TO fill gaps in rural art education and inspire interest in folk culture, the Zhejiang Art Museum has invited 20 artisans to visit village schools across the province.
This program, which started last year, comes at a time when many believe that China’s rural handicraft traditions are being eroded by the forces of modernity. Indeed, some artisans even fear that their specialties could die off completely if they don’t act quickly to foster the next generation.
“I’m from a village and was a farmer for four years, and thus I know how urgent it is to save and revive arts in villages,” said Si Shunwei, the director of the museum and the initiator of its rural outreach program.
The program covers a variety of folk crafts and traditions, from decorative arts to performance and cooking.
Shen Gongqiang and his wife Chen Linhua, two artisans involved in the program, specialize in Dongyang-style brick sculpting. Examples of this decorative art can be found in many older Chinese buildings. Yet few choose to decorate their homes today with such crafts. Few aspiring artists also take an interest in what is considered a “dirty and tiring” craft, according to Chen.
For many of Chen’s young pupils though, getting dirty is part of the fun. She says that many village children enjoy “playing in the mud” as they shape and mold their clay bricks.
“We try to show the techniques to as many children as we can, and maybe in the future one or two of them will carry on this craft,” said Chen.
So far, these and other sessions have been extremely popular.
“Every time, almost every child living in a village, as well as their parents, will come to learn,” explained Liu Jiabo, one of the team leaders.
Another artisan involved in the program is 61-year-old Wang Dapu, an expert maker of bird lamps.
A specialty product of Wenzhou, these paper-and-bamboo lamps are good luck charms traditionally hung on trees. According to local folk beliefs, doing so will bring rain and favorable weather.
As Wang explained, many families once made such lamps. Now he is one of only a few serious artisans carrying on this craft. Like other program participants, he hopes that reaching out to young people will revive his fading art.
“I will spend the rest of my life doing this, but new energy is needed from the next generation,” he said. “Since no one can make a living with these lamps, to share my skills with children is the only way to keep them alive.”
According to observations by the team, about one-third of village schools in Zhejiang do not offer art classes.
Shortages of supplies and personnel are another problem. In some places, physical education and language teachers do double-duty as art educators. What’s more, in some schools, art classes focus mostly on handwriting and coloring.
The museum’s art education initiative is part of a wider effort to stoke interest in traditional crafts and Chinese artistic traditions.
Cai Xuezhen, a maker of traditional Chinese scales known as steelyards (or gancheng), says she has seen a growing interest in this craft among the young.
In China, such scales were often embellished with decorative features, such as shaped stone weights. Cai studied the art of steelyard making from her father and grandfather. While the scale market is only a shadow of what it once was, Cai said that her family’s workshop has been turned into a “mini” museum thanks to support from local authorities. At this museum, Cai shares her scale-making knowledge for free with visiting youngsters.
“Children are always excited when they see that their scales really work,” said the artisan. “Today, we’re seeing kids getting addicted to electronic toys, but I tell parents to let them make handicrafts.”
The museum’s village education program will continue in 2016. Over the coming year, the museum also plans to stage small-scale exhibitions in rural communities around the province.
Source: Shanghai Daily