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Crusade to save the vanishing Hezhe culture
Latest Updated by 2006-05-23 11:08:34
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ALTHOUGH the Hezhes, one of the smallest ethnic groups in China, located in the northeastern part of the country, have seen a population resurgence after they were almost wiped out by the 1940s, their traditional culture still faces extinction as the young generation embraces modernity.

Liu Sheng, a Han (China's dominant population group) and a former public servant in Tongjiang City in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, has embarked on a crusade to help salvage the Hezhe culture since her retirement in 1998.

"At the time I retired, I began to learn to make traditional Hezhe fish-skin clothes from my husband's aunt Liu Cuiyu, who is now 81, as a way to pass time," she said. "But as I learned more about the Hezhe culture, I began to love it and thought something must be done to stop the distinctive culture from edging toward extinction."

The population of the Hezhes, a tribe of nomadic people in Heilongjiang, dwindled to a mere 300 by 1949 due to genocide by the Japanese invaders. Since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the Hezhes have made speedy advances in economic development and healthcare, and the population has grown to about 5,000.

The population resurgence, however, did not bring about a renaissance of their culture. The Hezhe language has been moving toward extinction as only those over 50 can still understand and speak the language. Their traditional way of living has also fallen out of fashion since the mid-20th century. By the time Liu Sheng began to make fish-skin clothes, Liu Cuiyu was believed to be the only person still practicing the craft.

"Aunt Liu Cuiyu has been in poor health due to old age. If I don't preserve the 'fish-skin culture,' the living fossil will definitely fall into oblivion," Liu Sheng, 57, said during an interview with the Shenzhen Daily on Friday at the Shenzhen Convention and Exhibition Center, where she was promoting the endangered culture at the Heilongjiang pavilion at the Second China (Shenzhen) Culture Industry Fair.

"So I made up my mind to do all I could to save the memories in the Hezhe people that were going to be lost forever if nothing was done."

With the help of her husband, You Gengshen, a Hezhe, Liu Sheng reconstructed the traditional fish-skin clothes, fish-skin carvings of totems, and other traditional Hezhe art forms according to pictures and texts in books written by renowned ethnohistorian Ling Chunsheng (1902-1981) in the 1930s.

The fish-skin clothes and totems, both required in traditional sacrifices, best represent the Hezhe culture, unique among the cultures of China's 56 ethnic groups. Liu Sheng said she is the only person who still makes the traditional Hezhe fish-skin clothes. Besides fish-skin art works, she uses paper cutting to record the traditional Hezhe way of life.

Her efforts paid off. In 2004, her entry, clothes made of salmon fish skins, won the gold prize at the "Mountain Flower Prize" national folk art contest, following local honors in 2002 and 2003.

It wasn't easy. It took her five years to finish the complete series of traditional Hezhe fish-skin clothes, 33 pieces altogether: "After the fish skins were sun-dried, I rolled a wood rod on the skins until they were as flat as paper. And then I used my bare hands to rub the fish skins thousands of times until they were as soft as a piece of cotton fabric," Liu said. She then sewed the fish skins together.

"It's exhausting work. My hands often blistered," she recalled.

Hard labor was not the only challenge. Making the clothes and championing the "fish-skin culture" at folk art exhibitions around the country burned up much of her savings. She and her husband are not rich, living on their pensions, a meager 1,000 yuan (US$125) each month for Liu Sheng, and 1,700 for her husband. "I know our local government is not rich, so I didn't expect to get a single yuan of public money," Liu said.

Liu Sheng's crusade moved to new fronts when she was hired as visiting professor teaching Hezhe culture by the Humanities School of Jiamusi University in Heilongjiang Province last November.

Liu Sheng is also happy that primary schools in Tongjiang have begun to use the first textbook in the Hezhe language, improving the chances of preserving the language.

She was excited to learn that the fish-skin clothes making techniques have been listed by the Central Government in the Intangible Culture Heritage as part of China's efforts to preserve cultures of some ethic groups on the verge of extinction. Following the listing, the Heilongjiang provincial government has asked her to recruit apprentices to pass down the fish-skin clothing skills.

While she credited her husband's help for her achievements, he believes she is doing a "deep favor" for the future generations of the Hezhes. "He once told me: 'I would like to express gratitude to you on behalf of the Hezhe people's ancestors and descendants,'" said a smiling Liu Sheng.

Editor: Wing

By: Source: Szdaily web edition
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