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Heritage Trail project

Lantern makers keep flame alive

Xinhuanet By Lu Hui, Thursday, February 17 2011

Li Zhuqin and her daughters have been burning the midnight oil making lanterns over the past two months. Days and weeks were consumed by the task and holidays sacrificed but they did it without complaint as this is the peak time to display their craft.

“We make around 50 lanterns annually” for the Lantern Festival, said Li, 69, but she readily admits that the income they generate over this period is not enough to support them for the year.

Li lives in Quanzhou, Fujian province, and has been designated a national-level representative inheritor of the Quanzhou-style lantern.

Li was awarded the title in 2007, four years after China launched a program to protect its intangible cultural heritage.

As a result of this program, nine types of lanterns were chosen for heritage protection. Ten masters were then selected to pass on the skills and knowledge required to make these intricate lanterns.

However, in an age of computer-generated ornaments and mass-produced lamps, the shrinking demand for lanterns threatens the cottage industry.

The local government in Quanzhou holds lantern fairs and exhibitions and the central government gives each national-level inheritor an 8,000-yuan ($1,200) annual subsidy.

But the lantern masters still find it hard to “prop up starving family workshops”, as Li puts it.

Heritage experts say more is needed to preserve and pass on the ancient craft.

They want to see greater assistance given across the board to lantern makers, and more commercial opportunities explored.

Lanterns represent not only manual skills, but also folk customs, especially in cities such as Quanzhou, which has a long-standing and unique history of lanterns.

As the starting point of the maritime silk route, Quanzhou imported palace lanterns and dragon lanterns in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907).

In the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279), 3,000 imperial family members settled there and brought with them the custom of hanging exquisite lanterns in front of every house.

Later, the prosperity of trade brought more lantern styles to the city, and innovation by local folks geared up the rapid development of the Quanzhou-style lantern and the city’s custom of celebrating the Lantern Festival with a lantern fair.

“The lantern night is a carnival for Quanzhou, with millions of people taking to the streets to light lanterns,” said Sun Xiujin, 54, an employee of Quanzhou Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Center.

To support the tradition, Quanzhou city government began to hold an annual lantern fair in 1978. And in the good old days, both the masters and their skills enjoyed a big boom.

Li’s father, paper-cut master Li Yaobao, established Quanzhou Arts and Crafts Factory in 1953, and it cultivated almost all of the famous masters in the city.

Also in the 1950s, he resurrected the glass fiber lanterns that were unique to Quanzhou and applied his skill, making paper-cut glass fiber lanterns without the framework. Li Yaobao designed the finespun graphic patterns, and carved them out of cardboard. Glass fibers were placed in rows on the reverse side, refracting the light from the bulb inside. No iron wires prop up these lanterns; instead, layers of shapes are glued together.

The lanterns were hung in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on the 10th anniversary of the founding of New China in 1959, and they became national gifts for foreign guests.

Li Zhuqin inherited her father’s talent. When she cuts graphics on 30 pieces of paper in a stack, the first and the last are exactly the same, and the smooth curves are as fine as hair.

Even so, the craft of lantern making doesn’t provide for a decent life anymore, Li said. The factory exists in name only now, and the masters are out of work. Some pedal passenger tricycles to make a living, she said, “and some can’t even afford the medical insurance”.

Li’s daughters – Li Chanjuan, who is 44 and a city-level Quanzhou-style lantern inheritor, and Huang Lifeng, 43 and a provincial-level inheritor – were laid off from the arts and crafts factory a decade ago, and are concerned about the sales channel for their family workshop.

Although the city’s cultural bureau provides them opportunities to participate in exhibitions, they said, they gave up most of them because they couldn’t afford the expense.

Last year, Huang went to Xiamen to take part in the cultural industry fair between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan. She received a subsidy of 100 yuan a day, but received no orders for lanterns.

“We don’t get any benefit from the title, which brings only reporters’ interviews and officials’ visits, but no orders,” said Cai Binghan, 82, the other State-level representative inheritor of the Quanzhou-style lantern, and the only master of the needle puncture lantern.

The protection of inheritors should be prioritized in the rescue of cultural heritage because the skills lie in people’s hands, some experts say.

“The market has changed People no longer hang lanterns in high-rises as they did in one-story houses in the past,” said Huang Jian, deputy dean of Quanzhou Normal University’s art and design college. “So the government is responsible for motivating the industry, as it is hard for individuals to enter the mainstream culture with folk craft.”

During a forum on the protection of traditional handicrafts held in Beijing in June, Deputy Culture Minister Wang Wenzhang put forward the philosophy of productive protection, meaning applying appropriate production to traditional crafts to foster their use and development.

Cai Binghan made two rose-style lanterns for his granddaughter’s wedding ceremony and another one as a lampshade, but nobody promoted the products for him.

Huang Lifeng tried to develop her small lanterns as gifts, and she said many literary men were interested. But she couldn’t afford the cost of packaging. “In this case, the government should act as a go-between for the masters and their clients to open up chances fore sales,” Huang said.

One member of the National Experts Committee for Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection said the heritage list was decided quickly and included many items (1,002 on the three lists in the past six years), but subsequent measures were lacking.

In Quanzhou Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Center, the two employees who carry out everyday work are post-retirement workers. Nobody has been hired who is trained in protecting heritage or who might make it a career.

“The key to protection is not a list and titles, but concrete measures to help different items and the masters,” said Hang Jian, 49, the experts committee member and deputy dean of Tsinghua University’s academy of art and design.

“Productive protection can’t save every skill, like the lantern, which requires a long time of handwork and is based on festive culture,” he said. “To look at the prospects of the craft, the government should figure out specific ways to promote new uses of the traditional craft in the modern time.”

When protection work is in its premature phase, it is even harder to consider passing on the skills.

Several students from Fujian Normal University came to learn lantern making with Cai Binghan in 2009, but after their graduation last year, he lost contact with them. “I understand why they gave up learning,” he said. “Economic prospects.” When young people see the lantern masters living hard lives, they look for another line of work.

Cai can make only two lanterns every year because of failing eyesight and agility. He also has suffered from heart disease and gout for more than 10 years, but is deeply concerned about passing on the skills.

“Everything is produced by hand, from the orderly needle punctures to creases of various shapes, which are all based on decades of exploration and experience,” he said. “Moreover, it also needs perception, a calm mentality, skills of design innovation and tool-making. It can’t be learned overnight.”

To ensure the passing on of the crafts, the Ministry of Culture in July 2009 required cultural bureaus at city level to establish museums and learning venues. In Quanzhou, for example, there must be one such venue in every district or county.

However, some haven’t been built and others are just small showrooms, said Guo Feiyue, director of Quanzhou Museum of Art. “The only museum of intangible cultural heritage that is ready is on the fifth floor of the art museum. However, when to open and how many open days in a week haven’t been decided.”

Lin Yuyi, deputy chief of Quanzhou Bureau of Cultural Relics, said 50 learning venues for all Quanzhou intangible cultural heritage items will be established this year, including three for lanterns.

Hang Jian of Tsinghua University said too many local governments put economic benefits, such as increased tourism, ahead of cultural heritage when they nominate items for protection.

“Authorities at all levels, from country, province, city to village and town, should receive financial expenses and explicit support measures, like opening free training classes and providing subsidies for masters according to the numbers of their apprentices,” Hang said.

According to the Department of Intangible Cultural Heritage in the Ministry of Culture, China’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Law is undergoing a third revision and will be unveiled soon. The masters are waiting.

(Source: China Daily)

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