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Heritage Trail project

CHP 6th Mission Report for Congjiang Cultural Mapping

4-18 March 2010

This is my first trip to Congjiang for 2010. I couldn’t help but worry when seeing the orange color lingering in southwest China on the weather forecast map.

I arrived in Congjiang on the day of Jingzhe (the Waking of Insects, the 3rd solar term in the Chinese calendar). A sudden cold breeze brought the temperature down. Congjiang seemed to be returning to winter from the springtime.

The cole flowers were already in bloom, but villagers said the crop was not as good as it could be as a result of the drought. Rapeseed plants are not the primary crop in Xiaohuang. Rice is the most important crop, and to grow rice, rainfall is vital around the day of Guyu (Grain Rain, the 6th solar term).

Duliu River looks different each time I visit. While I can still vividly recall the flood last year caused by one night of rainfall, this time, the river bed was almost dry. Luckily there is sufficient drinking water that has been saved and no drought prevention efforts were necessary yet in Congjiang.

◆  Establishment of Congjiang Cultural Heritage Protection Volunteer Group

(1) On 7 March, initiated by the Congjiang Cultural Mapping project, the Volunteer Group of Congjiang Cultural Heritage Protection was established at Liang Quangkang’s residence.

- Liang Quankang and Yang Tongrong were already involved in the Congjiang Cultural Mapping project

- Zhang Chengwen from the County Statistics Bureau and Zhang Chengwu from the County Transportation Bureau are the founding members of Congjiang Folklore Photographic Website and made a valuable contribution to this volunteer team. Their photos were also selected for the short video of “Congjiang, the Soul’s Paradise”.

- Zhang Chengwen and Zhang Chengwu had already contributed a great deal to the implementation of Congjiang Cultural Mapping. Wei Dehuai is a renowned local folk cultural expert from the County Ethnic and Religious Bureau. He has independently been engaged in research of ethnic culture for many years, and CHP also consulted him on the pilot village selection once before Yang Guangqian is a young man from the County Cultural Hall, very closely engaged in the County intangible cultural heritage application. He is very enthusiastic about this work.

- Ao Jiahui, Director of the County Health Bureau, also is a notable figure among local cultural preservation enthusiasts. He used his own money to restore the forest in his home village and made important recommendations to include Dong Songs (such as “Welcome to Dong Village”) in ethnic culture classroom teaching. The Volunteer group is headed by Liang Quankang

(2) The purpose of establishing this volunteer group is threefold: to advocate for volunteering and civil society, to include different volunteers’ knowledge and perspectives and form an advisory body to help achieve the project goals,  by , and to draw support from the local community to preserve their local culture. It is expected that additional volunteer members will be recruited through  the implantation of the cultural mapping project in different villages. The  objective here in the short-term is to ensure the most effective implementation of Congjiang Cultural Mapping Project, but our  long-term goal is to consolidate resources from civil society in and outside Congjiang, motivate more support from ethnic communities in Congjiang to protect and sustain  the local culture. Through this process, the local communities will be empowered to participate in the development of the local area and meaningfully included in the decision-making process.  to    The concept of self-determination has had increasing recognition as the ideal foundation for the protection and continuation of cultural heritage. If this approach is shown to be effective, it could become an excellent  mechanism for encouraging self-determination in future minority cultural preservation projects.

(3) CHP provided three second hand computers to the Volunteer Group. These computers were donated to CHP by other organizations to support the communities in their cultural preservation efforts. These computers will be used for consolidating and processing photos and videos collected for the cultural mapping and for making CD-ROMs for villagers.

(4) The  Vice County Governor and County Cultural Bureau in the region have been informed of the establishment of the Volunteer Group. The Vice County Governor Li Zhengrong   welcomes this initiative and suggested we recruit   student volunteer members to promote awareness of cultural heritage issues among the younger generation. Li Zhengrong invited the Cultural Mapping Project Officer to talk to Congjiang students about cultural preservation. The suggestion has been taken on board by the Cultural Mapping Project Officer and included in the next steps of the project implementation.

◆  Work of the  Recorders

(1)  On 12 and 13 March 2010, 11 seed recorders met again in the county capital. A joint review was performed on all accomplished work to date. The recorders also submitted texts,  video footage andphotographs they had recorded in their villages, and shared their experiences . Participants  discussed  some  challenges and sought solutions to address these issues..

