SHINE A LIGHT

Lan­terns cast a glow on in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty rights

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE -

Tun­tou vil­lage’s palace lantern in­dus­try has pro­duced a shin­ing lo­cal econ­omy that casts light on the role of in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty in pass­ing on tra­di­tion. Zhang Fengjun, 54, is He­bei prov­ince’s only provin­cially des­ig­nated in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage in­her­i­tor of palace lantern-mak­ing. Zhang owns nine patents re­lated to the lan­terns that were de­vel­oped in the Eastern Han Dy­nasty (AD 25-220).

The fact that Zhang is the sole cus­to­dian of the lan­terns raises the ques­tion: Does IPR il­lu­mi­nate or dim in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage’s prospects?

Palace lan­terns fu­eled the lo­cal econ­omy dur­ing the Ming Dy­nasty (1368-1644), when an of­fi­cial dis­cov­ered a lo­cal crafts­man’s lantern he sus­pected would de­light the em­peror. It did. And an in­dus­try was born. The lo­cal lantern-mak­ing tra­di­tion nearly flick­ered out in the fol­low­ing cen­turies but has en­joyed a re­vival in re­cent decades, mak­ing the set­tle­ment south­ern Gaocheng county’s wealth­i­est.

“I’ve been suc­cess­ful in in­tro­duc­ing this her­itage to the mar­ket and in­dus­tri­al­iz­ing it,” Zhang says.

Zhang has also helped the com­mer­cial­iza­tion of the in­dus­try. Many of the 300 types of lan­terns his com­pany pro­duces are fes­tooned with the lo­gos of such be­he­moths as Bank of China, Ts­ing­tao Brew­ery and China Mo­bile. Oth­ers are adorned with more tra­di­tional im­agery — fish, rep­re­sent­ing longevity, and dragons and phoenixes sym­bol­iz­ing mar­i­tal bliss.

He learned the craft from his fa­ther and founded Gaocheng Palace Lan­terns De­sign and De­vel­op­ment Co, Ltd, in 1984. It has grown to be­come the world’s largest palace lantern pro­ducer with as­sets ex­ceed­ing 19 mil­lion yuan ($3 mil­lion).

Lan­terns have made re­mote Tun­tou wealthy enough to get traf­fic jams, says vil­lage Party sec­re­tary Su Zhen­guo, who also owns a lantern fac­tory.

About 80 per­cent of res­i­dents have cars, and roughly 30 per­cent drive two. Typ­i­cally, one is a fam­ily ve­hi­cle and an­other is a com­pany van.

The aver­age in­come among the nearly 6,000 vil­lagers is about 15,000 yuan a year — far more than what an aver­age Chi­nese farmer earns.

Youth can earn up to 150 yuan a day. Re­tired women can get about 70 yuan.

Cur­rently, 110 em­ploy­ees make lan­terns in his 16,000-square-me­ter fac­tory.

An aver­age em­ployee’s wage is about twothirds of the bosses’, Su says.

That in­cludes thou­sands of mi­grant work­ers from nearby vil­lages. “Vil­lagers don’t have to mi­grate from here,” Su says. “In­stead, vil­lagers mi­grate to here.” More than 10,000 peo­ple from some 1,000 fam­i­lies work in the sec­tor. They pro­duce more than 90 per­cent of the world’s palace lan­terns.

The re­search and de­vel­op­ment that forms the ba­sis of Zhang’s in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty rights are lo­cal. There are no out­side de­sign­ers, Su says.

Vil­lage-wide, the in­dus­try sells a bil­lion yuan worth of lan­terns a year, Su says. Twelve-me­ter­high lan­terns sell for up to 80,000 yuan, while 3-cm-high mod­els cost 8 yuan a pair.

Vil­lager Li Yup­ing, who owns a small lantern­mak­ing com­pany, says: “Chi­nese peo­ple want to dec­o­rate more as they be­come wealth­ier.”

The lo­cal govern­ment of­fers pref­er­en­tial treat­ment, such as bank loans, to those who en­ter the sec­tor.

Some might ar­gue the IPRs con­trib­uted to Tun­tou’s pros­per­ity — but Zhang is not among them. “Only one small fac­tory has paid for the rights,” he says.

“So, it can’t be said my IPRs have made the vil­lage richer.” But he be­lieves patents pre­serve her­itage. “Oth­er­wise, the qual­ity of the lan­terns would vary. And com­pe­ti­tion could be­come ma­li­cious. That would hurt her­itage. IPRs have made my com­pany rich enough to de­velop new in­no­va­tions on tra­di­tion.”

