Ethnic groups in unprivileged regions cast off poverty by promoting their cultures

By Hu Yuwei Source:Global Times Published: 2019/10/21 18:18:39

Cultural heritage workshops are combining poverty relief with cultural preservation 

○ Tibetans and ethnic minorities, including women, now have additional opportunities

Tibetan women learn to make the sculptures used at the Tibetan temples in Tongren county, Huangnan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai Province. Photo:Hu Yuwei/GT

Wande Gyatso was tutoring his apprentice Sanjay Jabb to color a Thangka painting of the Guanyin Bodhisattva as his apprentice dipped the tip of his paint brush into his mouth to coat it with saliva, a trick his master taught him to soften colors. The scene happened in Wande Gyatso's workshop in Tongren county of Huangnan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai Province, the famous birthplace of Thangka paintings, a traditional Tibetan Buddhist art form.  

Having learned the locally famous Thangka art since 2006, Wande Gyatso is a national inheritor of its intangible cultural heritage. In 2013, Wande Gyatso founded a Thangka painting workshop for training talents to design Thangka arts, supported by local governmental subsidy. The institution has trained hundreds of apprentices, including 13 women and six disabled people. Most apprentices come from poor families, but are able to receive free training, free accommodation, meals, and a year-end stipend at the institution, apprentices told the Global Times. 

His hub has been an epitome of how intangible cultural heritage has become a tool, among other creative methods, to empower those dwelling in remote mountains with adverse natural environment and backward infrastructure.

As the main battleground in poverty alleviation, the government has come up with measures to preserve the cultural identity and originality of ethnic minorities while helping them develop their economies and protect the ecology, said experts.  

The impoverished population of the eight ethnic minority provinces and autonomous regions dropped from 31.21 million in 2012 to 6.03 million in 2018, and the poverty incidence dropped from 20.8 percent to 4 percent, according to the Xinhua News Agency. 

Young apprentices learn to paint Thangka, a traditional Tibetan Buddhist art form, at an intangible cultural heritage workshop in Tongren county. Photo:Hu Yuwei/GT

Achieving prosperity

Tibetans in poverty-stricken areas have a chance to make their way out through traditional craftsmanship since the first-batch of 10 workshops was set up on March 16 in the county of Nyemo in Tibet, Xinhua reported. 

The workshops are expected to promote employment and shake off poverty as local residents learn to make cultural heritage handicrafts, such as Tibetan incense and Nyemo sutra streamers (Buddhist prayer flags). 

From 2018 to 2019, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism allocated 120 million yuan ($17 million) to support research, talent training, exhibition and promotion of national intangible cultural heritage projects in poverty areas across country, according to a report sent over by the ministry. 

Nyemo is one of Lhasa's most famous cultural countries. It is the hometown of Thonmi Sambhota who is traditionally regarded as the inventor of the Tibetan script. It is also known internationally for its thousand-year traditions such as Tibetan incense, Pusum hand-engraving, and Xoleg paper-making. These are now bringing vitality and prosperity to local minorities. 

The 68-year-old Gyalen has been making Xoleg Tibet drums, a skill that was once on the verge of disappearing, for more than 40 years. 

"The local government granted subsidiaries and materials for us to found the workshop. As an inheritor, I have seen the importance the country attaches to the traditional Tibetan culture," he told the Global Times, citing how he can receive annual subsidies of 10,000 yuan every year from the government as an inheritor. 

He employs five villagers from poor families to learn  skills to increase their income.

There are now 10 representative intangible cultural heritage projects and 88 cooperative workshops in Nyemo, providing 1,765 people with jobs, according to a report published by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

Jamyang started the first Tibetan incense company, also a learning hub, in Nyemo county. Since its establishment in 2010, the enterprise has lifted 28 people out of poverty. 

Influenced by traditional ideas, very few women have studied Tibetan incense throughout history. But Jamyang believes women were also indispensable inheritors of the Tibetan cultural heritage, and he hopes to empower local women with stronger survival skills. He has consciously recruited more women, accounting for 70 percent of the total number of apprentices, even though he faced criticism from some conservatives, he told the Global Times. 

Apprentices learn to draw Thangka at Wande Gyatso's workshop. Photo:Hu Yuwei/GT

Fashion of Tibetan

Most of the apprentices in Wande Gyatso's gallery have been learning Thangka painting for seven to eight years, and it takes about half a year to finish a high-quality work by themselves, which makes Thangka an art requiring great patience and meditation. 

