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Tradition and innovation: constructing cultural areas in Gansu Province

By Lu Hang and Zhu Yi | 2013-08-29 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today
As a northwestern province with a robust cultural heritage, Gansu has played an important role in the development of Chinese civilization. Characterized by its cultural diversity, how has Gansu passed down its cultural inheritance, and in what ways has it embellished upon and re-envisioned traditional Chinese culture? Wang Sanyun, secretary of the Gansu Provincial Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), expounded on these issues to our reporters.
CSST: What are the ideas behind and the goals driving the construction of areas for inheritance and innovation of traditional Chinese civilization in Gansu Province?
Wang: In essence, the idea behind preserving the heritage of traditional Chinese civilization heritage is a question of how to treat traditional culture in the process of modernization. Dealing with traditional culture in the process of modernization in the history of human civilization, China stands out for its glorious culture and numerous contributions to the development and progress of humanity. Today’s rapid process of modernization, however, has exerted some stress on its traditional culture. The fundamental goal in constructing areas for cultural inheritance and protection is to preserve Chinese culture, with the hopes that ultimately these areas will contribute to cultural prosperity. In other words, building such areas can cushion the impact of modernization and facilitate the transmission of China’s cultural heritage, enabling the culture to develop and adjust to modernity and grow to be a live culture which itself influences the process of modernization.
Humans are both the creators and beneficiaries of culture. Culture’s strength is manifest in its impact on its carriers—humans—and therefore attempts at cultural preservation will be ineffectual if the culture itself seems far removed from contemporary life. Another goal in constructing these areas is to ensure people’s right to access culture and maintain the benefits they are able to reap from culture, to enhance the essence of this culture, and to strengthen its influence abroad. It is, after all, something which can provide dividends for all of humanity. Should they deviate from these goals, such areas may compromise their ability to. In this sense, they should be constructed under the principle of integrating culture and life, tradition and modern times.
CSST: As an underdeveloped province in West China, why is Gansu channeling effort into constructing such areas?
Wang: As one of the important birthplaces of Chinese civilization, Gansu is among the most culturally significant provinces, given its long history and rich culture. In fact, its cultural impact has extended beyond China and affected the world. The province is home to a variety of cultures and numerous cultural and historical sites, for example, Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang, Maijishan Grottoes at Tianshui, the spectacular Jiayuguan (one of the main passes of the Great Wall), and Kongtong Shan, a famous sacred Daoist mountain, among others. All of these are treasures for our nation and the world. Gansu has also witnessed important events and moments in the Party’s history. It is also characterized by its splendid folk culture. For instance, Qingyang Sachets (hanging embroidered pouches filled with spices native to the city Qingyang), the folk songs of Hezhou and the Tibetan culture in southern Gansu all have their distinctive features. Our magazine Readers is hailed as a magazine for readers’ soul, and we also have wonderful folk opera. Gansu, with its great repositories of art and cultural heritage, is uniquely endowed to construct such areas.
At the same time, Gansu is underdeveloped; it is landlocked, and it is still in the early stages of opening to the outside world. Given its current limitations, Gansu needs to galvanize both internal effort and support across all aspects in order to achieve the goal of establishing a moderately prosperous society in tandem with the rest of the nation. Constructing areas for cultural inheritance and protection will better enable Gansu to integrate its own internal resources and further its process of opening up, benefiting its socioeconomic development.
Focusing on the cultural industry region along the Silk Road which covered over 1,600 kilometers in Gansu from east to west, we plan to build three main areas: a cultural and historical area in the Southeast that will focus on ancestral culture, an area centered around Dunhuang that will focus on Hexi Corridor culture, and a Lanzhou cultural industry that will focus on Yellow River culture. Additionally, we will carry out thirteen initiatives, such as protection of cultural heritage, and editing and publishing ancient books.
The first phase of the construction will last from the present to 2015, during which time we will introduce the overall plan. This phase will include effectively preserving certain key cultural relics and launching key programs to improve public cultural services, thereby spearheading the initial goals of the areas. The second phase will take place from 2016 to 2020, when we expect to protect the majority of cultural relics, build a sound public cultural service system, and build a distinct cultural industry base that can be a hub of cultural industry innovation in West China. Ultimately we hope to make the cultural industry a pillar industry in our national economy.
CSST: When building such areas, what problems especially deserve our attention?
Wang: Three issues merit special attention. Chiefly, in interacting with other cultures, there is a threat that a culture can lose its originality; we must take precautions to prevent the various cultures in Gansu from losing their originality. When talking about the development of traditional resources, people tend to think about developing tourism. However, in that equation we should also consider the environmental carrying capacity of the areas and the cultural space within the areas. In addition, we need to consider the extent to which the local people accept and support the initiatives. Undoubtedly, tourism would bring economic benefits. However, we need to ensure that it is the public that are the beneficiaries of tourism; this requires that bodies responsible for tourism administration work hard to put a scientific understanding of development into practice and revamp the current ideas and methods for developing tourist sites. In so doing, the tourists could become an integral component in the construction of these areas, serving as culture communicators and thus expanding the cultural space.
Concurrently, as culture is evolving, we must avoid stereotyping ethnic cultures and make sure we do not assume individual cultural traits to be indicative of or a substitute for the overall culture. For instance, people may think of the Mogao Grettoes at the mention of Gansu and broadswords at the mention of the Baoan ethnicity. However, is it true that the Gansu culture is all about the Mogao Grettoes? Can the rich culture of the Baoan nationality be represented simply by one single cultural symbol? We cannot just take everything for granted; instead, we should try to delve into the profound connotations of cultural relics.
In addition, research should be done to reveal the relations between traditional Chinese culture and modern culture, and the relations between traditional Chinese culture and ethnic cultures. Contemporary Chinese culture has absorbed elements from Western culture and traditional Chinese culture. Traditional Chinese culture absorbed elements from ethnic cultures. Created by all of the ethnic groups in China, traditional Chinese culture is an integrated and diversified one with various forms, offshoots and representations.
Lastly, overall measures should be taken for preservation and inheritance. For instance, we not only need to preserve traditional architecture and living spaces, but also the broader cultural environment. It is necessary to create a haven for those who have inherited these cultures, and to encourage them to foster more future transmitters of their culture and support them in this process.
CSST: By building these areas, how do we make traditional culture a “live culture” in the process of Chinese modernization?
Wang: This question has both theoretical and practical significance. The purpose of preserving culture is to develop culture. We object to going to either extreme in cultural preservation, i.e. cultural protectionism which advocates protection for protection’s sake, and cultural economism, which advocates the pursuit of economic interests blindly with no thought to cultural values. Traditional Chinese culture has different levels of values and various expressions of values. Constructing areas for inheritance and innovation of traditional Chinese heritage does not mean building an isolated cultural island in the torrents of modernization, but to establish a foothold for traditional culture such that is well poised to evolve and flourish. In so doing, we hope traditional Chinese culture can be modernized in such a way that holds true to its own inherent laws and is based on its own characteristics.
Lu Hang and Zhu Yi are reporters of Chinese Social Sciences Today.
The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 427, Mar 15, 2013.
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Translated by Jiang Hong