Cul­ture vul­tures swoop across the plateau

Cen­tral and lo­cal gov­ern­ments are pour­ing money and ex­per­tise into the pro­tec­tion and preser­va­tion of tra­di­tional art forms in the Ti­bet au­ton­o­mous re­gion, as Hu Yongqi re­ports from Qamdo, and Da Qiong from Lhasa.

China Daily (Canada) - - FOCUS -

Even though night had al­ready de­scended on Bei­jing, at 9 pm on a sum­mer evening the sun was still shin­ing over the plateau of the Ti­bet au­ton­o­mous re­gion. In Qamdo pre­fec­ture, the largest city in the east of the re­gion, a huge screen in Lib­er­a­tion Square played tra­di­tional mu­sic to more than 1,000 people who formed a num­ber of con­cen­tric cir­cles and be­gan a tra­di­tional dance.

As the dance, known as the gor­dro, pro­gressed, some people left the cir­cle, only to be re­placed by oth­ers. Age was ir­rel­e­vant, young and old en­joyed the sim­ple plea­sure of dancing to­gether. Tourists took pho­tos to record this dis­tinc­tive lo­cal cus­tom, which the lo­cals per­form ev­ery day, even dur­ing rain­storms. Noth­ing damp­ens their enthusiasm.

How­ever, for many years, people in over­crowded Qamdo were un­able to find an open space to prac­tice the dance, so they crowded around the fire pits to en­ter­tain them­selves by hav­ing a few drinks and singing.

Then, in 2012, the pre­fec­tural govern­ment built a 1-hectare square to ac­com­mo­date the dancers, and this sim­ple art form was re­vived with in­creas­ing vi­tal­ity among the lo­cals and tourists.

Gor­dro dancer Ny­ima Tser­ing walked among the crowd, ready to pro­vide guid­ance to any­one in need. When the city be­gan a re­con­struc­tion project two years ago, Ny­ima Tser­ing and his troupe took turns leading the dancing in the square ev­ery night, which con­trib­uted greatly to the pop­u­lar­ity of the tra­di­tional art form.

“The dance is easy to learn and doesn’t re­ally mat­ter where it’s per­formed. It won’t die as long as we can main­tain the very essence of grass­roots art, which is to get people in­volved,” said the 36-year-old.

Last year, the cen­tral govern­ment added eight of Qamdo’s lo­cal art forms, in­clud­ing the gor­dro dance, per­for­mances on a six-stringed lute­like in­stru­ment called a bi­wang, which is also the name of a lo­cal dance, and spe­cial­ized tech­niques such as those used in the ex­trac­tion of salt, to a list of pro­grams to pro­tect “in­tan­gi­ble cul­ture” — ex­pres­sions of cul­ture passed down from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion. The re­gional govern­ment listed a fur­ther 15.

In the past five years, the pre­fec­ture has spent 2.6 mil­lion yuan ($418,000) pro­mot­ing the lo­cal cul­tural her­itage, ac­cord­ing to the Qamdo Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Cul­ture.

In Ti­bet, more than 1,000 forms of in­tan­gi­ble cul­ture now re­ceive ded­i­cated sup­port from the lo­cal and cen­tral gov­ern­ments, and lo­cal au­thor­i­ties have con­ducted a com­pre­hen­sive sur­vey to record many as­pects of the lo­cal cul­ture, some of which have al­most dis­ap­peared. The re­gional govern­ment also took a range of mea­sures, such as in­creas­ing the sub­si­dies paid to “in­her­i­tors” — people whose fam­ily mem­bers have passed down their knowl­edge, and are paid to main­tain the tra­di­tional arts — to en­cour­age a re­vival of indige­nous cul­ture among the younger gen­er­a­tion. Grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity

Gor­dro, which orig­i­nated among farm­ers and herders, con­sists of two parts, the song and the dance it­self, and its form dif­fers from place to place. For ex­am­ple, in the herds­men­dom­i­nated Nagchu pre­fec­ture, one sees a dif­fer­ent style, more re­laxed, yet wilder.

The dancers hold hands and form a cir­cle. The mu­sic be­gins slowly, but the tempo in­creases and the dancers gather speed un­til they end the song with a fren­zied shout of “Ya!” The dance doesn’t re­quire much tech­ni­cal abil­ity and the moves are easy, fac­tors that have greatly in­creased its pop­u­lar­ity.

Two other lo­cal dances, in­clud­ing the bi­wang, which orig­i­nated in Mangkam county, have also been taken un­der the wing of the na­tional in­tan­gi­ble cul­ture pro­tec­tion sys­tem.

Yang Pei, who has a Han fa­ther and a Ti­betan mother, learned the bi­wang from his grand­fa­ther. He of­ten vis­its Lib­er­a­tion Square to help new­com­ers, gen­tly cor­rect­ing the move­ments of the unini­ti­ated, es­pe­cially tourists.

