To safeguard intangible cultural heritage is not to linger in history, nor to live in the past. While seeking to safeguard our intangible cultural heritage, we also wish to enhance our people’s cultural identity and creativity, to encourage more innovative spirit in the building of a harmonious society and a better world. It comes from the people and shall be part of the people’s lives. It has far-reaching impact on both today and the future. It is the obligation and responsibility of every citizen. It is hoped that the media will also give more support to this cause and exert more influence in the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage.
— Protection and Promotion of China's Intangible Cultural Heritage,

Intangible Cultural Heritage I

My third visit to China, May 28-June 15, was made possible by a Research, Scholarly and Creative Activity (RSCA) Travel Grant from the MCCAMC. The first half of the trip, covered in this essay, was spent documenting Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) artists and locations in a relatively small section of Yunnan Province in southwestern China. The ICH movement covers a broad spectrum of cultural traditions, ranging from art and music to math and science, and reaches all corners of the country. Along the way I was introduced to several “Inheritors,” individuals designated and subsidized in various ways by the Culture Ministry to preserve and pass on skills and knowledge to new generations. It became clear during this visit that, against the backdrop of rapid urbanization and commercialization that is sweeping China today, the preservation of these many forms of intangible cultural heritage, some of which are also recognized by UNESCO, is a timely and essential topic for documentary and research. The observations here are not informed by real deep knowledge of the cultural heritage; it remains my hope that the colleagues I am working with that have the expertise will find these photographs accurate and humane representations of the people and the heritage. 


It was fortuitous and definitely convenient, to be met at the airport in Kunming by my former graduate student at CSUN, Mao Mao Changyue, and her mother, who works as a professor at Yunnan Normal University. They booked me into a hotel on campus for the first night, and early the following morning I met the team: Dr. Yanping Ruan, a professor of animation and a researcher of Intangible Cultural Heritage projects in Yunnan; Jenny Wang, Foreign Affairs Secretary of the YNNU School of Communication, and Liu Fan, a graduate student who accompanied us and assisted in many ways, including as a translator. I owe them (especially Dr. Ruan) a tremendous debt of gratitude for facilitating the many meaningful encounters that would follow as we spent the next several days together travelling around Yunnan.


Jianshui & Purple Pottery
On the morning of May 29 we boarded a train south to the town of Jianshui, riding in the sleeping section where strangers sat across from each other on the bottom of triple-bunk beds, chatting and eating snacks. We would stay in Jianshui for four days. Aside from the requisite sight-seeing (the ancient city and the Confucian temple), most of our time in Jianshui was spent visiting, photographing and sometimes interviewing the inheritors of Yunnan Jianshui purple pottery, said to be one of China’s “Four Most Famous Potteries.” There is a section of Jianshui where the homes, studios and shops of many of the artisans of purple pottery are located; besides the inheritors, who are considered masters of the craft and attract a more discerning clientele, there are also several other shops that sell the tea pot sets, vases and other pottery ware to the general public.  We visited several locations, most notably those where inheritors were training apprentices. At the first site we visited, Mu Zhong Huong and Qing Fang Yang, husband and wife inheritors, were taking the knowledge they learned from their elders and were now training the youth, including their own children. We conducted an audio interview with them. (All such interviews were conducted in Mandarin, which are still in need of translation).                                                                                            

One of the largest studios belonged to Chen Shao Kong, an aging master who had more than a dozen apprentices working for him in a building that included several work areas. Mr. Kong is renowned for his purple pottery; a book we came across while visiting the Jianshui ancient city wall museum featured a photograph of him as a much younger man, already famous for his pottery skills . . .

We visited the workshops and the homes of three of the more upscale pottery inheritors, Pan Juan, Tan Zhi Fan, and Yu Li Fen. All create very distinctive, artistic and unique pottery designs, more expensive than the typical products found in the shops of Jianshui and throughout China. Pan Juan also runs a studio that is open to the public, and our team had a chance to experience pottery making firsthand. All three were gracious hosts, posing willingly for my camera and well acquainted with Dr. Yanping Ruan of YNNU, who had arranged all the visits in advance.

From our base in Jianshui we also travelled a few hours to the village Potuo, where we were met by the local governor (who would later host our lunch) and introduced to Li Sheng Fang and Li Ke, two residents of the village, and inheritors of the Mang Drum Dance. Potuo was a typical farming community built on rugged and steep hillsides, and we were taken on a lengthy hike up and down cobbled paths to a towering, ancient Baobob tree, which held much significance for the villagers. Then the two inheritors, joined by an employee of the Cultural Station at Potuo, demonstrated the athletic drum dance, which I was allowed to record on video.  Fang, the leader and elder of the group, was remarkably limber, dropping to his knees and bending his torso all the way to the ground in perfect rhythm with the drum and cymbal beats.

