The exquisite Dong Autonomous County in Hunan is home to China’s ethnic minority group – Dong. There, local citizens inherit the beautiful Dong brocade that has endured the processes of social evolution.
Su Tianmei, a representative inheritor of the Dong brocade, conveyed her heartfelt thoughts about changes in her hometown. “The happiness of the Dong people is achieved by their own effort; they rely on their own hands to sustain wealth.”
In the animated production room, the delicate pattern fabricated by this handicraft skill gradually unveils itself. While moving the brocade machine with her hands, Su expressed that “you have to work hard to achieve what you want.” This is where the restless spirit of Dong lives.
Part 1: Current Situation
At present, the intangible cultural heritage of ethnic minorities is facing profound challenges.
To begin with, aging is a major problem concerning the inheritors. Since intangible cultural heritage is mainly passed on by demonstration, inheritors play a vital part in its preservation. However, the limited number of inheritors for each skill has become a restricting factor.
Professor Li Jinfang of Minzu University of China is currently hosting a "Zhuang Opera" heritage protection project, involved five village Zhuang troupe of actors, and the youngest is 25 years old, only one or two people under the age of 30, most of the troupe also accounts for only a third. The youngest band musicians are 38 years old and the oldest are more than 70 years old.
"Some ethnic minority groups only have one or two young people," Li worried. "This phenomenon is devastating for Zhuang opera's future."
Ms. Yang, the founder of Congjiang Cultural Ecology Society, proclaimed that "most young people have left the area, so all that is left are people in their 60s and 70s with reading glasses. […] Today's young people are looking for how to make a quick buck and increase their quality of living. In the factory, one could earn two to three hundred yuan a day, but with manual work, they might not even earn ten yuan for each flower embroidered.”
Yang Tian, an inheritor of the Dong Embroidery
Besides, nowadays, most young people are either not interested in learning a traditional skill or do not have the time to explore their interests in intangible cultural heritage.
In cities where advanced technology is highly pervasive, many young people are addicted to their devices. The novelty of the “outside world” dominates their attention, weakening their interest in the language and customs of their culture.
Furthermore, most intangible cultural heritage is difficult to integrate into modern society. There is a lot of information on the Internet, and the dissemination efforts are limited, so it is difficult for people to truly feel the charm of intangible cultural heritage through the Internet, and it is difficult to become interested in this culture.For instance, by watching short videos, like TikTok, people only can have a short attention span that cannot comprehensively spread culture and does not leave long-term effects on the public.
Meanwhile, most students nowadays are busy with school exams. An exam-oriented education kills students' autonomy, inhibits students' creativity, increases their academic burden, and emphasizes scores. It gives students no time to explore fields that they are interested in, including intangible cultural heritage.
Consequently, the limited number of inheritors is a big challenge that intangible cultural heritage has encountered.
Second, the lack of authenticity is also a serious problem for connecting education to intangible cultural heritage.
The word authenticity holds the meaning of the quality of being genuine. Folk custom comes from the people, inherits from the people, and is a power hidden deep in the behavior, language and psychology of the people. It is deeply rooted in a particular group, passed down over time from generation to generation; In space, it spreads from one region to another. If folklore is lost with the change of time or space, its significance to the public will also be lost.
Due to the development process of ethnic minorities in China, in addition to the Mongolian, Tibetan, etc., has relatively long national characters, most other nationalities do not have their own words. In these non-literate ethnic groups, except for a few who can record their own ethnic culture by borrowing other written languages, the vast majority of the people can only rely on sound and form, especially oral narration, when conveying information, passing on experience, or exchanging feelings, and there is almost no way to write or record in text.
In addition, "modern" grafting, innovation and transformation will make the original intangible heritage become stylized and vulgarized, and lose its authenticity. The most important point is that the intangible cultural heritage should not be so modernized that it loses its original identity.
The unique Sha Tau Kok fish lantern dance of the Wu family in Sha Tau Kok village has been adapted into various versions of the fish lantern dance. Instead of the all-male dance, it has become a woman's dance or a dance by both men and women. The traditional horse step has also disappeared. The folk customs handed down from the ancestors have been tampered with, which makes the Wu villagers puzzled and even dissatisfied.
