Life Among the Miao
James F. Paradise attends an exhibition of paintings by Jo Sherwood and contemplates the dilemmas of preserving traditional culture in China.
Published: Friday, January 25, 2008
Traditional culture is under threat in China. Globalization, modernization, industrialization and urbanization are all changing lifestyles, altering the physical landscape of the country and threatening to make some ancient arts or traditions extinct. In Beijing, for example, hutong, or narrow lane, communities are being razed for high rises, Christmas and Valentine's Day are being celebrated with a tremendous enthusiasm, people are heading out of town for ski trips (or jetting off to Shanghai for Formula 1 racing in the autumn), and residents are sipping their café lattes in Starbucks, some of which are located in the increasing number of shopping malls in the city. In rural areas as well, things are changing as young people head to the cities in search of jobs. Try to find someone willing to learn the epic poem King Gesar or engage in handicraft work, and one might have a harder time. The Chinese government is working to preserve the country's material and non-material heritage (certainly not all, as in some cases the government is responsible for the destruction of that culture), but one thing is clear -- it will be fighting an uphill struggle as the consequences of the open door policy and broader trends in society will be difficult to control.
One person interested in these issues as they pertain to China's ethnic minorities is Jo Sherwood. In a recent exhibition in Los Angeles entitled, "The Disappearing Cultures of Rural China," Sherwood presented 20 of her oil paintings dealing with the Miao, one of China's 55 officially recognized minority ethnic groups, which is located in south or southwest China. Many of her paintings deal with people, which are her principal focus. Among them are: Lusheng Pipes, which features three men in indigo dress playing the lusheng, the popular instrument among the Miao; Maiden of Langde, which shows a woman with a stunning headdress; and The Celebration, which portrays a woman with a baby. Looking at her paintings, which have a rich and warm quality about them, it is clear that Sherwood has a great affection for the Miao people.
Sherwood, who was born in Holland, has made it her life work to document cultures that face tremendous pressures because of globalization. As she said at an opening reception at The Wilshire Ebell Fine Art Gallery, where the exhibition was held, "It is my hope that my paintings will raise awareness of these cultures so they may be protected." Her decision to use oil to paint with, she said, is "because it endures, and I want to capture the indelible qualities of these disappearing cultures." Among the places she has traveled to to paint are Peru, Guatemala, Bolivia and Swaziland.
The exhibition was sponsored by the Los Angeles Chinese Consulate. "The Chinese government is trying to take great care of traditional cultures, especially minority cultures," said Chen Huaizhi, consul for cultural affairs of the Consulate General of The People's Republic of China in Los Angeles, at the opening ceremony. He noted that the Chinese government has spent "millions of dollars" on Tibet and pointed to more liberal population policies for minority ethnic groups compared to those for the Han Chinese, who make up over 90% of the population.
In many ways, it is impressive the extent to which the Chinese government – which faces the threat of ethnic separatism in places such as Xinjiang - appears to bend over backwards to accommodate the officially recognized minority ethnic groups in China. (It should be noted that there are other minority ethnic groups that are not officially recognized.) The Chinese government has created autonomous regions, emphasized equality and unity among the minority nationalities and taken measures to promote their economic development, amounting in some cases to what are preferential policies or affirmative action measures. The central government never tires of stressing that China is a multi-ethnic society (look, for example, at its white papers on the topic), and the idea is reinforced by the many television broadcasts featuring colorful cultural performances of ethnic minorities. "We encourage people from minority areas to learn Mandarin (Chinese), but at the same time to protect their languages," Chen said.
To stem some of the pressures from globalization on traditional culture around the country, the Chinese government has been engaged in a variety of activities. As a People's Daily article from 2002 puts it, "The government and many non-governmental organizations have set out to protect the ancient Chinese zither, paper-cuts, the 800-year-old Ragoin school of Tibetan religious art, Sichuan opera and Yunjin brocade originating in Nanjing, capital of the eastern province of Jiangsu." The Chinese government has allocated money to protect traditional art and has worked at the legislative level as well to protect cultural heritage.
Some people, however, believe that some of the pressures on traditional Chinese culture come from actions of the Chinese government, such as peopling some ethnic minority regions with Han Chinese and allowing the wrecking ball to destroy traditional neighborhoods in big cities. There also seems to be an official acknowledgment that the Cultural Revolution did much damage to minority nationalities.
By focusing on one minority nationality -- the Miao -- Sherwood has done a great service in helping us to better understand the lifestyle and culture of a group not seen by most. Protection of a traditional lifestyle will come up against pressures from globalization and other modernizing forces in society as the Miao -- and other minority ethnic groups - play a tricky game of preservation and adaptation.