Cultural heritage kept relevant by being adapted to modern products

Updated 2017-11-20 09:33:12 Shanghai Daily
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Yang Zaimei (right), a national inheritor of the embroidery of the Miao ethnic minority, explains one of her embroidery works at Shanghai University’s Academy of Fine Arts to her daughter Tai Xinhui, who attends Guizhou Minzu University. (Jiang Xiaowei)

Yang Zaimei (right), a national inheritor of the embroidery of the Miao ethnic minority, explains one of her embroidery works at Shanghai University's Academy of Fine Arts to her daughter Tai Xinhui, who attends Guizhou Minzu University. (Jiang Xiaowei)

Yang Zaimei, a national master in the ancient embroidery of the Miao ethnic minority, is a busy woman nowadays as China steps up its campaign to promote and perpetuate iconic heritage.

Yang not only teaches apprentices every week, including foreigners, but she also advises a domestic luxury brand on design and embroidery patterns for fashion bags, clothing and shoes. Her studio, which she operates with her daughter and apprentices, has gained international attention, thanks to an ongoing training program under China's Ministry of Culture.

Under the project, those with inherited traditional skills are sent to study in domestic universities for a month. There, they learn how to adapt ancient talent into modern products that will keep the heritage alive in contemporary society.

About 30 traditional embroidery masters from the Miao and Buyi ethnic minorities attended one of the training sessions at Shanghai University's Academy of Fine Arts and the Shanghai Institute of Visual Arts this month. Included in the curriculum were theory of color combinations and practical innovation skills to stretch their imaginations beyond the remote mountainous villages where most of them live.

Since the ministry launched the program in 2015, 78 universities and colleges have participated in classes for 15,000 heritage handicraft masters in disciplines such as bamboo carving, silver jewelry making, mud sculpture and ceramics.

Shanghai University alone has trained 284 inheritors, said Zhang Lili, associate professor in charge of the classes.

The month-long courses are broken into classes of about 20 masters from similar disciplines. In addition to basic knowledge and discussions of how to bring innovation to ancient skills, industry representatives are invited as guest speakers to talk about how skills can be used in contemporary commerce, Zhang said.

"With that help, many traditional folk arts have been turned into stylish merchandise," she said. "It's an ideal way to protect these traditional skills from extinction. If inheritors can show profits, more young people will be willing to learn those skills."

China has listed 1,986 items of national "intangible cultural heritage," including literature, music, dance, opera, sports, arts, handicrafts, traditional medicine and folk arts. Some are on the verge of being lost forever.

The traditional weaving and dyeing of the Li ethnic minority, for example, is listed as an endangered intangible skill by UNESCO. It is based on a traditional and complicated process of spinning, weaving, dyeing and embroidery.

Eighteen universities involved in the training program staged a recent exhibition of over 280 fashion products melding traditional skills with modern designs.

Mou Jingping, an inheritor of bamboo-curtain making from the southwestern city of Chongqing, was one of the exhibitors. His traditional skill, which dates back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279), was used to make Bluetooth speakers. He was assisted by Wang Dawei, executive dean of the Academy of Fine Arts, during a month-long course there in 2016.

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