The second half of my June 2017 China trip found me back in familiar territory, in the Hubei Province cities of Wuhan and Jingzhou. As fate would have it, on the evening of the day I flew from Kunming to Wuhan, Dr. Shan Bo, Vice Dean of Wuhan University's School of Journalism and Communication had arranged a lecture and performance by Wang Xin-xin, a renowned folk musician and singer. Ji Li, Director of International Student programs and my point person and friend at Wuhan, insisted I shake off my tiredness and attend. I’m so glad I did.

The event was held in the television studio on campus, and I was very happy to see friends and colleagues from other universities that I had visited in the past and would in fact visit again in the coming days, including Dr. Sang Jun of Yangtze University in Jingzhou, and Prof. Lili Zhang of the Wuhan South Central University of Nationalities. Having had experienced the earthier folk sounds of Yunnan, watching the elegant and urbane Wang Xin-xin brought further appreciation for intangible cultural heritage in China. She strummed and picked at her pipa expertly, often in a meditative, deeply spiritual tone, her voice all at once light, strong and pitch-perfect. So captivating were the musical interludes that I didn’t mind the fact that I could not understand any of her lecture, during which she gave a history of her own family’s involvement in musical expression, as well as what I took to be a much deeper philosophical and historical explanation of her craft. I joked afterward that it was the best two-hour lecture I had ever attended without understanding a word. An attempt was made to arrange a private portrait session with Wang Xin-xin for the following day, but due to her rehearsal and travel schedule, we were unfortunately not able to make it happen.



Jingzhou, June 10-11

The city of Jingzhou is less than two hours from ­Wuhan by speed train, and for the third time in three visits to China, I was able to take that trip to visit Yangtze University, and to work once again with the dynamic Dr. Sang Jun, Director of Intangible Cultural Heritage. In 2016 I had been an invited artist and presenter at a symposium titled “Tracing to its source—Phoenix Boat Races and Dragon Boat Culture,” which included a bus trip with several scholars to the rural town of Binhu to witness an actual Phoenix Boat Ceremony. This time I had been invited to meet and shoot portraits of opera singers, folk dancers and others involved in ICH. Dr. Sang is currently working on the construction of a facility where the colorful Jing He Xi Opera troupe, comprised of several colleagues at the university, will practice and perform. Jing He Xi is known as a regional opera, originating in neighboring Hunnan Province during the Ming Dynasty.

On June 10th Dr. Sang and I made a presentation on my recent photographs and video of Intangible Cultural Heritage artists in Yunnan, in front a large and enthusiastic crowd of faculty and students. Also in attendance were fully dressed members of the opera group. After the presentation had ended, they performed with a small group of musicians, and then we went upstairs to a makeshift, natural light studio I had set up with the help of some of Dr. Sang’s tireless students.

  Chen Fen, Wu Wei and Gu Yu Fang of the Jing He Xi Opera.

Chen Fen, Wu Wei and Gu Yu Fang of the Jing He Xi Opera.

Day of Cultural Heritage, June 11

Considering the long and rich history of China, it was surprising for me to learn that the annual “Day of Cultural Heritage,” held the second Saturday in June, is a tradition dating back only to 2006, three years after UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage proposed five domains under which ICH is manifested: oral traditions and expression; performing arts; social practices, rituals and festive events; knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; and traditional craftsmanship. The Chinese government, since 2005 has been very proactive at recognizing and moving to establish a nationwide legal framework to protect cultural heritage. This of course includes the inheritors of ICH I encountered in Yunnan and Hubei Provinces.

So it happened that I was in Jingzhou on this year’s Day of Cultural Heritage (pushed back to a Sunday because of rainy weather). Rather cryptically, I was informed by Dr. Sang Jun that the Ministry of Culture officials in Jingzhou had invited me to not only attend the festivities, but to sit with the panel of judges. It was nice to establish contacts with Ministry officials, who Dr. Sang Jun has since been discussing future photography exhibitions of my work.

In spite of the sweltering humidity, there was a circus-like atmosphere inside the walls of the ancient Jingzhou city gates, as one after another, a variety of colorfully dressed folk dancers and singers, opera troupes and others, including a large delegation of green and blue-clad teenagers from a disabled program, took the large stage to perform lively, sometime humorous acts that held significance to all who valued the cultural heritage of their region. In the background on the stage was a gigantic digital screen, projecting what appeared to be videos of people at work. One of the dance groups acted out what seemed to represent the virtue of farming, against the almost Orwellian backdrop.