When it came time to shoot the formal portraits I had in mind, everyone was very accommodating, allowing me to choose a small storage shed that had the dim, natural light I was seeking. By good fortune and nature, I was also in the friendly company of several elderly village women who were chatting in between tasks. For the most part I sensed that their reactions to the camera were, if not enthusiastic, at least cooperative and understanding. The beauty of aging gracefully is etched in each of their expressions.

During our stay in Jianshui we were assisted greatly by Wang Xue Mei, an employee with the local Culture Ministry. She accompanied us to all of our site visits, arranging meals and providing transportation when necessary. As a token of appreciation, upon leaving I presented her (the Culture Ministry of Jianshui) with a set of several hundred digital files, images I had made of the purple pottery and Mang Drum Dance inheritors and apprentices.


Luomo village
A long bus ride took us to the mountaintop town of Honghe, where we were based for the next three days, travelling each morning to remote towns and villages to continue our fieldwork, visiting inheritors of ICH. They were long and sometimes arduous journeys, with much driving on unpaved, dirt roads, either dusty and gravelly in the dry, semi-arid areas, or muddy and rutted with deep tire tracks and potholes in the greener, wetter mountains. Sporadically, there were construction projects of varying stages and sizes lying dormant or being worked on. One indelible image that stays with me was a middle-aged man standing alone with a wheelbarrow and a pile of bricks, bent over as he moved two bricks forward at a time. The UNESCO-recognized terraced rice fields of the Honghe region provided spectacular, expansive valley views. Eventually we stopped in the village of Luomo, to meet an inheritor of polyphonic singing, Chen Xi Niang, and his daughter Chen Xia Ling, along with other family members and musicians. Xi Niang is a respected guardian of the traditional songs and instruments. He runs a school that is subsidized by government ICH funding, assisted by his daughter and others, including a woman named Bia Niasheng, who effortlessly rolled, tied and clipped the end of a large green leaf, turning it into deep-octave wind instrument, rather akin to a leafy conch.

Xia Ling, (the daughter who left her waitressing job to work with her father when he was named an inheritor), sang long sustained high notes with perfect pitch. Besides blowing into the flute-like Ba Wu, she could also turn the smallest green leaf into a harmonic instrument. Leading them was her father, who while singing mournful ballads and the like alternates between the Ba Wu, the ukulele-like Xiao San Xian, and dragging his bow across the single-stringed Erhu, one of the more common traditional instruments, often used by street musicians in the cities. The polyphonic results initially seem a dissonant melody, but as the ear tunes in, becomes an appealing and almost hypnotic symphony of sound. It certainly makes one curious to know better the history and origin of such music, and any significance in the meaning of the lyrical intonations. I found myself speculating on the purpose of my being in verdant hills in the presence of a musical expression being held timeless by authority and artistry combined, with virtual no real understanding of the social or political history in which this music may have played a part. What gorgeous folklore, and I sensed that the next few days were going to be something very special to see and hear.


Qielong and Puchun

That would have been enough of an introduction to polyphonic sound, but Dr. Yanping Ruan had made arrangements for stops in two nearby villages, Qielong and Puchun, where Chen Eduo and Chen Kasan were both inheritors with long family musical histories. In Qielong, Chen Kasan and his wife had aging color prints tacked to the doorway of their red clay home. Photographs of family members from times past displayed on walls and shelves, framed or not, was a common sight.

Both men were most happy to demonstrate their love for the music on instruments similar to those we saw in Luomo, and to oblige our requests for portraits. The traditional dress for the Hani women in particular is very colorful and uniform, while the men were mostly dressed darker, heads often wrapped as well. I felt I was being given the latitude and license to continue recording not just the formally composed, (what I hope will be seen as) respectable portraits, but also the comings and goings of everyday life, whether it be a laborer at work, an idler at rest, or the odd sign or farm animal, come what may. Against the spectacular backdrop of the terraced rice fields (UNESCO World Heritage Sites), children played, chickens ran amock and a giant pigs wallowed in the muddy shade of their crude pens.