When Yang was a child, his fam­ily danced at home or in the cow­shed. They only ven­tured into the fields to dance dur­ing the au­tumn har­vest sea­son. Dur­ing one of these har­vests, Yang be­gan to im­i­tate his grand­fa­ther’s steps and learned the dance.

“At that time, kids could learn the moves, but weren’t al­lowed to join the cir­cle. How­ever, Ti­betans are born to dance and sing, un­like many people in China who work re­ally hard but rarely have time to en­ter­tain them­selves,” Yang said with a gig­gle. “Later, we kids or­ga­nized our own cir­cle to ‘com­pete’ with the grownups.”

When Yang was 18, he de­cided to be­come a pro­fes­sional dancer, but six years spent wan­der­ing around Lhasa, the cap­i­tal of the au­ton­o­mous re­gion, wore away his am­bi­tions and his de­sire to live in the city. So he re­turned to Qamdo in 2000, and be­came the lead per­former of the 24-mem­ber San­jiang Tea and Horse Arts Troupe, which per­forms at schools and in vil­lages.

Ny­ima Tser­ing also takes his troupe to re­mote vil­lages. “Our show tar­gets farm­ers who rarely come to the town for en­ter­tain­ment be­cause of their heavy work­load,” he said.

Vis­it­ing re­mote vil­lages can be an ar­du­ous task be­cause the wind­ing moun­tain roads make travel la­bo­ri­ous. How­ever, some­times there are no roads at all, so the per­form­ers walk, laden with their stage props, cos­tumes and food. De­spite this, they al­ways re­mem­ber to smile dur­ing their shows. Some of the more­out­go­ing farm­ers join in with the dances, even though their moves rarely match those of the pro­fes­sion­als. Ny­ima Tser­ing said the ul­ti­mate pur­pose is to make people happy: “It doesn’t mat­ter how well people dance. It means a lot that they en­joy our show.”

Fa­cil­i­ties nowa­days are far bet­ter than be­fore. “Ti­betans are known for their pierc­ing voices, so we didn’t use mi­cro­phones be­cause the qual­ity was poor. Now, though, the au­dio sys­tems and mics are much bet­ter, and our job is to com­pose and record new melodies for the gor­dro,” he said.

The bi­wang dance en­com­passes 131 melodies, which the per­form­ers learn by heart, but be­cause only a few of them are able to read sheet mu­sic, most find it im­pos­si­ble to com­pose new tunes.

That dif­fi­culty was un­der­scored by Sonam Drolma, an in­her­i­tor of the ralpa dance which is also na­tive to Qamdo. She said the dance has been boosted by a 1,000-ca­pac­ity per­form­ing arts cen­ter built in the pre­fec­ture last year, but the dif­fi­culty in find­ing new ma­te­rial has af­fected her too.

“The dance can re­lieve pres­sure and stress. It won’t be dif­fi­cult to keep this art form alive, but the cul­tural at­mos­phere seems to be los­ing power be­cause an in­creas­ing num­ber of young people have moved away to study and don’t have time to learn. The govern­ment should be do­ing more,” she said. Record­ing his­tory

On June 1, as a way of strength­en­ing the pro­tec­tion of indige­nous cul­tures, the re­gional govern­ment im­ple­mented a ver­sion of the Law on In­tan­gi­ble Cul­tural Her­itages, which has been tai­lored to suit con­di­tions on the plateau.

The reg­u­la­tion stip­u­lates that gov­ern­ments at pre­fec­ture and county lev­els must cul­ti­vate young talent and pro­vide ad­e­quate fi­nan­cial sup­port to pre­serve tra­di­tional art forms, es­pe­cially those listed as in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itages.

Since 2006, more than 3,000 offi- cials in the re­gion have been col­lect­ing in­for­ma­tion about all the listed in­tan­gi­ble her­itages. To date, they have col­lected about 100,000 tran­scripts and made 2,000 record­ings of tra­di­tional mu­sic, dances and tech­niques, said Ren Shuqiong, deputy di­rec­tor of the Depart­ment of Cul­ture of Ti­bet.

By the end of May, 120 mil­lion yuan had been spent on the pro­tec­tion of in­tan­gi­ble cul­ture, with the cen­tral govern­ment pro­vid­ing 90 mil­lion yuan of the to­tal, she said.

Last week, 123 people were ac­cred­ited as in­her­i­tors of in­tan­gi­ble cul­tures at the Nor­bu­l­ingka Palace in Lhasa. Pema Dawa, a 40-some­thing pain­ter, was en­dorsed as an in­her­i­tor of Chentse-style Thangka, paint­ings on cot­ton or silk with a Bud­dhist theme. He said he was de­lighted to see the govern­ment pay­ing more at­ten­tion to the preser­va­tion of tra­di­tional art forms such as his, which dates back to the mid-15th century.

“Chentse-style Thangka has been in­flu­enced by both Nepali and Han cul­ture,” he said. “It means a lot for eth­nic unity na­tion­wide, and artists from both groups can in­ter­act to dis­cuss tech­niques and artis­tic con­nec­tions.”