(2)   With the exception of newcomer Pan Guanwu from Gaoliang Shui Village (the last identified pilot village)  the  recorders were  clear about the core objective and methodological approaches of cultural mapping. From the data that was submitted by seed recorders most of them are able to implement the work required by the project. Most recorders still much rely on individual interview and personal involvement in village activities, but more and more villagers  to know the cultural mapping project.

(3)  Xiayao Zhuang village isa notable example of highly motivated community participation. Huang Haisheng is a village carder who will retire soon. His engagement in cultural mapping was directly supported by the Township Party Secretary. Huang organized 20 village elders in Xiayao and divided them into 6 groups according to their specialities. Then he recorded the specific discussions  generated by these six groups in different categories, such as folk songs, stories, village belief system, sacrifice, etiquettes, costumes, wine making, food, architecture, farming, family origin, pedigree of a clan, history, music and musical instruments.. He also invited four young villagers to help with the recording.

Xiayao is a Zhuang village in a Miao area. There are  109 households, and the village has a total population of 421 people. The residents of Xiayao have grouped themselves together and subdivided  into 10 ‘natural’ villages. In isolated villages like Xiayao,community is extremely important. There is often a unique cultural identity, and villagers strongly identify with their collective history.  The participating villagers were very excited to know about the project purpose and were eager to present their unique community culture to others.

(4)  From the material that has been recorded to date, the features of community cultural mapping are clear. The most distinct feature is cultural authenticity. All records are from villagers’ memory and presentation, and belong to the villagers themselves, who are the culture bearers and the most authoritative source on their own culture . Many records had not been seen before by an outside audience, or different from outsiders’ previous perception of what the culture is The other important aspect is the continuation of  intangible cultural practices. Even Huang Haisheng   was surprised to discover a lot of activities recorded by participantswere unknown to him, despite his 20-year  experience doing photography in Congjiang. Jia Yuanjin from Xiaohuang recorded  village singing troupes during the Chinese New Year. Such a practice was known by local photographers but  had never yet been observed or photographed. Until now, a lot of village activities have been misunderstood  to by visitors from outside. An example  is the customs surrounding Yao funerals. . Due to cross-cultural differences, these private community cultural activities are frequently regarded as “exotic” and misunderstood by outsiders. For the abovementioned activity in Xiaohuang, the story has several explanations  which drastically contrast with one another – from “Valentine’s Day” to “Elder’s Day”. How has this occurred – is it misinterpretation, exaggeration, or a quote taken out of  context? The only way to know the true meaning of these cultural activities, is for the villagers themselves to describe them. The different interpretations of cultural forms is an interesting anthropological subject matter. Further research and debate on this topic may be able to inspire the decision-makers on efforts to promote the harmonious coexistence of different ethnic groups. Such an outcome would bein line with the fundamental objective of the project, which is to conserve and promote cultural diversity..

(5)  Another topic discussed in this meeting was comments and guidance on the videos and photos taken by the local project leader. The local project leader also offered targeted training to some commonly occuring issues. Last year for the  first training workshop, experts from Beijing introduced  basic training on how to use video and audio equipment to document culture. At that time, most of the recorders had never touched cameras or video cameras. After five months practice and with real examples from their own work, they all said that now they were much more clear about what to record and how to do it. This is a huge amount of progress from the same time  last year.

◆  Challenges in the current implementation

(1)  Project progress and results are hard to control, mainly because nobody works full time for the project, including the local project leader.  Work and other daily routines take up a great deal of  the villagers  time which takes away from doing the cultural documentation work.  Although winter is not a busy farming period, three recorders spent much of their time building houses. During wintertime the villagers  villagers were busy helping their families (and fellow villagers) to build. During the Chinese New Year, all villagers were occupied by celebratory social activities, and drinking is an essential part (the more the merrier!) Cultural documentationoutputs were not as rich as expected, with some villagers had hardly anything to hand in, at least in terms of text recording.

(2)  The biggest challenge is still ensuring villagers’ participation is maximized. Currently, interview is the most commonly used approach for the cultural mapping. Such interviews take up time for both parties and also involve some costs. Although the project made some hospitality budget available for  recorders, the advice is that “too little is not appropriate, too much is not affordable.”  It is a problem that the villagers all know the  recorders are implementing a UN project and make an assumption that the recordings are being paid well by the project.  The recorders have cameras and other expensive equipment at their disposal, so no matter how much payment is offered, villagers still think that the recorders take an even bigger share from the project.

