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Heritage, Change and the ‘Second-Generation’ Phenomenon: Traditional Craft and Revitalization in Jingdezhen

Lili FANG is Professor and Director of the Art Anthropology Research institute of the China National Academy of Art, Beijing. For more than twenty years she has led major research projects on cultural heritage and the anthropology of art, leading to numerous publications. She is a member of the China Expert Committee for the Preservation of Intangible Cultural Heritage; President of the Chinese Society for the Anthropology of Art; and member of the Beijing Municipal People’s Congress Scientific, Educational and Cultural Committee. She is also a partner of Heritage Future. In this interview with Sharon Macdonald, conducted in August 2017, she talks about her research over many years in the major centre for ceramics, Jingdezhen. Sharon began by asking her about some of the changes that she had seen in the field of cultural heritage.

LF                    When I began doing fieldwork in 1990 in China, it was the very early stage of a real opening of the country and the market – we were experiencing the modernisation process. And it was exactly then that I started to think about the value of our heritage, how it would develop in the future, whether it was going to disappear or could it regenerate again. Back then, I did not have the concept of ‘intangible cultural heritage’ – UNESCO hadn’t come up with it. I just thought about it as traditional culture. So I started to study my hometown Jingdezhen. Jingdezhen has 1000-year-long history of making handmade porcelains. What I thought was – in this old town we have excellent porcelain producing techniques and if we don’t record them or study them, they might in future disappear very quickly. So I started to record those techniques. And as I did so, I discovered that there were several very traditional techniques were being revived – that were already reappearing at that time.

SM           So some techniques had already disappeared but were being reintroduced?

LF             What had happened was that in the 1950s, China’s government had closed down all the workshops making traditional handmade goods. These had been replaced by national government-owned factories. But after 1990s, during the reopening of the country and the market, the private workshop started to reappear in Jingdezhen.

SM                  So people hadn’t forgotten the techniques?

LF                   They remembered – and did so over a period of almost fifty years, from 1949 to 1990. Though even during the government-owned factory period, they still kept some traditional craftsmen working in factories to make those traditional styles to sell them abroad. So some people still continued with the techniques. Mostly they were copying antique products to sell in Hong Kong, Macao, and Korea and Japan. But in the 1990s it was quite different from the craftwork in the factory. What was happening was that porcelain was now being produced in private workshops. So that made me wonder about what the future might be for Jingdezhen traditional porcelain production – and I set out to study it. From 2001 to 2008 I directed a National Key Study called Western China Culture Resources Preservation, Development and Utility. To do so, I set up a really big project – with more than 100 scholars, working in lots of groups, focusing on different areas and topics, all concerned with which parts of traditional cultural resources, including various folk arts and folklore, can be preserved and which parts of them can be revived or regenerated to fit into today’s ways of life. We had 76 case studies in total, with fieldwork on cultural resources in six provinces in western areas of China. On the basis of this we published twelve books, appearing in the early 2000s. These included From Heritage to Resource: Western Humanity Resource Study and Long ga People’s Changing Lives: A Study of Suo ga Eco-Museum, as well as Suo ga Diary: A Female Anthropologist’s Study in Miaozhai, Heritage, Practice and Experience, all variously authored or edited by me.

Museum of the Ruins of the Jingdezhen kilns. Photograph courtesy of Fang Lili

SM                  What did you find? What makes a difference? What shapes what will continue and what won’t?

LF                   I found that Jingdezhen’s competitive power is neither in labour nor capital, but in knowledge and artistic value. Jingdezhen already had the knowledge – the knowledge of how to make this special kind porcelain – and also the artistic or aesthetic value or taste. And this gave it the capacity to revive. I also found that as long as the tradition related to art, to performance, to tourism, it can last longer – it shows longer life potential. Things related to daily life, by contrast, are disappearing very quickly. For example, tools for agriculture and everyday labour are disappearing. Whereas things related to art — to performance, dancing, singing— live longer.

SM                  Do you think for collecting both materials and intangible cultural heritage, enough is being done to preserve and to collect and so on?

LF                    I don’t think tradition is just about preservation. Heritage has a big relationship with our modern life too. This is what I predicted for Jingdezhen in a book I published in 1990. And from my research in Jingdezhen later it turned out that my predictions were right!

