| Xinhua | 2012-6-15 16:35:51
The Baima people, a mysterious ethnic group inhabiting forest areas along the Baishuijiang River in southwest China, are striving to promote their unique culture so to help the world know more about their history, art, and customs that have been preserved for thousands of years.
Wenxian county, situated at the southern edge of Gansu province, is a major habitat of 4,000 Baima people residing in 13 villages, and Gaoheba village is one of them.
In Gaoheba village, a 300-square-meter building under construction is a training center for a traditional Baima dance, known as Chigezhou, or "Dance for the Gods of Mountains." The county plans to establish six such centers this year.
In the lobby of the unfinished building, Ban Jiejun, 32, is carving a giant mask. Six masks are needed in the performance, including four colorful monster-like characters, known as "Chige," or the gods of the mountains, and two feminine, benign faces, known as "Chimu," or Bodhisattvas. Ban is one of the three people who can still craft these masks in the county.
"I grew up watching the elderly making masks, but not many young people are into this, so it's hard to pass the craft down," Ban told Xinhua. Having heard the village's plan to build the center, he gave up his job in a neighboring province, and returned home to give a hand.
Making these masks takes much time and patience. Ban can only finish a few sets a year for performances and to be collected. It's impossible for him to make a living off the trade.
"I start carving as soon as I finish my work in the field. Money is not my primary concern. I hope that our traditional art can be better preserved," said Ban. His masks will be used to decorate the new training center.
The Baima people and their culture are significant in Chinese ethnological and anthropological studies. In an ethnic identification project conducted in the 1950s, they were recognized as a branch of the Tibetan because some words in both languages were similar, and they lived near Tibetan habitats.
However, many elderly Baima people and some scholars insist that their ancestors were from the ancient Di tribe, who stayed active from the Qin Period (221 BC-206 BC) to the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420 AD-589 AD), and had very different languages, outfits, customs and religious beliefs from the Tibetans. There are about 14,000 Baima people in China, living in south Gansu and north Sichuan.
Chigezhou, listed as a national intangible culture heritage in 2008, is a rite very important to the Baima people who still worship nature. They perform the dance believing it can expel evil spirits and bring the blessings of the gods of the mountains and rivers, but many elderly are concerned that the beautiful tradition is dying out.
"Before the 1990s, the religious festivals were the most important days of our lives, but soon the young started to leave to find jobs in big cities, where they encountered a lot of new things, and our old traditions became less attractive to them," said 72-year-old Cao Jiaba, wearing a navy blue robe and a white flouncy hat, a conventional look not kept up by young Baima people nowadays.
"We lost our own hieroglyphs a long time ago. All the old traditions were passed down orally from father to son. Now we'll have a place to keep the legacies of our ancestors, and show them to people from different ethnic groups, or even different countries."
In early 1980s, renown Chinese sociologist and anthropologist Fei Xiaotong made the first thorough introduction of the Baima people to the world in an essay, which sparked wide-ranging academic interests and initiated a series of research.
But it was not until quite recently that outsiders got to see the Baima. Many young people entered the show business with their endowed singing and dancing talents, while an increasing number of documentary films brought the distinctive Baima lifestyle to audience across the world.
The Baima's habitats were badly affected by the Wenchuan Earthquake of 2008. As part of the reconstruction, Wenxian county was given 25 million yuan (3.95 million U.S.dollars) by the central government to fund 9 culture protection projects.
Establishing training centers for Chigezhou is a crucial step to attract more young practitioners, and bring the dance to the international stage, according to local authorities.
Ban Baolin, 45, a former Chigezhou performer, is now working with the county's cultural affairs bureau on preserving and promoting Baima culture.
"At this point, the most urgent task is preservation. There used to a township in our county where the local Baima people didn't see the importance of preserving their own culture, and gradually lost their language and traditions in decades of intermarriage with other ethnic groups," he said.
"We have a very small population, so as we try to pass these traditions down through our community, we also wish to take them abroad for more people to see," said Ban.
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