He says the fee to use his patented de­signs is low but re­fuses to dis­close the amount.

Patent­ing in­tan­gi­ble her­itage walks a fine line, China Art In­sti­tute re­searcher and doc­toral su­per­vi­sor Yuan Li says.

“In­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage is re­gional, which means it be­longs to many peo­ple in a spe­cific area,” he says.

“Patents are ex­clu­sive. That runs against tra­di­tion and in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage’s essence.”

Other coun­tries have been tack­ling this ques­tion for more than two decades with no clear so­lu­tion, he points out.

The In­dian govern­ment has gone to the mat over yoga patents awarded to US com­pa­nies. It says “yoga theft” runs counter to the soul of the spir­i­tual prac­tice that’s a part of shared tra­di­tional knowl­edge. In­dia’s govern­ment won the nul­li­fi­ca­tion of the multi­na­tional Me­tapro­teomics’ patent on an­cient turmeric-based medicines In­dian fam­i­lies use as folk reme­dies.

Two months ago, Good Morn­ing to You Pro­duc­tions Corp sued Time Warner Inc’s Warner/Chap­pell Mu­sic to de­mand a re­fund of the $1,500 li­cens­ing fee it paid the copy­right holder of Happy Birth­day to You — listed in the Guin­ness Book of World Records as the most rec­og­nized English-lan­guage song — ar­gu­ing the tra­di­tional tune should be in the pub­lic do­main.

Yuan says it’s a blurry line be­tween tra­di­tional crafts­man­ship and her­itage forms’ ex­trin­sic fea­tures in­her­ited by many peo­ple — which should never be patented — and in­no­va­tive de­signs based on tra­di­tion. But patent of­fices lack mech­a­nisms to mea­sure the dis­tinc­tions, he says.

An im­age data­base and recog­ni­tion sys­tem would be an ef­fec­tive so­lu­tion. In­dia cre­ated one with 1,500 yoga poses to send to patent of­fices.

China Folk Cul­ture As­so­ci­a­tion deputy di­rec­tor Liu Delong be­lieves patents could pro­tect some crafts.

“How­ever, some patents are too gen­eral,” he says.

There have been law­suits sur­round­ing the name “Shan­dong bro­cade”, for in­stance. The her­itage form has no spe­cific style, pat­tern or ma­te­rial.

Palace lan­terns’ IPRs haven’t gen­er­ated le­gal dis­putes.

What­ever their im­pact, busi­ness is boom­ing. And the tra­di­tion is be­ing con­tin­ued.

Tun­tou’s in­dus­try is also bring­ing the Chi­nese in­tan­gi­ble her­itage form into in­ter­na­tional con­scious­ness.

Zhang’s com­pany pro­duced the lan­terns that shone upon the Bei­jing Olympics and Shang­hai World Expo.

They’re ex­ported to Aus­tralia, Rus­sia, South­east Asia and the Mid­dle East.

And they dan­gle in Bei­jing’s Zhong­nan­hai and the Great Hall of the Peo­ple.

The vil­lage also pro­duces cus­tom­ized mov­ing lan­terns — some are sim­ple ro­bots — of var­i­ous shapes. Dragons twist, fish swim and birds fly in Gaocheng Palace Lan­terns’ dis­play room. Fifty-six pairs of lan­terns are shaped like cou­ples from the coun­try’s eth­nic groups.

Laser print­ers etch lan­terns in the rooms sur­round­ing a court­yard of veg­eta­bles in one sec­tion of the com­pound.

Su, the vil­lage head who runs an­other com­pany, says Tun­tou’s palace lantern in­dus­try has il­lu­mi­nated op­por­tu­ni­ties for lo­cals and of­fers a bright fu­ture. “I used to make car parts,” he says. “Busi­ness was bad. So I started this. And busi­ness is bril­liant.” Con­tact the writ­ers through erik_nils­son@chi­nadaily.com.cn.

Zhang Zixuan con­trib­uted to the story.

PHO­TOS PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

A young vil­lager fin­ishes palace lan­terns at Tun­tou vil­lage in He­bei prov­ince. The vil­lage is one of the wealth­i­est in the re­gion be­cause of the lantern-mak­ing in­dus­try.

Cus­tomers come to Tun­tou vil­lage to buy lan­terns as Lu­nar New Year dec­o­ra­tions.

Zhang Fengjun, in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage in­her­i­tor of palace lantern-mak­ing, shows off a lantern made in his fac­tory.

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