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Young people help preserve Xinjiang's cultural heritage

Xinhua| Updated: June 10, 2023

With his target in sight, Zhao Hu pulled the string of a traditional bow. The arrow hit the bull's-eye and was followed by a roaring cheer from the audience.

They were cheering not only for Zhao's skill, but also for the bow, handmade by the 31-year-old archer of the Xibe ethnic group.

"I love making bows and arrows, as my hometown has a long tradition of archery," says Zhao, who works as a guide at a museum in Qapqal Xibe autonomous county of Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.

Initially a fashion designer, he became fascinated with archery, a tradition of his ethnic group — the Xibe people used bows and arrows as hunting weapons long before archery became a sport.

In 2019, he returned to Qapqal, where many local archers have won medals in major competitions at home and abroad. He started systematically learning Xibe ethnic bow-and-arrow making, which was listed as a national intangible cultural heritage in 2008, from his father.

Zhao was not alone.

According to Zhou Qingfu, head of the Chinese National Academy of Arts, an increasing number of young people are carrying on the heritage of traditional arts and techniques.

"The traditional arts and techniques, through which it is viable to gain economic benefits, are highly relevant to the activities of the younger generation," he says.

Publicizing the bow

Talking about his experience of learning bow-and-arrow making, Zhao says: "Keep trying, constantly fail, and progress inch by inch."

The process of making traditional bows is complicated, using more than 10 types of material and dozens of tools. Making a bow requires cutting, grinding, shaping, gluing, painting and other procedures before it takes shape.

Zhao notes that, in the past, limited by materials, tools and weather conditions, it could take as long as a year to make a single bow. Machines and tools have now shortened the production process, but bow-making is still anything but easy.

"Before a bow is made, I sometimes have to fail twice," he says, adding that success is gained through experience.

After five years of study, Zhao has become an adept craftsman. He has now taken on another role: a guide at the bow and arrow museum in Qapqal. He started a bow-making workshop inside the museum to give lessons to primary and middle school students.

"During the 45-minute session, students can fit together the half-finished parts to produce a bow and try it themselves on the archery field," he says.

Gao Juntao, vice-president of the federation of literary and art circles in Qapqal, says: "We provide Zhao with a venue to design, produce, demonstrate and exhibit bows and arrows, so that the visitors can thoroughly learn about the Xibe culture."

China has been supporting the establishment of intangible cultural heritage workshops in recent years, a move encouraged by a document jointly released at the end of 2021 by three government departments, including the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

Xinjiang now boasts 120 regional-level intangible cultural heritage protection and inheritance bases, six Uygur Muqam art inheritance centers, and 10 inheritance centers for other types of art.

Old art forms

An iconic form of intangible cultural heritage in Xinjiang is Muqam, which means classical music in the Uygur language. A traditional art of the Uygur ethnic group, it integrates songs, dances, and folk and classical music. In 2005, the Xinjiang Uygur Muqam Arts of China was approved by UNESCO as a "Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity".

Wang Jiangjiang, 38, has been engaged in documenting and recording intangible cultural heritage in Xinjiang for 13 years. He says it was predestined for him to come to the region from his hometown in Hebei province, nearly 3,000 kilometers away, to witness Muqam and other cultural elements.

"The first time I heard and watched a performance, I was fascinated by the unpredictable melody and the passion of the performers. Thus, I hoped to learn more about this art," he says.

With curiosity and passion, Wang arrived in southern Xinjiang in 2010, where he befriended local people and learned the Uygur language.

Gradually, he became aware of a problem: most of the video documentaries of Muqam were about group performances, rather than individual artists.

"Without musical scores, people only learned the art orally and seldom could one sing the entire piece," he says. "At the time, most of the Muqam artists in Xinjiang were very old, so I had the idea to 'retain' them through video, pictures and sound."

In 2017, Wang began to document inheritors of intangible cultural heritage in Yarkant county in Kashgar prefecture, using video cameras to digitalize their art, and recorded 318 folk artists over six months.

"There was only one college student who helped me back then. Now we have a team and have established a studio," he says.

Starting in 2020, with the support of the regional government, Wang and his team began to rerecord Muqam art in a more detailed and in-depth way. Currently, 45 varieties of Muqam and oral biographies of 77 Muqam inheritors have been completed. They have traveled to more than 300 villages and towns in Xinjiang and formed a catalog of Muqam art through videos, photos, sounds and biographies.

Apart from Muqam, Wang and his team are also recording other forms of artistic intangible cultural heritage in Xinjiang, like songs and dances, and have collected the information of more than 2,000 folk artists from different ethnic groups.

"The records can provide inspiration for musicians, which can also be used for future generations to study and spread our culture and art," he says.

Injecting vitality

While people like Wang are busy recording the old art forms, some others are injecting vitality to the traditional ones with creative cultural products or livestreaming.

Cui Yang is founder of the Onetone design firm. Their poster series combining the exhibits from the Museum of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and the 24 traditional Chinese solar terms won a national design award earlier this year.

Cui notes that Onetone has some 30 employees with an average age of 28, while their museum counterpart consists of 12 people, almost all of whom are from the post-90s generation.

"Our cultural relics should not only be preserved in museums, but also offered to young people in creative ways, so that they can easily learn the culture behind them and share that on social media," he says.

Guan Yi, who is in charge of the museum's cultural and creative products development, says: "Giving full play to our professional advantages, we excavate stories behind the cultural relics."

The museum also hosted various events to bring the intangible cultural heritage to visitors, including shadow puppetry, paper-cutting and calligraphy.

"Trying to revive the daily lives of ancient people probably sounds romantic to Chinese people today," says Guan.