Yunnan Province protects an ancient craft from folding up
Preserving a paper-thin past
By Zuo Xuan
On the foot of Yulong Mountain in Southwest China’s Yun- nan Province, lies the small village of Kenpeigu, once famous for its handmade paper, the production of which dates back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). It is called Dongba paper after the religion of the local Naxi ethnic group because it was used to record religious text in pictographic script. While enduring for hundreds of years, the industry withered away during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when all religions were tagged as superstition and banned.
By sheer chance, in 1991, a villager He Shengwen, then 42, learned that the Dongba Cultural Research Center in Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province, was looking for Dongba paper for research. He went back to his village and with the help of his father-in-law, an old Dongba priest who knew the pa- permaking skills, he made 23 pieces of paper and sold them to the researchers.
Dongba paper, made from a local plant called canescent wikstroemia and with the traditional tools is mothproof
and resistant to decay. It was also improved over the years to become stronger and more absorbent.
Inspired by the new interest in the paper, He set out trying to revive and commercialize the handmade paper.
He did not realize his dream, but saw others take it from him when Li- jiang, a prefecture-level city about 100 kilometers to the southeast of Kenpeigu, gained momentum with throngs of travelers buying fake Dongba products from the shops in the ancient town. His paper, made from canescent wikstroemia, was largely replaced by paper made of cheaper materials or imported from Thailand and Japan.
In 2006 when Yunnan Province recommended that Dongba paintings and paper to be listed as a National Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH), the local governments made a “com- promise under the table.” A craftsman named He Xun in the Lijiang area was designated as the official successor for creating Dongba paintings while He Zhiben, an 84-year-old Dongba and villager from Baishuitai, or White Water Terraces, a place thought to be the origin of the Dongba religion and a part of the Shangrila area, of Dongba paper.
He Shengwen and Kenpeigu, despite being most competitive when it came to papermaking, lost the game on both fronts because the village belongs to Lijiang area designated for the paint- ings.
He Shengwen died last year of emphysema at the age of 60. Although his son and daughter also mastered papermaking, they dropped it in order to return to farming following their father’s disappointing experience.
Outsiders patent the process
According to statistics, there are only six households among the Naxi ethnic groups who have mastered and practice Dongba papermaking. Five are in Kenpeigu. The process involves several steps including boiling, rinsing, grinding and drying the plant. Kenpeigu boosters say that their method is superior to other villages because it is the only one that can remove a small toxin from the plant that can cause a skin rash to the paper makers.
“I felt hopeless seeing travelers buy a lot of the fake Dongba paper while the real one was ignored,” He Shen- gwen once told two researchers from Kunming.
“I should have sued the pirate producers. But after a second thought I gave that up...I could not afford the legal fees and didn’t know who to accuse or even where the papers in Lijiang come from.”
He also had planned to apply for patent protection. However, he was told the technique for making Dongba paper belongs to the whole ethnic group and thus he could not claim the process.
However in 2005, two people of Han nationality in Lijiang received patents for making Dongba paper by changing the traditional canescent wikstroemia paper pulp to mulberry and slightly tweaking the production process.
Li Jun, one of the patentees, now runs a “Dongba paper workshop” store in Lijiang. With a series of paper products ranging from books, envelopes, stationery and religious items, the shops claim a yearly turnover of more than one million yuan ($147,045).
Villager He Shengwen never figured out why people outside the village were able to patent Dongba papermaking while he, a traditional Naxi farmer, was barred from the door.
Depletion of raw materials
Papermaking is one of the “four great inventions of ancient China.” According to Encyclopedia Britannica, in about 105 AD, Cai Lun, an official of the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD), created a sheet of paper using mulberry and other fibers along with fishnets, old rags, and hemp waste.
The techniques spread through China with the migration of Han people and were adapted by the locals for their specified needs and available raw materials. The Naxi people use canes- cent wikstroemia as its basic material, while in many other places in Yunnan Province, mulberry and edgeworthia gardneri (also known as the Nepal paper tree) are more commonly used. Bamboo husks are popular among paper mills in Guizhou Province.
According to Long Wen, an editor of Intellectual Property Publishing House and a long-time researcher on preserving intangible cultural heritage, canescent wikstroemia was ubiquitous along the Tinsha River (the upper section of the Yangtze River, also known as Jingshajiang) till the 1980s when paper mills outside Yunnan came to the villages and purchased massive amount of the plant for the raw mate- rial to manufacture paper.
“The locals used to harvest the yellow-flowered plant in a rotating order according to its maturity. But lured by the quick money they rushed to reap out every single plant, be it young or full-grown,” Long said. “Now there is only about one plant on every 10,000 square meter of land in the region and mostly in the remote mountains.”
According to records, 200 twigs with diameters between 1 to 1.5 centi- meters produce about 3 kilograms of pulp, which in turn, can produce 60 pieces of paper 25 centimeters wide and 60 centimeter in long. One plant normally has three to five twigs, so to make 10,000 piece of Dongba paper at one time means rooting out 100 square kilometers of the now-rare plant.
Protecting the paper
Because of the Dongba paper plight, experts attached great importance to its research and protection. “The papermaking process carries the cultural gene of the Chinese nationality. We preserve it not because it is indispensable to the life of modern society but because it contributes to the cultural diversity and will be priceless to the human society in the long run,” said Long.
On August 23, the draft of a protection Law on ICH was submitted to the bimonthly session of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress(NPC), according to Xinhua News Agency.
“It’s urgent that China enacts a law to strengthen the protection and preservation of ICH since some of them are being destroyed by modern lifestyles,” said Minister of Culture Cai Wu while explaining the draft law to the NPC Standing Committee. The law is to provide legal status to the policies and measures taken to safeguard the ICH.
“The law started with good intention,” said Long. “But I sincerely hope it can help clarify the division of ben- efits between heirs of the cultural heritages, local governments and traveling agencies. In many cases, the govern- mental and business benefits take away those of the heirs and the law should protect the weaker parties.”
A new future
“As we see it, to preserve the papermaking heritage is to develop it in a proper way... which is to say, in a way that keeps the essentials but with improvements to suit the needs of modern society,” said Yi An, a painter and developer of the museum, which is made of environmentally friendly materials including wood, bamboo and float stones.
Tengchong county once an excel- lent reputation for hand-made xuanzhi – a high quality paper that used for traditional Chinese paintings and calligraphy. But the quality of the paper deteriorated in recent years’ due to decreased demand.
“The paper was most commonly used by the local households to pack tea or make the Taoist magic figures and incantations and so the craftsmen really didn’t need good quality,” said Yi. “But we told them that they should improve the quality because the paper is now used for making fine arts. We sent them paper made in Japan and Nepal and told them that’s our standard. So far, they have already made rapid progress.”
In Yi’s studio in Beijing, Tengchong paper is made into fans, umbrellas, notebooks, lampshades and wrappers with fashionable designs.
“It impresses me that the government of Tengchong has a better understanding of environment and culture heritage protection,” said Yi. “I crossed over the Gaoligong mountains in March with a local guide and he warned me of their rules at the foot of the mountain: ‘Travelers are not allowed to take even one fruit from the mountain.’ The awareness of the locals like him is the hope for all our work.”