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Mengma Archive Afterword

At dusk on May 1st, 2005, Kang Langshuai, an old man of Mengma Village, arrived at his newly-built Xiaozhai Buddhist Monastery at the foot of the hill. Mengma is a small Dai village in the Menglian County of Yunnan Province. If you follow a small footpath in front of the monastery heading south, after a few turns on the zigzag mountain road, you will soon be at the China-Burma border. Kang walked into the small and simple pavilion on the right side of the monastery and urged two young monks to add some firewood to the fire pit, fill the water kettles, and tend to the fire. He made sure that the smoke from the fire was just enough to keep away mosquitoes but not so much that it would bother people. He then entered the small storage hut behind the monastery, took out a few straw mats, and placed them on the ground. I was washing my clothes by a little creek nearby as I watched the old man carefully performed these tasks. About half a year before, when the construction of Xiaozhai Buddhist Monastery had not yet been finished, I had a very interesting talk with Kang while squatting at the messy construction site. When I asked him what the most distinctive feature of the Dai culture was when compared with other cultures, he replied instantly, “We are Buddhists; we treat other people with respect.  We like honest, respectful people.”

After I finished washing my clothes, I hung them on a little tree behind me and then went into the storage hut. Every time I visited Mengma, I lived in this room, which also served as the “office” for the “Mengma Archive” project. Even though I had reviewed my notes on Dai culture many times, I could not help but flip through them once again. I knew that the people I would meet here would not be experts on Dai culture, but instead, would be those who have created and passed on this culture with knowledge that is vast, yet definitive. I could hear Kang Langshuai calling to the villagers to join him so I took a deep breath and walked out of the storage hut.

The pavilion at the Xiaozhai Buddhist Monastery is a gathering place where important issues concerning the village are discussed. The discussion about the “Mengma Archive” project was such an issue. Because of my profession, I have attended many high-profile conferences and seminars on cultural heritage protection, yet this meeting on the “Mengma Archive” project has been my fondest and most eye-opening. About 40 local villagers came to the meeting, half of them women. They approached the pavilion, flashlights and oil lamps in hand, arriving in swift succession. They would smile and wave to those who came earlier and bow in front of the village elders, then continue to help preparing tea or set up the venue before finally sitting down on an empty mat. The meeting then began.

The person in charge of the discussion was Ai Yimeng, Manager of the village irrigation system. Many village elders considered him the smartest, most knowledgeable, and also the most active young man to embrace the idea of Dai culture preservation. Ai Yimeng had been a little worried recently, as the village’s water sources were already dwindling fast, and the few creeks and small rivers supplying the village with water were almost dried up.  Furthermore, a multinational paper company had plans to plant a eucalyptus forest in the area to produce paper pulp and Ai Yimeng was concerned that the eucalyptus trees would quickly consume all the remaining water on the mountain, leaving the small village without a mountain spring. However, as moderator of the discussion, he was still very high-spirited. After approval by the other village leaders, he began explaining the details outlined on the piece of paper he was holding. It was a master guideline for the “Mengma Archive” project, written by a few experts in Beijing and based on the principles set forth by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and the International Council of Museums. This was the only outside input received in regards to the “Mengma Archive” project.  As the project officer of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, I was present at the meeting in order to monitor the project’s progress and understand the cultural values of the villagers. I could not interrupt them, nor did I have the power to impose my perspective; but more importantly, I could not interfere with the process of the meeting. So I sat there quietly, yet excitedly, beside Ai Yimeng, trying my best to absorb all the information I could gather from this meeting.

The elders of Mengma village were very polite and at the same time very confident and adept at expressing themselves. As Ai Yimeng was explaining the general plan for the “Mengma Archive” project, constant laughter could be heard from those gathered. Discussion was lively and many points of view were expressed. The framework drafted by the experts was slowly changed and enriched according to the discussion. I was very happy about this, but I tried not to show it. At 12.10am, the meeting finally concluded. As I watched their illuminating spots of lights shrank and eventually faded into the darkness, overwhelmed with happiness, I called my friends at the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center and confidently told them, “There is no doubt that the ‘Mengma Archive’project will end in success.

The Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP) is a registered non-profit organization working to raise the general public’s awareness of cultural heritage protection issues as well as actively support other cultural heritage protection organizations.  CHP selected the Dai village of Mengma in the Menglian County of Yunnan Province to begin work on the protection of the cultural heritage of minorities, exploring new ways to assist a local population in preserving its unique culture. The project, began in 2005, has received support from many Chinese academics and the local government, as well as funding from the James Thompson Foundation in Thailand and the Australian Embassy in China. The initial goal is to create a book about the Mengma people; record the memories of the villagers as well as observe, analyze, and document the customs of the Mengma people. The plan is to expand the project in the future to include assisting Mengma villagers in the construction of a museum for their culture, since it is through developing their culture that the lives of the villagers can be made more fulfilling.

If the experimental project in Mengma succeeds, CHP will expand this approach to other minority areas. The people who are ultimately responsible for cultural heritage preservation are the residents of the area, and protecting their cultural heritage therefore requires their support. Residents should be able to decide themselves how they want to protect their cultural heritage, and they should also have the power to reject outside support if they feel it has an adverse effect. Outside organizations and experts should also have a clear understanding of the particular features of an area and respect the opinions of the local residents. These principles are unquestionably the foundation of cultural heritage protection work, but they have been lost or forgotten by many organizations and experts. Outside organizations and experts might come into an area with lofty ideals with or without the support of the residents, despite the differences between outside academic studies and local cultural ideals, regardless of support from the local government, and whether or not their plan will result in a continuous benefit. In reality, there are many issues that need to be resolved, and although the cultural heritage experts from CHP may not have been able to find resolutions to all, we recall Kang Langshuai’s words: “We are Buddhists; we treat other people with respect. We like honest, respectful people.” In fact, the values and approach behind these words have become the foundation for the activities undertaken by CHP.

The Dai Village of Mengma is a natural village – the most fundamental unit of the Chinese political and administrative system. In order to introduce a cultural program in this area, it is imperative to receive the approval of the local government. CHP was very fortunate that the Party Secretary of Menglian County, Mr. Hu Wenbin, and the Director of the Menglian County Museum, Mrs. Zheng Jing, approved the plan and continued to offer valuable assistance throughout its implementation. The Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center considered Mr. Hu the foremost Advisor to the project and Mrs. Zheng the foremost Operations Director. During many phone conversations and face-to-face discussions both in Beijing and Menglian, Mr. Hu expressed a very warm appreciation for Dai culture and offered valuable advice on the overall planning of the project. Being the most important guardian of cultural heritage in Menglian, the opinions and comments from Mrs. Zheng, based on her research in Beijing and in areas of Guizhou, were also carefully considered. In reality, without the efforts of Mrs. Zheng and her colleagues, it would have been difficult to carry out cultural heritage protection work in the area. The Menglian County Museum is now one of the most important museums dedicated to the Dai culture in the world and Menglian Chieftain Palace has been declared a national level Officially Protected Cultural Heritage Site, receiving the same legal protection as the Great Wall and Forbidden City. All of these achievements would not have been possible without the efforts of Mrs. Zheng. Mengma is one of the villages Mrs. Zheng visits frequently, and as she once pointed out, Once you arrive in Mengma, it’s as though you’ve returned home.” I often walked with her to meet with the local residents and honestly thought that she must actually be a daughter of Mengma; without her efforts, the “Mengma Archive” project would not have been a success. I must also give recognition to the young ladies working at the Menglian County Museum. These ladies, under the supervision of Mrs. Zheng, accomplished some important work and had there been time for more training, could have become some of the most prominent females in the Dai cultural history. After completing various tasks for the museum, they also provided much valuable assistance to the “Mengma Archive” project. We at CHP extend our thankfulness to them.

