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Mechanisms for growing China’s traditional craft industry

XIANG YONG | 2022-10-20 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

Woodcarving artisans at work in Nyêmo County, Lhasa Prefecture of the Tibet Autonomous Region in May, 2022. Photo: CFP 


Promoting the high-quality development of traditional crafts is an inherent requirement for the revival of traditional culture and cultural consciousness, and it has become a shared goal for Chinese people in contemporary life. China’s vast territory with thousands of years of agrarian civilization have given birth to splendid traditional crafts, constituting a rich and colorful intangible cultural heritage. Chinese traditional crafts include more than a dozen categories such as sculpture, ceramics, dyeing, the four treasures of study, engraving, painting, and weaving, which have greatly enriched the idyllic life of the Chinese people, enhanced agricultural productivity, and demonstrated the wisdom of Chinese people’s lives throughout history. 


Since the 19th century, following the invasion by western countries, foreign industrial products produced on a large scale were continuously off-loaded into China, fundamentally destroying the self-sufficient system of China’s farming civilization and gradually dismantling the original form of traditional crafts. After the reform and opening up, China accelerated industrialization and urbanization, but traditional crafts were still neglected. However, in the new century, especially in the new era, China’s comprehensive national strength has been continuously rising, national cultural confidence has been significantly enhanced, and the Party Central Committee has attached great importance to the inheritance and innovation of excellent Chinese traditional culture, and by vigorously promoting the revitalization and high-quality development of traditional crafts have been vigorously promoted. Through continuous creative transformation and innovative development, traditional crafts have returned to society in many forms, renewing their contemporary opportunities, returning to mainstream society, and recreating their cultural glory. They transform into trendy and fashionable new products and become an important means to empower people to live a better life. 


Protection mechanisms 

At the content production level, the implementation path for cultural connection, creative empowerment, and value symbiosis is being adopted. We should carry out overall planning and systematic design for the inheritance of excellent Chinese culture, protection of regional cultural heritage, and revitalization of local traditional crafts. We need to develop protection standards and build empowerment platforms for cultural dissemination, inheritance mechanisms, material innovation, process flow, creative design, quality improvement, and brand marketing for traditional crafts. Meanwhile, we should integrate traditional craft revitalization with people’s daily life and create a Chinese life aesthetic and quality lifestyle. 


At the technology and material level, we should actively promote the in-depth integration of traditional crafts with new materials and digital technology. Although traditional craftsmanship means to follow “inheritance” standards for inheritance and “orthodox” normmethods, this is the coalescence of the people’s craftsmanship. However, inheritance should keep up with the times, and orthodoxy should also follow current trends. We not only need to remain true to traditional crafts, but also to integrate them with modern technology. The industrial integration of traditional crafts should widely use new technologies, new materials, and new methods, combine traditional workshops with modern factories, and combine family business with enterprise business. We should enable traditional crafts to embody not only the beauty of exquisite and delicate hand-made crafts, but also the beauty of efficiency, utility, and function. We also need to use modern technology to better realize the protection and inheritance of traditional crafts. 


At the level of producing creative spaces, it is necessary to coordinate regional development, industrial upgrading, rural revitalization, urbanization, and other national spatial initiatives. We should actively support applications for UNESCO’s “City of Crafts and Folk Arts” by qualified towns with special crafts, make good use of the national brand of “Hometowns of Chinese Folk Culture and Art” township national brand built by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, and strengthen the development of traditional craft ecological reserves at all levels. We should also promote the revitalization of traditional crafts in the countryside and implement a plan for the high-quality development of traditional crafts in China’s major national historical and cultural cities. 


Explore empowerment paths 

Protecting traditional crafts can empower cultural industries and tourism. The modernity of traditional crafts is reflected in the confrontation between hand-made objects and machine production, and the complementarity between the beauty of life and pure beauty. As a part of intangible cultural heritage, traditional crafts are a living traditional culture and a craft of creation. Human beings are the carriers of traditional crafts. Human beings serve as a living creative labor force in the process of producing traditional crafts, which is a technically rational transcendence of the “alienation of human labor” caused by mass machine production, and can effectively correct the one-sided development of “one-dimensional human beings.” In the process of creating traditional crafts, people can feel the whole process of labor and experience a pure state of body-mind unity and human-material unity. 


