Commercialize or die? China's handicrafts in battle for survival

Posted by MaggieYang on 16. Feb 2009

Chinese folk artist Tai Liping is the last in his town to practise the 500-year-old art of Fengxiang nianhua (new year woodblock prints), the livelihood of his family for generations.

Dating back to 1507, Fengxiang nianhua has been a pillar industry in Fengxiang County, northwest China's Shaanxi Province. Between 1978 and 1988, hundreds of families made and sold their own woodblock prints -- until manufactured offset prints beat them out of the market in the 1990s.

"We couldn't compete with the industrial producers. Their machines could print many more copies at lower cost. Handmade prints were much more elaborate, but customers didn't care -- as long as they got festive paintings on their walls," says Tai, 47.

From formidable "door-guarding gods" to lively new-born babies, the prints cover a wide range of ancient Chinese legends in bold designs and bright colors. People usually post them on the wall or front doors.

In 1996, Tai Liping was awarded the title of "Master of Folk Arts" from UNESCO and the Chinese Folk Literature and Art Association for his achievement in making Fengxiang nianhua.

Having won acclaim for shows and lectures in Melbourne, Paris and mainland art colleges, Fengxiang nianhua is stuck in an awkward position where outside fame fails to inspire local enthusiasm.

Tai has ten apprentices, but they come only at weekends.

"Most local young people are no longer interested in learning traditional nianhua art and making it their career. My apprentices have their own work or study and don't make a living through it."

But nianhua lovers come from Hubei, Sichuan and other parts of the country in the hope of mastering the craft.

"Some of them seem really passionate. But I have no extra money to support their long stay here as the business does not profit well. We can't even afford their accommodation in the first place," he says. "If the market were good or the government could provide funding, we could build a school and support apprentices.

"I've been making changes to the style and selling them mainly as souvenirs for tourists, but I don't know how far I can go," Taisays. "I'm at my wit's end." Fengxiang nianhua is one of many endangered traditional Chinese arts and crafts at the center of a debate over how to commercialize and survive.

Abdurazak, 61, from northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region made Uygur musical instruments in the capital, Urumqi.

"My son and I sell our handmade instruments on the street. Every month, we only earn some 2,000 yuan, which the whole family depends on," he says.

Urumqi is the only large market in the region and some craftsmen even came to the city from Kashi, 1,500 km away.

"Instead of selling on the street, we hope the government could help us set up a store to make the business larger," he says. "If we had more money, we could even set up a training center to pass on the instrument making skills to more people."

Abdurazak is pinning his hopes on an opportunity to share his craft with more people across the country.

The Ministry of Culture, the National Development and Reform Commission, the Beijing municipal government and 14 other organizations are jointly hosting the largest ever exhibition of intangible cultural heritage items in Beijing from Feb. 9 to 23.

Tai and Abdurazak were given places in the main hall of the National Agriculture Exhibition Center to showcase their art. Every day, they answer questions and explain their crafts to hundreds of people.

"The exhibition will showcase the varied and profound traditional Chinese culture and raise awareness of cultural heritage protection," said Vice Minister of Culture Zhou Heping.

The government was considering new ways to protect intangible cultural heritage while realizing their market potential, he said.

The exhibition features a two-day forum


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