Sha Tau Kok fish lantern dance
Because of this, when applying for intangible cultural heritage, many local folk songs and dances are embellished and modified at will for fear that they are too "local" or not "beautiful" that leads to the loss of original authenticity.
To sum up, only by "original" protection of intangible cultural heritage can the uniqueness and diversity of ethnic minority cultures prolong.
Part 2: The Role of Education
Many of the problems mentioned above, such as the old age of the inheritors, are closely related to the attitudes of young people toward intangible cultural heritage. In the absence of basic knowledge about non-material heritage, there are few cases in which young people take the initiative to understand its deeper connotations and participate in conservation efforts.
Education can provide a solution to this problem: through educational means, we can enhance the connection between young people and the intangible cultural heritage of ethnic minorities, guiding them to internalize the significance of preserving it.
Education is the means adopted for the new generation of young people, which plays a decisive role in the preservation of intangible cultural heritage in the coming decades. Through teachers’ narration in the classroom, the intangible cultural heritage of ethnic minorities is transformed from an unfamiliar concept to vivid stories and techniques. Students can truly recognize that the intangible cultural heritage is an indispensable part of Chinese culture; in this way, education helps raise awareness for its preservation.
At present, many nonprofit organizations and schools are using education to promote the intangible cultural heritage of ethnic minorities in China.
Among them, the cultural education of local young people has become an important part.
Congjiang Cultural Ecology Society has been focusing on the inheritance of Dong culture. "Children in the village know less and less about our people, history and local culture," confessed founder Ms. Yang.
Therefore, Ms. Yang initiated a project called the "Huo Tang (Firepit) Folk Art Classroom." She mentioned that "firepit was our original spiritual home, and our village life, food, lighting, heating, singing, etc. would all revolve around it."
They have set up folk art classrooms in many ethnic minority schools, providing students with various instruments and inviting local inheritors to teach them traditional folk arts, such as Dong songs and Dong pipa. In the classroom, Dong children sit and learn about their culture together, just like how their ancestors sang and lived by the fire.
"What the children in the villages lack most is not material help," Ms. Yang said. "It’s inner enrichment and cultural confidence."
Moreover, she has led students out of the mountains to platforms like the National Grand Theater and Shanghai Concert Hall to showcase their special folk art and to help students gain confidence from the applause of the audience.
Yang received many surprises in the project. She shared, "I was very touched by the fact that some students who participated in the firepit classroom in elementary school wrote to me when they were in middle school." Specifically, they wrote about their memories of learning songs and participating in performances, expressing that those were the happiest times in their childhood. “The firepit never burns out. I hope that with the efforts of this generation of Dong youth, their ethnic culture and skills will be valued.”
Meanwhile, educational efforts related to the preservation of ethnic minorities' intangible cultural heritage are also carried out in non-ethnic minority schools.
For instance, Zunyi Dongfeng Primary School started a "Gelao Embroidery Club" in March this year. Under the guidance of experienced teachers, students carefully painted, topped patterns on cotton cloth, and threaded needle, making their own special Gelao embroidery.
"Compared to the embroidery of other ethnic minorities in Guizhou China, Gelao embroidery is ancient and elegant, turning complexity into simplicity, using thick lines instead of delicate patterns: Gelao embroidery has a unique style of stitching and coloring and patterns." Embroidery teacher Linghu Yunyun proposed that in her next course, she will teach students to embroider Zongzi leaves with flat and piped stitches, fill them with mug wort, and stitch them together into a Zongzi shaped sachet for students to carry with them to the Dragon Boat Festival.
"I'm going to embroider a smiley face with some bright thread today” claimed Yang Yubin, a student in the Gelao embroidery club who has a strong enthusiasm for minority crafts. Whenever she goes on trips with her parents, she enjoys going to minority villages to buy folk crafts and add to her collection. She said, "After this period of study, I have learned flat and roll stitches, but I have also learned about the traditional embroidery culture of the Gelao people. I want to be a communicator of traditional culture.”
Part 3: Challenges and the Future
Education is an effective way to promote the intangible cultural heritage of ethnic minorities in China, but it is currently facing challenges in its implementation.