Besides the individual interviews, it is even harder to organize community meetings. Most village activities are organized by the Government. Traditional activities also  rely a great deal on village carders. In Congjiang, hardly any village community has public funds available. Before 2003, village heads are paid 150 yuan per month, and from 2003until the present day they are being paid 300 yuan per month. It is said that the subsidy will rise to 600 yuan per month from this year, but nobody has received this to date. In summary, being a village carder is not a profitable profession . Most villagers are reluctant to be village heads. This makes even administrative orders hard to be implemented.

(3)  Insufficient driving force for the project. The Project Officer is alone by herself. Her time is limited in Congjiang and access to pilot villages is also limited. In cases where she could reach a pilot village, language is a barrier for direct communication with most villagers. The local government structures are still a not effective way in which to reach communities. From the County Government, to Township Government, to our local community head,  we are still working at  levels above the local communities and can  spend very little direct time with the villagers without these administrative structures present. This weakens the communities’ impression of our  enthusiasm and support for their efforts, which might have made them more self-motivated. Without some external support, village recorders find it hard to gather sufficient information from villagers. Finallyly, the project does not bring immediate tangible benefits to the communities. Theoutcomes of the project is too distant to be very appealling for some villagers. The project also lacks linkages with other projects which are more closely linked to economic development projects, which is a disadvantage to our cultural mapping project as local level poverty alleviation is not a direct project outcome.

◆  Attempts to address the challenges

(1)  Dr. Heather Peters from UNESCO has recommended that the cultural mapping where possible is recorded in the community’s  traditional ethnic language. Jia Yuanjin from Xiaohuang used  Dong  written script (orthography) to record a few song lines and then translated the meaning into Mandarin. Dong language students in the County vocational school documented his handwriting using computer software and gave this back to him to check its authenticity . However, whether others will be able to understand is another issue. Among all the village  recorders, only Jia Yuanjin has learned the orthography of his minority ethnic language.

(2)  Increasing women’s participation is still a key issue that we are seeking to address.. Following last training, some progress has been made. Among the village elders groups that were organized by Huang Haisheng in Xiayao, three women elders were in charge of costumes, wine making and food. Pan Peihua from Xiaohuang is also enthusiastic about her involvement in the project but was lacking in knowledge about what to contribute and was only able to write a short self-introduction.  The Project Officer gave Pan Peihua one-on-one mentoring  and gave her suggestions  about how she could organize her female friends to generate discussion, what topics they might like to discuss and how to record these conversations. Pan Peihua was willing to give it another try. Participants openly discussed about women’s participation at the workshop. They felt that it was almost impossible to find women who could do the text recording as they did not have the literacy level to do so.  A As an alternative, the participants thought   the women could be invited  to come together to talk about women’s business, life skills and to make audio and video recordings of their conversation. Participants also talked about women’s roles in village life. Outcomes of the discussion could provide substantial material  for the documentation of women’s involvement in the cultural mapping project. In the cultural materials that had previously been collected   the women’s contribution was significantly lacking. The important role of women in village life is obvious, so it should be reflected in the cultural mapping project accordingly.

(3)  Recorders unanimously reported that villagers have unrealistic expectations about the process and expect to see immediate results from their project work. For example, they want to see the film, photos and other publications immediately. One issue that was discussed was the strong level of dissatisfaction among a group of villagers who were all involved in the project filming but did not individually receive a CD-ROM. This dampened their enthusiasm to continue participating  in the project. In response to this problem, this time, the volunteer group has obtainedthree secondhand computers which will help improve their work. The volunteers will make CD-ROMs of the footage taken and distribute the CD-ROMs to all of the villagers involved. Recorders are also asked to select photos to be printed in the county capital and then offer these printed images  to villagers. Recorders agreed that these steps will make villagers very happy.  Other than the three secondhand computers, the project also purchased a laptop for the local project site and purchased a lot of CD-ROMs. Following this discussion recorders have already started to print photos to be given to villagers.