The people who truly made the “Mengma Archive” project a success, however, are the Mengma people themselves. With the help of Mrs. Zheng, the people of Mengma quickly understood how to carry out the project; they finalized the main principles of the “Mengma Archive” and created teams to work on its various elements. They recorded, in the Dai spoken language, all the different aspects of their lifestyle and culture which, together with photographs and drawings, complete the Archive. After this, their official recorder transcribed everything into Dai script on their special handmade paper and finally, those residents who understood Mandarin Chinese translated everything into Mandarin Chinese. These translated language transcripts, together with pictures and drawings as well as introductions about the people who worked on the project, form the book The Mengma Archive, whose author is the People of Mengma.  The publishing costs have been covered by CHP with the generous support of the James Thompson Foundation of Thailand and the Australian Embassy in China; 1500 copies will be sent to Menglian County and the village of Mengma, while the rest will be mailed to major domestic and international organizations for research and reference purposes. The original manuscript of the book will be given to the project’s working group, as will all other working drafts, in hope that they will be kept in the planned Mengma Eco-Museum. The Mengma people are confident, good-mannered and pragmatic; they recognize the value of this program as well as its approach, and because they worked on it enthusiastically, the fruits of their labor can already be seen. It is possible that academics and publishers may find the content of the book too loosely organized- the language too plain, the pictures too low quality. However, I would like to remind all cultural heritage experts that the product of any project should be kept as authentic as possible. The product presented in this book is the result of many years of labor and represents the life’s work of some of the older residents of Mengma. Reflecting on the working conditions, the reverence in which the village elders are held is apparent, and the respect from the younger generation has also given me confidence in the revival of the Dai culture.  As Kang Langshuai and Ai Yimeng were helping with the project, they were not just recording their own living cultural heritage, but also creating their own history.

Of course, there have been unsatisfactory aspects and regrets as well. According to the original plan, a television documentary was to be filmed, but due to the lack of a suitable partner, the plan had to be dropped. The field research work also encountered many problems which, because they were not recognized in time, could not be fully resolved.  As to the program’s objective to extend positive impacts to neighboring areas, some were regrettably not realized due to the fact that the implementation process had not been thoroughly evaluated. Also, the extra work that the Mengma villagers put into this project on top of living their regular lives was not fairly compensated. In raising these issues, I hope those who read this and desire to start their own project will use these people as a successful example that it can be achieved.

The manuscript for the “Mengma Archive” project will be published soon. It is sitting on my desk and has taken my thoughts back to Mengma Village from time to time. I imagine an eco-museum constructed with pieces from old buildings that will be the center for cultural gatherings in the region. I see exhibits that will be compiled by donations from the villagers. They are beautiful and vibrant; each piece giving off a glow of heritage and hope for the future. Museum visitors will be swarming around the halls, reading explanations, pointing at pieces, purchasing unique souvenirs, and ultimately admiring the Dai culture. I picture a television set up in the resting area playing a film portraying Kang Langshuai and Ai Yimeng, sitting in large upright chairs, drinking tea from clay mugs, and telling traditional stories in both the Dai language and Chinese. As the sun sets behind the old majestic mountains, the Mengma villagers will be walking among the visitors looking as relaxed and confident as ever. I envision a beautiful beginning to this ancient story.

He Shuzhong

Beijing

August 2007

As a project volunteer, Xiaojin Wang of Syracuse University has a deep understanding of the philosophy behind the “Mengma Archive” project.  As this project progresses into the next stages, Xiaojin Wang and I have begun to engage in long and deep discussions.  At the same time of the development of the local economy, the issue of how to maintain the uniqueness of the Dai culture while avoiding large-scale development of Mengma has made this volunteer concerned and anxious to continue researching this issue.  I look forward to more ambitious members of our younger generation sharing this deep and passionate humanistic spirit.

He Shuzhong

Beijing

February 2008

He Shuzhong
Beijing
August 2007He Shuzhong
Beijing
August 2007
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