What happened was that in the 1990s, all of the government-owned factory closed. But then thousands of private workshops suddenly sprang up. And these were not just making copies of antiques. Fewer and fewer of them were doing so. Instead, they started making all kinds of different styles. So my new study was about this – about what was being made in these workshops.

One very interesting discovery was that it was not just local craftsmen working in those workshops but craftsmen from different parts of the countries or even from other countries – artists or art students from across the country or around the world. They came to Jingdezhen to learn from local people; and they use the local craft techniques to make their own artworks. Why they came to Jingdezhen was because the local craftsmen have a marvellous technique. It is a very mature technique, using all kinds of materials, and all kinds of colour. If you can imagine it, they can make it happen.

And the process is very flexible. It is divided into different procedures, each craftsman working on ones. For example, they have people who only throw the clay, some only paint; others glaze; someone else fires it. So that makes it very suitable for outsiders to make porcelain. You can hire people to work for you, maybe doing some steps yourself.

New use of traditional techniques in Jingdezhen workshop. Photograph courtesy of Fang Lili

SM           How many workshops and craftspeople are there?

LF             According to the statistics, there are 3,000 workshops in Jingdezhen and 12,0000 craftsmen working. Not only established artists but also students come to work and study in Jingdezhen. Very famous artists can sell their works very well, but I wondered how the young students could survive here. What I found was that most of them are not actually making artwork. What they make is stuff for daily use – such as teapots or vases – but in artistic styles. And these things are often made with a kind of flavour of traditional Chinese style – so they are learning from tradition and appreciating a range of styles from various dynasties. So they are not just learning from the traditional handicraftsmen – who prefer Ming and Qing styles. But they draw inspiration from others, such as that of the Song dynasty, which itself had been learned largely from Japanese and Korean craftsmen. As well as leaning from all different dynasties and the influences of different areas and countries through these, the students can learn from the artists from other countries, as well as from local people.

Artists and students come here not so much to preserve the intangible cultural heritage, but to use it. I discuss this as heritage having become a resource. On the basis of my research I wrote a book called From Heritage to Resource. And now you can see this happening widely – heritage being used as a resource. We can even say that actually the more traditional a city is, the more likely it is to develop in a successful modern direction.

SM                  That is really interesting that it is so dynamic. That goes against some ideas of heritage. But does that ever come into conflict with other ideas?

LF                    Yes, actually, it is pretty conflicted. There are two very different parts of this city, and two ideas about heritage. One part is characterised by making very creative, modern and dynamic changes. And in the other part, run mainly by the local government, they are trying to preserve the very traditional parts of the heritage.

SM                  So maybe it would be good for the porcelain production not to get UNESCO heritage listing, for example, because it might stop the life and the dynamism maybe?

LF             Actually, in UNESCO’s World Heritage programme, they allow a certain amount of creation. They called it living heritage or live heritage – heritage that should be alive in people’s daily life.

So far I have been giving you my views about change and heritage. I should also say something about what changes in the government’s approach. Initially, our government was doing exactly as with UNESCO’s World Heritage approach of preserving or mainly preserving heritage in itself. But more recently the government realized that heritage is also a productive business. So they now refer not just to heritage preservation but to productive preservation.

We cannot stay the same forever. We cannot never change. But how to change, how to create, is the question. And maybe creation is more interesting if you base it on tradition. The government has launched a programme to get craftsmen to teach students their handcraft techniques – to teach them how to make traditional handcrafts and allow them to create by themselves. It is actually a two-way process. The craftsmen teach the students and the students learn from them. But the craftsmen also learn from students, learn from their idea and their designs. So they actually learn from each other, influence each other.

SM           Do you see similar developments elsewhere?

LF             Jingdezhen is not unique in China today. The same change has happened in lots of areas. Recently, I applied for a new study project about the handicraftsmen’s role in social transformation. All our colleagues in our research centre joined the study project, and also invited several other scholars from other organisations. We picked 12 traditional handicrafts areas to study. For example, we studied Suzhou, which is very famous for its silk embroidery, with 80,000 women doing handmade embroidery. In Yixing, which is famous for pottery, they have 100,000 potters; in Fujian, Putian, they have 130,000 carpenters making wooden furniture. And in Shandong, Weifang, there are lots of people making handmade kites also. So in all these areas, they are all experiencing very similar changes to those in Jingdezhen.