(4)  Make in-kind compensation (such as photos and CD-ROM) for villagers’ time. This is an expression of sincere appreciation and is a practical approach with the available project resources. But it may still be insufficient for some larger-scale group activities which have a great number of village participants involved.

(5)  There are only five video cameras. The recorders were divided into two groups, and each group can have access to two video cameras based on a  rotation basis. The other video camera is at the disposal of the local project site for some ad-hoc needs. The rotation schedule is decided according to the activity schedule submitted by each village. The recorders already agreed among themselves on the rotation schedule.

◆  Next Steps and Concerns

(1)  Implementation of the technical mapping process will wait until the project gains more community momentum. The villagers all need more time to understand the project. Hasty actions may have very limited results.

(2)  Administrative support from local government may be needed to organize some community activities. Such activities should take place only once or twice and feasibility of this idea still needs coordination with the local government. Without the government administrative support, community activities could only take place in a few pilot villages where the recorders have stronger organizational skills, or where the Project Officer could pay a visit. However, it should be also noted that community activities organized by Government are most likely to become like a formality and it could be hard to communicate the real project purpose. Time, patience and in-depth interventions are needed to achieve villagers’ cultural self awareness of the issues surrounding the protection of their cultural heritage.

(3)  Large-scale community activities which involve a higher number of village participants  both have budget implications. Costs may vary a lot from one village to another. If the use of such budget is decentralized to village recorders, it will be difficult to achieve an equal balance between different sites. In response to this issue,the Project Officer has decided to try this large activities as a pilot program in a few villages first. Due to the budget and personnel constraints, she is concerned how far the project budget can stretch to implement these group activities.

◆  Community Organizations

(1)  From the few field visits to Congjiang, the Project Officer observed there are vast differences between the different ethnic groups’  religious belief systems. Nature and ancestors are the most significant elements in all of the minority ethnic groups she encountered.  For many of these groups, their traditional beliefs have continued viritually unchanged for centuries and they are still being practiced today. Village elders share responsibilities for different spiritual practices. Most traditional activities are still organized by village elders, reputed elders (usually retired carders), inherited Guishi (people who are believed to be able to communicate with ancestors’ spirits) and singing teachers. For the organizational work, on one hand it relies on established cultural practices demonstrated by the village spiritual leaders, on the other hand, it relies on the village carders and the administrative system.

(2)  Some communities already have existing structures which  have managed to make it easier to successfully organize villagers in teams. For example, the singing troupes in Xiaohuang were naturally formed by villagers since their childhood. In other villagers, no such structured organization exists. Some of the older generation still hold a  fear of “organization” and “activity” being implemented by powerful structures outside of their control. The younger generation is in a transistional process of leaving the villagers for the outside modern world and many are rejecting their cultural roots. In this current social context, there is hardly any room for civil societies.

(3)  Village elders’ influence on villagers is a subtle and time-consuming process. In Zhanli village, Swallow Festival is observed annually on 2 February of the lunar calendar. This is also an occasion of the biannual ceremony of pledge. The ceremony is conducted by one village elder. He said to fellow villagers that he was telling ancestors’ stories to remind villagers the origin of their life today, why ancestors made the rules that each couple can only have two children, and so forth. At the ceremony, we observed that few villagers were really listening to him speak. According to the old practice, the village party secretary collected contributions from each household to buy a big pig to be placed on the sacrifice altar. The pig was killed after the ceremony and distributed to village households in the drum tower. On this day, young men from neighboring villages were invited to chant with young girls in Zhanli. The only pharmacist (village director of women’s federation), the one who is believed to master the mysterious prescription, is an obvious leader of all girls. This is a typical example of village elders’ role.

(4)  In summary, the community dynamics is not totally lost in Congjiang, but is reflected in different ways due to social changes.  For the attempted interventions by the project, it is not an impossible mission, and the internal driving force is community cohesion. In this context, community cultural heritage preservation is a very well received entry point for social change.

This time, the field mission revealed a lot of practical challenges. Efforts were made to explore solutions to deepen the effective implementation of cultural mapping. Capacity-building and awareness-raising require persistent efforts over an extendedperiod of time.  Persistence, patience, innovation and coordination of resources all pose enormous challenges. One important lesson for the project is how we could effectively address and respond to the emerging challenges.

Wang Xiaowang

CHP Congjiang Cultural Mapping Project Officer


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