June 4th found us back in our rented van with the cigarette-smoking young driver, heading now through mountains equally tall and rugged. In this direction the climate was arid and dry. We crossed over muddy rivers on fine bridges, only to be once again vibrating along on hardscrabble, unpaved roads, winding upward to where the landscape finally became green again, featuring a remarkable specimen of pine, which looked like a forest of Christmas trees until you got closer and saw that they were indeed some breed of giant pine needles. We eventually stopped at the town of Dayangjie, where we were to meet at the home of Chen Juan,  a coffee farmer and inheritor of Yiche costume design and dance. It was June Festival season, so a mighty lunch was served, also attended by a raucous group of young men (Chen Juan’s son and his friends), who washed down the duck feet and spicy snails with cold beer served in bowls, or the homemade rice grain alcohol found in most homes.  After lunch Chen Juan posed for some portraits with her costume designs, which included a lacquered straw hat decorated with an assortment of miniature gourds and snail shells hanging from a wide brim, and plenty of silver baubles jangling from her waistline. She then led us on a walk through the open market in Dayangjie, to a square three-story building that had a loud, piercing bagpipe-like sound emanating from inside. The music, it turned out, was coming from an amplified Sou Na, described to me as a “Chinese Oboe.” It was played by a man named Qian Si Hou, one of three inheritors we met in the lobby of what appeared to be a conservatory. The other two women, dressed in costumes identical to Chen Juan’s were Chen Ha Qiu and Li He Niu. Both had a Xiao San Xian strapped over their shoulders, pecking out notes almost out of habit more than for song. Unsolicited, Ha Qiu, perhaps aware I was shooting video with my iPhone, at one point began playing a tune on a flute by flowing through her nostril, something I wasn’t sure was part of the intangible cultural heritage, or just a party trick to amuse us.

The four inheritors (including Chen Juan who was still with us) went to the top floor where the large windows gave us not only the soft natural light desired for portraiture, but a broad view of the unpaved streets below, and the hills beyond. An adjacent room was used as an informal museum, with musical instruments of every description on shelves, along with the various artifacts such as the wooden-block sandals favored by the male musicians I’d met over the past few days, and an assortment of animal skulls, which I was told had ritual sacrificial value…  

We left the conservatory for a walk through the town to visit the homes of the inheritors. Entering the busy market square, Qian Si Hou turned on his battery-powered speaker, which gave the Sou Na the piercing bagpipe quality we’d heard earlier. As respected or known as these musicians may be, not everyone was enamored with the sound, and almost immediately two men rushed over to Qian Si Hou, complaining loudly about the racket coming from the tiny black speaker hanging from his belt. This didn’t deter the other two inheritors, who walked through the otherwise indifferent crowd still pecking away at their acoustic instruments. We ended up in the homes of Si Hou and Li He Niu, where we were shown various articles of costume clothing, accessories and musical instruments. Li He Niu had reams of raw material, and demonstrated her use of a manual sewing machine, and how she colored the white cotton in a wooden vat of the deep indigo blue dye, staining her fingers in the process. 

The last stop Dr. Ruan had arranged took us to the home of Mao LeBeng, an elder Hani woman who had taught and mentored Chen Juan in the art of costume design. In an open-faced family room filled with relatives, a rickety but fully operational manual cotton spinner was set up, and Mao LeBeng took delight in showing us how they turned raw cotton into the fine but strong thread used to create their costumes.


We left Dayangjie and hit the rough roads again. By mid-afternoon we found Dieshi, a stone and cinder block village strewn along the hillsides, surrounded by open, mountainous land in every direction. We were led up steep and narrow staircases to the home of Li Apang and her husband Zhang Shou De, both inheritors of the Lezou folk dance, and their musician son Zhang Zheng Guo. We were also warmly welcomed by Li Si, himself an inheritor of the dance, and a colorful character named Wang Li Liang, who builds and plays a mandolin-type instrument called the Yue Qin. Li Liang told me proudly about the years long ago when he had toured the United States as part of a musical entourage, and took me to see his outdoor workshop. When we all ended up on the rooftop in my search for the best natural light for portraits, the the five artists gave treated us to their joy and abandon; Li Apang dancing and singing with Li Si while her husband and son expertly played a lively tune along with Wang Li Liang. I was fortunate to make a video recording the extraordinarily soulful and lovely performance.

After the performance and a few more portraits were made, we were invited back into their home for a huge meal, with close to twenty dishes shared among almost as many people engaged in lively conversation, my new friend Wang Li Liang compensating for my our inability to speak the same language by offering endless toasts made while drinking the rice grain alcohol. It was dusk, and with a very long drive back to Honghe facing our team, we politely declined an invitation to spend the night, and the goodbyes were warm, affectionate and genuine. It was a fitting end to our work with the Intangible Cultural Heritage artists of Yunnan Province.

Bia Niasheng, Jenny Li, Liu Fan, Yangping Ruan, and Chen Xia Ling. 

Bia Niasheng, Jenny Li, Liu Fan, Yangping Ruan, and Chen Xia Ling.