China’s apprentice scheme for intangible cultural heritage

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The Herald

Ms G
How do you spend your off-duty time? Some of you, I guess, don’t always have very constructive ideas.

I have certainly watched soap operas, scrolled through social media, and lounged on my couch most of the time. But in Beijing, many have a fun option — learning a traditional folk art.

As a nation rich in history and culture, China has a number of age-old crafts recognised as intangible cultural heritage. But the wealth of knowledge and customs has been threatened with extinction as the older generation of practitioners lose their vigour with age, and the young Chinese are being lured away by a modern, metropolitan life. Traditional skills don’t look very “fashionable”.

In response to this challenge, the municipal government of Beijing came up with a voluntary apprentice scheme in 2014 whereby any one can apply to learn from a master during the weekends.  Some of the crafts taught are dough figurine moulding, ancient carpet weaving, and porcelain carving.

Dough figurine moulding uses scissors, bamboo knives and small combs to turn flour and pigments into sculptures.

The palace carpet making technique has a history of hundreds of years; it produces soft, durable, and elegant carpets, with exquisite patterns drawn from China’s rich heritage in painting, embroidery, and architecture.

In carved porcelain, figures, patterns and Chinese calligraphy are carved  with special tools to produce beautiful chinaware.

The scheme turned out to be very popular with the urban dwellers. Within the first few days, over 1 000 applicants called in to enrol.

They are professional designers, university students, doctors, ordinary art lovers, and, surprisingly, some teenagers. In the past seven years, 36 intangible cultural heritage programmes have been opened to 308 apprentices.

These apprentices are not simply learning the art, but also breathing more life into it. One draws on his strong academic background to sort out the history and standards of the craftwork; another invented waterproof pigments to make carved porcelain easier to use in daily life; and some even won international prizes by incorporating the knowledge into their day jobs.

UNESCO rightfully notes that the importance of intangible cultural heritage was not the cultural manifestation itself but rather the wealth of knowledge and skills that is transmitted through it from one generation to the next.

While fragile, intangible cultural heritage is an important factor in maintaining cultural diversity in the face of growing globalisation. An understanding of the intangible cultural heritage of different communities helps with inter-cultural dialogue, and encourages mutual respect for other ways of life.

Africa is the land of origin of modern humans. Its reservoir of human history and culture is unparalleled, but sadly under-preserved and under-developed.

Zimbabwe has only one item inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity — the Mbende Jerusarema dance.

And still, according the UNESCO, as the dance became increasingly used in tourist and political gatherings, the mitumba drum, rattles and whistles, which used to accompany the dance, have been replaced by instruments of poor quality, contributing to the loss of the uniqueness of the Mbende music.

In addition to getting UNESCO recognition, I believe more can be done to identify and protect the folk art on this land. To do this, we must show more initiative and ingenuity.


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