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Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP) is a small grassroots, legally-registered NGO working to protect cultural heritage across China.

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From The Mengma Archive to the “Menglian Ethnic Folk Art Inheritance Association”

The Mengma Archive Project was CHP’s first Ethnic Minority Culture Revitalization Project, and took place in 2004-2008. Now in 2010, CHP has started a one-year Menglian Weaving Revival Project to continue our work in the Menglian area. To implement this project  together with the local villagers, it is important to review our previous work and also the different elements of this new revitalisation project.

Ethnic minority cultural revitalization has always been one of CHP’s areas of work. Upon launching this area of work, there were many challenges, though at least three stand out now.

  1. The ability of minority peoples to win respect and maintain their own sense of self-respect is a sensitive issue, and it is easy to run into social-psychological problems. Launching an ethnic minority cultural revitalization program especially requires a huge amount of emotional investment.
  2. More than outside help, protection of minority cultures requires local people to help themselves. Outside help can only provide initiative and assistance; the beginning of a program must therefore concentrate on putting the mentality in the right place.
  3. Protection of minority cultural heritage cannot be about preventing the adoption of modern ways of life, but rather should be about preserving dignity, discovering value and seeking happiness. As a result, the launching any such program must have an understanding of the minority people’s daily hardships and specific needs.

In line with the goal of “supporting communities to protect their cultural heritage,” CHP from 2005 to 2008 supported a project called the Mengma Archive in Menglian, Yunnan Province. In the design stage of the project, CHP critically reviewed its own previous work as well as the work of organizations that had ethnic minority cultural revitalization projects. CHP believed that several basic questions about preservation of minority cultural heritage were being ignored, such as: who are the principals of this heritage? Where does the most authoritative understanding of this heritage come from? How does one take into consideration the biases of the experts in this field? What is the goal of protecting this heritage?

Clearly, CHP itself could not sufficiently answer these questions, but the organization hoped that the Mengma Archive could serve as an initial investigation. After three years of hard work, the results of the program, the bilingual Dai and Chinese language The Mengma Archive (ISBN 978-7-5010-2438-4) was released. The Mengma Archive, held in copyright by the Mengma villagers, including the authors, came from an outline decided on by the villagers and includes their own writings, charts and photographs. CHP merely created an initiative for the villagers and provided support. As a group of minority people, the Mengma villagers also won respect from this project and helped preserve their own self-respect. After completion, the project both received acclaim and was called into question. One expert on the Dai minority from an authoritative international organization pointed out several mistakes in the book. When CHP asked a village elder to respond, the elder was at a loss, saying, “We celebrate the holiday this way every year, and our ancestors also always celebrated the holiday this way, how could you say that we have been doing it wrong all along?”

However, the cheer that The Mengma Archive brought to the Mengma villagers was only temporary. People should always be seeking out happiness and creating a new future; it’s impossible to stay put in the present. The Mengma Archive recorded the culture and brought a sense of dignity, but that dignity did not represent a happy life, just as The Mengma Archive did not represent the future. In terms of the daily difficulties faced by the Mengma villagers, the cheer that The Mengma Archive brought to their lives was definitely short-lived. CHP realized that projects like The Mengma Archive are only one link in the protection of minority cultural heritage. Truly successful protection work must be based on a sense of modern social life, and must address the minority people’s daily difficulties and specific needs.

With the financial and technical assistance of several international organizations, CHP began the one-year long Menglian Weaving Revival Project in April 2010. Through this program, CHP hopes that it will be able to investigate three topics.

  1. Besides the tourism industry and building museums, in what tangible ways can protection of minority cultural heritage and a modern way of life be connected?
  2. How can minority cultural heritage protection work better address the daily difficulties and specific needs of minority peoples?
  3. What form and structure will this kind of cultural heritage protection work take?

Through The Mengma Archive, CHP established strong links with people from all walks of life in Menglian, and understands what goes on beneath the surface in the community. CHP believes that not only does traditional Menglian weaving have a long history, but it is also suitable for the needs of modern life, as there are a large number of minority people that both have the skills for this work and enjoy it. In the early implementation stages of the Menglian Weaving Revival Project, CHP launched an investigation and came to the following three conclusions:

  1. Poor materials, designs and techniques led to low quality products.
  2. A lack of production organization and marketing methods led to a poor market share.
  3. No economic return and support led to a loss of weaving skills. Compared to the both historical weaving products in the Menglian museum and those being produced in Thailand and Burma, Menglian minority weaving had seen a serious decline.

Helping resolve these problems of materials, design and techniques, as well as adopting an appropriate program structure and organization, are vital to helping the residents of the area protect their weaving skills. To address this, CHP’s work has brought together the following three important elements:

  1. Help the local residents establish a voluntary legal weaving revitalization association, and to make sure that this association drives protection of skills and development of a market for the weaving.
  2. Seek out help from international experts in choosing local materials, designing products, raising the quality of work and establishing marketing methods.
  3. Carry out experimentation at the smallest scale in terms of forming cooperation between the association and outside assistance, and both discovering and resolving problems.

With the enthusiastic support of the local government, the early stages of CHP’s work has already seen results. The social organization Menglian Ethnic Folk Art Inheritance Association (registration no. 037) was formed in July, and Ms. Zheng Jing who was in charge of The Mengma Archive project was selected to be the legal representative of the association. Additionally, international experts have already offered advice in terms of materials selection and enhancing the quality of weaving techniques. Meanwhile, a number of the many problems discovered over the short couple months have been resolved. CHP has realized that the work that is still needed to be done of the course of the year-long project is immense, and that a large number of challenges are still to be discovered. CHP must invest a large amount of emotion to the project, must adjust the mentality held toward the project, and must fully understand the daily difficulties and specific needs of the local residents for the project to be a success.

“Increasing the profits for local residents and protecting cultural heritage advance together” is the Menglian Weaving Revival Project’s essential goal, but it is still a ways away. CHP wrote the following article(s?) in the hope that everybody will pay close attention to the project and through a shared exploration help make this goal a reality.

CHP would like to thank our volunteer translator, Ben Golze, for his outstanding translation of this article.

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