Ac­cord­ing to Ji Ji, di­rec­tor of the In­tan­gi­ble Cul­tural Her­itage Of­fice of the cul­ture depart­ment, the an­nual sub­sidy avail­able to a na­tional-level in­her­i­tor was raised to 10,000 yuan from 8,000 yuan in 2012, and the sub­sidy for lo­cal-level in­her­i­tors rose by 60 per­cent to 5,000 yuan per an­num. Opera ‘rock stars’

In 2009, Ti­betan opera, an an­cient art form that de­vel­oped over many cen­turies, was added to UNESCO’s Rep­re­sen­ta­tive List of the In­tan­gi­ble Cul­tural Her­itage. Per­for­mances com­bine folk dancing, singing and vo­cal dy­nam­ics. Hailed by cul­tural ex­perts as a “liv­ing ex­am­ple of tra­di­tional Ti­betan cul­ture”, the opera boasts a his­tory of more than 600 years — about 400 years longer than China’s na­tional trea­sure, the Pek­ing Opera.

In the past five years, the re­gional govern­ment has sub­si­dized about 120 Ti­betan opera troupes. An­nual opera com­pe­ti­tions are held to counter the de­cline in pop­u­lar­ity of the form among young people, many of whom are los­ing touch with tra­di­tional cul­ture be­cause they live and work in other parts of China.

“Our depart­ment pub­lishes the rank­ings, and the county of­fi­cials see it as a way of en­rich­ing the lo­cal people’s lives. County gov­ern­ments are en­cour­aged to help the per­form­ers by pro­vid­ing funds to buy cos­tumes and pay for re­hearsal spa­ces. Hope­fully, that will re­sult in Ti­betan opera at­tract­ing more lo­cal sup­port,” said Ji.

The depart­ment has also de­creed that one-third of each troupe must be com­posed of per­form­ers younger than 40, ac­cord­ing to Ji. “If not, we don’t al­low the troupe to par­tic­i­pate in the con­test. In this way, we hope young people will learn, and take leading roles in the fu­ture,” she said, adding that the depart­ment has spon­sored 32 train­ing cen­ters for lo­cal art forms and has pro­vided a fund of 2 mil­lion yuan to re­fur­bish liv­ing quar­ters and re­hearsal fa­cil­i­ties.

Ngawang Ten­zin, deputy chief of the Cen­ter for the Pro­tec­tion of In­tan­gi­ble Cul­tural Her­itage in Lhasa, said tra­di­tional art forms are be­ing pre­served to al­low the younger gen­er­a­tion to un­der­stand more about the cul­tures their an­ces­tors cre­ated and pre­served for hun­dreds of years.

He said the cen­ter hosts cul­tural ex­hi­bi­tions, fea­tur­ing eth­nic cos­tumes, makeup and dancing, ev­ery day. In ad­di­tion, the cen­ter ar­ranges per­for­mances at schools, and se­lects tal­ented stu­dents to study opera, dance and other lo­cal art forms.

Fans of the form treat the per­form­ers like rock stars. On May 21, Yang and his troupe vis­ited Qamdo No 1 Mid­dle School. The male dancers ac­ces­sorized their cos­tumes with knives, while the women wore elab­o­rate jew­elry. Af­ter care­fully ap­ply­ing their makeup for two hours, the dancers ap­peared on a makeshift stage erected on the school’s soc­cer field.

More than 600 stu­dents sat on the lawn and cheered. About 15 min­utes af­ter the per­for­mance be­gan, classes ended and even more stu­dents rushed to the field.

No one spoke. Ev­ery­one watched Yang and his col­leagues pa­tiently. Some of the stu­dents had brought milk and snacks, but ate and drank in si­lence. When the show was over, the per­form­ers were given a stand­ing ova­tion, and some stu­dents lin­gered to ask Yang for his au­to­graph, which he duly wrote on their uni­forms.

“Yang is a celebrity in Qamdo, and we are so happy to see him in per­son, in­stead on TV,” said 15-yearold Sonam. “If pos­si­ble, I hope he will come and per­form for us ev­ery se­mes­ter.” Con­tact the au­thors at huy­ongqi@ chi­ and daqiong@ chi­

Palden Ny­ima con­trib­uted to this story.


Young people per­form the ralpa dance in Qamdo pre­fec­ture in the Ti­bet au­ton­o­mous re­gion. The dance is one of eight na­tional-level in­tan­gi­ble her­itage items in the re­gion.


From left to right: A young woman pre­pares for bi­wang per­for­mance in Qamdo; Thangka paint­ing is an im­por­tant part of Ti­bet’s in­tan­gi­ble cul­ture; a Ti­betan Opera singer care­fully ap­plies her makeup ahead of a per­for­mance at the tra­di­tional Ti­betan Sho­ton Fes­ti­val in Tod­lung Dechen county.

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