Sangji Gyalpo has been studying here for five years, but for the first two years he had spent almost all of his time practicing the art of measurement, an important step in the creative design of the Thangka. Sitting cross-legged from morning till night was a challenge for an active teenager like Sangji Gyalpo.

"But the more I learned, the more I fell in love with Thangka. I found its unique charm. Although most of my friends are in school, I don't think going to school is the only way out. The essence of Tibetan culture should be passed on. I am willing to be the inheritor and spread it to the whole world, I think it is fashion of Tibetan," he told the Global Times. "I feel that I can learn skills here that will enable me to earn a living, and it is more promising than the way of working part-time as a migrant worker in megacities."

Wande Gyatso told the Global Times they have set up Thangka art exhibition areas in recent years in coastal cities such as Shenzhen, hoping to attract more young people to participate and spread Thangka art overseas with the help of the welfare policy of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area (GBA).


In recent years, he said, there has been a growing number of overseas clients, especially from Singapore and Indonesia, and students from some international schools have been organized to come for a short-term experience.

"Learning drawing does not require high educational level, which is suitable for children from poor families. However, almost 90 percent of the children here communicate in Tibetan, so we plan to hire teachers to teach Putonghua in the future to improve their communication skills and pave the way for their Thangka art to go out of Tibet," Wande Gyatso said.

Among those who have finished their apprenticeship, some can earn over 100 million yuan annually for selling handmade Thangka paintings, he said.

The 68-year-old Gyalen, the inheritor of Xoleg Tibet drum, had faced barriers when he decided to learn the drum-making skills many decades ago. His passion was opposed by many around him, because Tibetans are very taboo about wearing objects around their necks, which is considered unlucky. In old Tibet, only criminals would wear things on their necks. But when making a drum, it is often necessary to put the drum body around the neck to correct it and clean up remnants among other tasks, he said. 

He insists that drums are an essential part of Tibetan Buddhist monastery which he could not bear to lose. 

"The inside of the drum is to be filled with different scriptures or incantations, depending on the religion of the individual, and then it will be sent to Buddhist temple in different factions of Buddhism. The scripture is the soul of the drum, so I must be careful to put in the right ones to avoid violating their beliefs, even if no one actually turns on the drum," Gyalen said, holding his drum with pleasure.

The 68-year-old Gyalen, a national inheritor of the Xoleg Tibet drum. Photo:Hu Yuwei/GT

Eyeing next steps

Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture in Northwest China's Gansu Province is a prefecture home to the Hui and 30 other ethnic minority groups accounting for 59 percent of the 2.19 million-strong local population, according to the prefecture-level government's website. It ranked as the second poorest area nationwide out of the 339 monitored.

Gansu has been ranked as the region with the second-largest number of mosques. Now a group of Hui people is enriching themselves by learning Linxia brick carving, one of local sustained traditional folk arts, which is mainly used to decorate mosques and other ancient residential buildings.

Receiving a slew of favorable policies from local authorities in recent years, the workshops currently cooperate with local universities and experts for improving the goods quality. They have also actively expanded the sales channels of traditional craft products through the use of e-commerce platforms for promotion, a local workshop owner told the Global Times.

Alleviating poverty through intangible cultural heritage is still a difficult task with issues such as unstable production capacity and weak marketing capacity. The awareness of poverty alleviation by skills is relatively weak and needs improvement.

Song Guiwu, a professor at Gansu's Provincial Party School, told the Global Times that the next step in poverty alleviation through traditional crafts is to establish a long-term stable mechanism for poverty-stricken families, and organize them to move towards cooperative and industrial production while helping them stabilize supply channels to avoid overcapacity. 

Local government is now dedicated to training professionals in translating the national preferential policies around intangible cultural heritage to those Tibetan manual workers with limited educational level and limited Putonghua skills, an official of culture and tourism department of Nyemo told the Global Times.

Li Jinzao, vice minister of Ministry of Culture and Tourism said on a training session for heritage inheritors in September that the next step is to allow intangible cultural heritage works to go overseas, expanding exchange and dialogue with intangible cultural heritage projects in other parts of the world by participating more in exhibitions around the world.


Newspaper headline: Prosperity through tradition

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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