in a concert hall. The music has been preserved but has a different function in society.

It’s possible. But it can lead to horrible things too. In Yunnan Xishuangbanna [a popular tourist area in China’s far south] there’s a Water Splashing Festival of the Dai minority. It’s related to the birthday of Sakyamuni and used to be once a year. But now people splash water on you every day. As long as tourists come, they splash water. It’s lost its religious function. Or after [the director] Zhang Yimou filmed Red Sorghum and showed the bride in a sedan chair. That used to take place in a really small area of Shanxi province. Now across the country at every tourist spot are people with sedan chairs for hire—hey, for 50 yuan you can ride in it. Tourism. It’s terrible.

As for Bach, yes, he left the church but it was slow. Your modernization took two hundred years. For us it’s been thirty years. You went step by step. We ran. So a lot of the experience that you had isn’t applicable here. Humanity hasn’t ever experienced such sudden change, where such a large number of people are going through modernization at such a fast pace. No one before us has had that.

What about Taiwan? Maybe its experiences are applicable?

Definitely. We can learn a lot and we have exchanges with Taiwan. But they are a lot smaller and had more time than we did.

They also didn’t have a Cultural Revolution.

Yes, the Cultural Revolution was terrible, but sometimes outsiders exaggerate it. It lasted at most ten years but really the main attacks [against cultural traditions and monuments] were limited to the early years. The key point is the Cultural Revolution was top-down. Ordinary people really didn’t like it. They resisted it and protected many things. I went with the British scholar Stephen Jones around Beijing and we found many things that had been saved, like Qing-era musical scores. As the locals recalled, “They ordered us to destroy them but we didn’t. We buried them.” This was despite the fact that the Cultural Revolution was worst in the environs of Beijing. Mao himself recognized this. When Nixon met Mao, Nixon tried to flatter him by saying “You changed China” and Mao said, “No, I just changed Beijing and a few areas around it.” He knew it.

I visited a Daoist music troupe in Shanxi and the youngest member of the troupe is ninth generation. He has an eleven-year-old son and said he won’t let his son learn the music because it’s a poor job—there’s no real money in it despite the subsidies and it has no status.

There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s from their own heart. This is typical in humans. Most people look forward and forget the past. It’s mainly a few intellectuals and experts who say that the past is ke ai (cute). You can go to the countryside and say to a musician, why don’t you use sheep gut strings for your stringed instruments? But they want to use steel. They say it’s longer-lasting.

How do you feel about your work? It sounds hopeless.

No, we’ve had some successes. One is the national holidays. In the past we just had three: Chinese New Year, Worker’s Day on May 1, and National Day on October 1. But now we’re celebrating soon the Qingming Tomb-Sweeping Holiday on April 4 [during which families visit cemeteries and leave offerings or flowers for departed ancestors] and we have others as well. A few years ago the government announced that half a dozen traditional holidays were now national holidays. That changed people’s awareness. Most young people are still more interested in Western holidays like Valentine’s Day. But now people are aware of these other festivals and some will learn about the stories behind them or the traditions associated with them.

The real problem is modernization. It’s worse than the Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution was forced on people. But modernization is yearned for by people themselves, it’s their own desire. You can’t force the Miao girl to wear traditional garb. If she wants to wear jeans, she will.

—Ian Johnson previously interviewed Ran Yunfei, Chang Ping, Liao Yiwu and Yang Jisheng for the NYRblog.

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