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Preserving a paper-thin past

  • Source: Global Times
  • [22:05 August 30 2010]
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Dongba paper. Photo: Courtesy of Long Wen

By Zuo Xuan

On the foot of Yulong Mountain in Southwest China's Yunnan Province, lies the small village of Kenpeigu, once famous for its handmade paper, the production of which dates back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). It is called Dongba paper after the religion of the local Naxi ethnic group because it was used to record religious text in pictographic script. While enduring for hundreds of years, the industry withered away during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when all religions were tagged as superstition and banned.

By sheer chance, in 1991, a villager He Shengwen, then 42, learned that the Dongba Cultural Research Center in Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province, was looking for Dongba paper for research. He went back to his village and with the help of his father-in-law, an old Dongba priest who knew the papermaking skills, he made 23 pieces of paper and sold them to the researchers.

Dongba paper, made from a local plant called canescent wikstroemia and with the traditional tools is mothproof and resistant to decay. It was also improved over the years to become stronger and more absorbent.

Inspired by the new interest in the paper, He set out trying to revive and commercialize the handmade paper.

Unfulfilled dream

He did not realize his dream, but saw others take it from him when Lijiang, a prefecture-level city about 100 kilometers to the southeast of Kenpeigu, gained momentum with throngs of travelers buying fake Dongba products from the shops in the ancient town. His paper, made from canescent wikstroemia, was largely replaced by paper made of cheaper materials or imported from Thailand and Japan.

In 2006 when Yunnan Province recommended that Dongba paintings and paper to be listed as a National Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH), the local governments made a "compromise under the table." A craftsman named He Xun in the Lijiang area was designated as the official successor for creating Dongba paintings while He Zhiben, an 84-year-old Dongba and villager from Baishuitai, or White Water Terraces, a place thought to be the origin of the Dongba religion and a part of the Shangri-la area, of Dongba paper.

He Shengwen and Kenpeigu, despite being most competitive when it came to papermaking, lost the game on both fronts because the village belongs to Lijiang area designated for the paintings.

He Shengwen died last year of emphysema at the age of 60. Although his son and daughter also mastered papermaking, they dropped it in order to return to farming following their father's disappointing experience.

Outsiders patent the process

According to statistics, there are only six households among the Naxi ethnic groups who have mastered and practice Dongba papermaking. Five are in Kenpeigu.

The process involves several steps including boiling, rinsing, grinding and drying the plant. Kenpeigu boosters say that their method is superior to other villages because it is the only one that can remove a small toxin from the plant that can cause a skin rash to the paper makers.

"I felt hopeless seeing travelers buy a lot of the fake Dongba paper while the real one was ignored," He Shengwen once told two researchers from Kunming.

"I should have sued the pirate producers. But after a second thought I gave that up…I could not afford the legal fees and didn't know who to accuse or even where the papers in Lijiang come from."

He also had planned to apply for patent protection. However, he was told the technique for making Dongba paper belongs to the whole ethnic group and thus he could not claim the process.

However in 2005, two people of Han nationality in Lijiang received patents for making Dongba paper by changing the traditional canescent wikstroemia paper pulp to mulberry and slightly tweaking the production process.

Li Jun, one of the patentees, now runs a "Dongba paper workshop" store in Lijiang. With a series of paper products ranging from books, envelopes, stationery and religious items, the shops claim a yearly turnover of more than one million yuan ($147,045).

Villager He Shengwen never figured out why people outside the village were able to patent Dongba papermaking while he, a traditional Naxi farmer, was barred from the door.

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