Due to insufficient teaching materials, the lack of stable funds, and the convoluted process of modifying the original curriculum, schools in ethnic minority areas are often hesitant to develop a new, more comprehensive curriculum. Hence, their course content may be superficial. Most local schools only touch on shallow, fragmented cultural knowledge and fail to teach handicraft skills.
Subsequently, as local students cannot gain a robust understanding of intangible cultural heritage through systematic education, their enthusiasm for the subject may slump.
For instance, before acquiring the help of and teaching resources donated by the Yige Group, students in Hongdian primary schools barely had chances to explore their interest in the cultures of Yi and Miao, prominent ethnic minority groups in the local area. With regards to school education, children could only rely on occasional culture-oriented activities during school holidays.
Local students learning Miao’s traditional dance
For other ethnic groups, school education faces very similar challenges. In many primary and secondary schools, the content related to intangible cultural heritage of ethnic minorities is at best briefly summarized in the form of videos and historical documents. Most students have little knowledge of the subject, so they cannot help protect it on an intellectual level. As an inevitable outcome, most young people are reluctant to choose culture-related majors and jobs, exacerbating the rapid reduction of talented inheritors and their corresponding skill sets.
In addition, the power of teachers remains relatively weak. Due to the remote location of most of the intangible cultural heritage, there is a lack of modern, qualified and professional teaching staff. At the same time, local inheritors who live in close proximity to schools “wear reading glasses, [are] in their 60s and 70s,” and are not suitable for teaching. To address this issue, many schools choose to employ teachers from other areas, but these external teachers mostly lack an in-depth understanding of the local status quo. They fail to convey the culture’s essence and nurture students’ interest.
Tangibly, the lack of resources is a loophole.
Limited by travel restrictions pertaining to the Covid-19 pandemic, even if a team of qualified teachers is willing to go to schools in ethnic minority areas, it is currently unlikely. For the same reason, it is also difficult to take local students to attend cultural exchanges, performances, and competitions outside their area. Meanwhile, businesses that once used tourism to provide cultural experiences have had no choice but to suspend all operations.
On the other hand, due to the change in economy caused by the pandemic, there has been a drastic plunge in consumers’ spending. Thus, the sales of handicraft products made by ethnic minority groups have decreased simultaneously.
Dong’s embroidery products that are sold online
Ms. Yang from Congjiang Cultural Ecology Society revealed that she and her team have been selling handicraft products on their website, advertising them via regular livestreams. Unfortunately, “I think live streaming is very difficult, but there is currently no other way,” sighed Ms. Yang. It is apparent that the pandemic is indirectly affecting intangible cultural heritage through material means.
But even in the face of challenges, it is necessary to solve these problems proactively.
Considering their inherent advantages, primary and secondary schools can carry out various extracurricular activities. Students often enjoy their intriguing content and diverse forms. Hence, incorporating cultural experiences into these activities is conducive to promoting awareness.
For example, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism hosted a “Shanxi Jingle Paper-Cut Education Tour” in 2019. Combined with a fixed exhibition of artworks, inheritors provided on-site teaching of the specific handicraft for primary students daily. The entire event is equivalent to a training session on precious skills of intangible cultural heritage.
Students at the "Shanxi Jingle Paper-Cut Education Tour"
On top of the existing basis, higher education institutions can also create more professional courses and elective classes. By leaning towards intangible cultural heritage, they can help foster a new generation of skilled inheritors and help garner attention to ethnic minority cultures. Correspondingly, government departments can enforce specialized policies in order to establish a sound guarantee system.
Tian Jing, a member of The National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and a recognized inheritor, stresses the importance of protecting cultural heritage through higher education. For years, she has submitted proposals in hopes of expanding resources and the supply of teachers for vocational and technical schools in minority areas.
Lastly, nonprofit organizations can curate free video lessons, resource-sharing platforms, online learning communities, etc., to transcend time and space constraints amplified by the pandemic. With the help of social media, education can be achieved on a societal level, which ultimately “revitalizes” the intangible cultural heritage of ethnic minorities.
Looking ahead, education – in spite of its challenges – has a great capacity to promote the protection of ethnic minorities’ intangible cultural heritage. CPPCC urges all to remain hopeful, imploring “local governments, inheritors, and residents to have full confidence in their culture!” After all, in the words of Tian Jing, “inheritors are the foundation of progress, and their skills are the soul of growth.”