LF                    One part of the development is what we call the ‘second generation phenomenon’. Parents earn a lot of money through handcraft, for example, by making pottery. They use this to send their children to study abroad. These kids then find that they do not earn as much money as their parents – even if they are quite successful. So they come back to their family, to their hometown, to pursue their parents’ job – and to maybe adapt the processes and bring new possibilities with them. For example, we found a son who had studied in chemistry, and he used this new technique to improve the material of the embroidery silk. It’s water-resistant material or something like that. And some students came back having majored in finance to become business assistants for their parents. Or the IT guys might use their computer skills to help their parents. This phenomenon is very common nowadays in several different areas of China. So we can say that the craftsman has changed because they got more education in this way.

The next question for me was – OK, who do they sell those products to? Where is the market? Why do people buy these things? What kind of people buy these products? Then I realised that after 30 years of change, Chinese people’s conception of value and their taste has actually changed dramatically. In the old days, Chinese people appreciated Western countries’ stuff. They think it has a very high value and good taste. More recently, however, Chinese people have started to realise the value of their own traditions.

Students sell their ceramics at a designated market in Jingdezhen. Photograph courtesy of Fang Lili
Young shopkeeper in a new ceramics shop in Jingdezhen. Photograph courtesy of Fang Lili

SM                  Is that maybe also part of a bigger movement of people wanting some sense of place and roots in the face of globalization?

LF                    Yes, indeed. But also, a new class has appeared in China – the white-collar-class. They have a better income; they have their own knowledge system, and they have good taste. This white-collar-class appreciates things from a unique lifestyle, and everyday objects in artistic styles. They use such products to separate themselves from other kinds of people who are different from them. They have changed the aesthetic value in society. The things they value are those that you need to know the history to appreciate them. And we all know handmaking stuff is relatively expensive, so it’s a kind of luxury. All these things combined together, then, show you to have higher rank and a better income. That is why such products are popular with the white-collar-class.

In fact there is nowadays an even higher rank than the white-collar class. It’s called luxury or rich people class. Very rich ladies have their own designer to make their clothes. They might ask an embroiderer to embroider something on their clothes. Their furniture might be designed very exclusively to their house, and all those decorations on the furniture will be handmade. These cannot be produced in a factory – so they cost very, very much.

So that is why craftsmen, especially very good ones, earn a lot of money. Especially if the master is a very famous one, they can cost a lot. They even sign their own name on their artwork.

High-class luxury ceramics on sale in Jingdezhen. Photograph courtesy of Fang Lili

SM                  How do they learn? By practice? Are there colleges where people go to learn? Or do they just begin doing an easy job and get more skilled over time?

LF                    There are two main approaches. One is very traditional skills that you learn from your master, your teacher. And there are modern scientific skills that you learn from college.

SM                  The government is supporting certain changes in heritage, then, as it recognises its economic value. Is this part of wider changes in how heritage is being seen?

LF                    Several years ago, my view wasn’t mainstream at all. Lots of scholars didn’t agree with me but thought that intangible culture heritage cannot be changed at all. They said that even a small change means that you cannot call it heritage anymore. Many of these scholars emphasise authenticity. But I don’t really agree with this idea of the authentic at all. Because if you look at history, there is nothing that can be called authentic actually. For example, take blue and white porcelain, which is seen as so authentically Chinese. But historically, the material, the style, and even the colour combination were not from China. They all came from other countries, from the Middle East. All that we call heritage today was once a creation. It changes all the time. How you see it depends on what timeline do you stand on to see.

I am a member of a government intangible cultural heritage preservation committee but didn’t attend their conference very often because of our different views on preservation and authenticity. But recently, more and more scholars have come to agree with me, and so too have some in local governments.

SM           It is very interesting that this change is going on. I wonder what this might lead to in the future.

LF                   Intangible cultural heritage has not only influenced the Chinese people’s lives, but it has also influenced the whole of humankind. So my ideas about it can be applied to the whole world, to humankind in general – to think about its role people’s lives. We all know that in the process of globalization, new techniques, such as IT, change people’s lives. They also change traditional heritage. Factories and mechanisation were invented to speed up the slow processes of the handmade. But nowadays, I think our society is moving way too fast, so we need to slow a little. We need this slower handmaking tradition – we need it for our lives. And also, I think it is really good for environmental preservation because you are more likely to use the handmade for quite a long time in your life and maybe even to pass it on to next generation. So it is good not only for society but for the environment too.

SM                  That sounds like a very good future for heritage – and a very good heritage future. Thank you very much indeed.