During our visits to Xi’an and Chengdu we were frequently told about the positive impact that had resulted from the Government of China signing the UNESCO Safeguarding ICH Convention in 2004. We heard how languishing crafts had been revived, how new generations of makers were getting involved, of government supported training schemes, and of national and provincial conventions gathering ICH participants to share their expertise. We learnt of grants to develop skills, exchange visits between makers, and stipends paid to the people identified as Bearers of ICH.
Heritage is always something that is defined politically. For the 20th century, the traditions of craft knowledge and skilled practice were often antithetical to the modern state. In the 21st century, re-presenting these traditions as ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ allows a new way of talking positively about the practices, and enabling them to be valued, and offers an important signal to international audiences that China is a Western facing nation. Valuing craft heritage is now firmly part of the way in which China presents its future, giving respect to practices that have struggled in the past to maintain a presence.
One of the most important aspects of the UNESCO ICH safeguarding is that it does not wish traditional crafts to be locked in a preservationist category, frozen in time, but to see intangible practices live and evolve to meet the needs of those who are practicing in the present. We saw this future facing approach at work in many of the workshops that are proud to identify themselves within the ICH envelope.
At the Jijun Bamboo Weaving Factory, Chongzhou we saw functional baskets being made for consumers who want a traditional design, sit alongside a range of design lead handbags destined for a more cosmopolitan urban market. These contemporary design skills were being brought into the workshop through a partnership with the China Academy of Fine Art and the University of Sichuan province, enabling a new generation of contemporary designers to work with the traditional material of bamboo, whilst also diversifying the product range.
The director of the bamboo weaving factory shared her making life story with us. Mai had grown up in the Bamboo Weaving Factory and was the fourth generation in the business. She went to University and trained to be airline cabin crew, but returned to run the factory, working with the 20 permanent employees and 300 piece workers based in the town. They take bulk orders alongside bespoke commissions.
The retail space of the Jijun Bamboo Weaving Factory has a long table at which the Living Research group sat down to learn how to weave. Our clumsy fingers took time to remember the techniques which were so effortlessly demonstrated. ‘I’m starting to realise why it’s intangible’ quipped Ingrid as we struggled to make progress. Mai’s young daughter, just walking, roamed amongst us, playing with the threads of bamboo, her mother gently helping her, inter-generational transmission happening in front of our eyes.
The challenge to safeguard ICH in the face of market forces and economic development in China was revealed when the Living Research met a family of paper makers who had travelled into the city of Xi’an from their village to display their practice for us.
The current family has three generations working, the oldest being the grandfather who started paper making aged 7, in the absence of access to schooling. He taught his son when he was 16, who in turn taught his son at 17. On receiving their ICH certification they were invited to Taiwan to show their techniques, and since 2016 the government has given them about 20000RMB or £2220 a year, however, they make most of their money selling products. The paper is now mainly used by artists, prior to this it was used for newspapers, certifications and important papers.
Travelling with their materials and tools to give us a demonstration of their practice (from processing the raw material of tree bark, to the cutting of the paper) was a testament to this families passion, but also their predicament. Their home village is in the path of an urban development project and they face loosing their workshop and home. While this family may be receiving the support of the Chinese governments safeguarding policies, there are still relentless market forces that challenge the livelihoods of those like them, who seek to make their life through making.
During our time in Chengdu and Xi’an we witnessed on countless occasions the incredible enthusiasm and desire to enable the heritage crafts of China to thrive. The deployment of UNESCO Safeguarding ICH and the level of Government support for the industry gave us great hope. However, the challenges for the sector remain ensuring livelihoods by securing new markets for goods, enabling access to work spaces and materials, and having skilled practitioners who are able to pass on their own skills and knowledge to the next generation of makers.
The business model of most traditional crafts still stays in family business mode. This mode can not compare with the companies on the market. The family business mode’s ability to take risks is really low.