Therefore, localities across China can combine traditional crafts with regional culture and local customs, hold experience workshops and handicraft experiments, and organize courses for studying and experiencing traditional crafts, thereby stimulating the creativity of tourists, letting them experience the joy of making things with their own hands, developing educational tours, driving the sales of handicrafts and agricultural products, and creating villages and towns with the special characteristics of traditional crafts. For example, Danzhai Wanda Town in Yunnan boasts eight national types of intangible cultural heritage and 22 twenty-two versions of provincial intangible cultural heritage, including traditional Miao crafts such as batik, birdcages, ancient paper making, Miao embroidery, silver ornaments, and oil paper umbrellas, making it a preferred destination for tourist intangible heritage enthusiasts. 


Protecting the productive skills of traditional crafts can empower modern manufacturing. Traditional crafts are practical crafts. Adhering to the principle of productive conservation, their revitalization supports heritage preservation, they innovate through inheritance, and develop in innovation, reflecting the inter-generational perseverance of craftsmanship and the contemporary inheritance of the spirit of making things. Traditional crafts can become an important means to supplement the skills of, and upgrade the quality of, modern product manufacturing. 


With the rapid development of machine industry and digital technology, the production of modern products uses different methods such as mass production, limited customization, and artisanal handicrafts, which can meet the common needs of the people for mass, large-scale, and low-cost products, as well as people’s individual needs for uniqueness, niche goods, and spirituality. 


As an artisanal production method, traditional crafts can meet the special needs of specific groups of people, and can also fully leverage the unique value of traditional crafts in terms of materials and techniques. They can help promote the combination of traditional crafts and modern industries, improve the quality of modern industries’ crafts, and add value to modern products. For example, after pioneering a three-dimensional modeling and engraving technology, namely, the chamfering and demoulding method, the Franz Collection has vigorously promoted research and development of new technologies such as 3D printed ceramics, porcelain invisible orthodontics, porcelain tooth color digitization, and so forth. It applies traditional ceramic craftsmanship to new fields such as plastic surgery, aerospace engineering, and cultural equipment, diversifying the application scenarios for traditional crafts. 


Protecting the public nature of traditional crafts can empower the people’s common prosperity. Traditional crafts are the people’s crafts or collective crafts, reflecting the beauty of society and the public. We should focus on overall regional protection and systematic ecological construction. Traditional crafts often represent the overall skill level and symbolic public understanding of a place and are special carriers of geographical indications and unique manifestations of origin identities. Although a traditional craft has a clear national, provincial, or municipal non-genetic inheritor, the values, aesthetic style, specific skills, craft standards, and special materials embedded in the traditional craft are common property belonging to the region in which it is located, and its value effects should rightly be shared by the people of the region. 


For example, Wangbo Village in Bazhou City, Langfang, Hebei Province, made the traditional craft of “Jingzuo”[Peking style] hardwood furniture carpentry a local public brand, standardizing the production process for the traditional Peking-style craft, of “Jingzuo” such as modeling, design, material production, woodworking, carving and decoration, scraping and polishing, lacquering and waxing, etc. It gathered more than 70 handicraft workshops which it and developed together. Wangbo village has become a well-known “Jingzuo” mahogany furniture production base in north China. It created more than 1,500 jobs for the villagers, achieving industrial development for Wangbo the village and the common prosperity of the villagers. 


In short, traditional crafts are China’s living “flow of culture,” and a “living tradition” that the Chinese people can feel. To let traditional crafts both “pass on” and “live” is the inner embodiment of the mission of inheritance and innovation for excellent Chinese traditional culture. This is also an external sign that the people’s needs for a better life have been met. Chinese traditional crafts and the advanced culture of the times complement each other, forming an important cornerstone for the development of a strong socialist cultural state with Chinese characteristics and a manifestation of cultural self-confidence on the road to the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. 


Xiang Yong is the director of the Institute for Cultural Industries at Peking University. 




Edited by WENG RONG