Erenlai - Items filtered by date: Wednesday, 20 June 2007
Remembering and Creating Anew

Recently, I met with a young Naxi scholar, whose hometown is Lijiang. He was lamenting the environmental and cultural exploitation of the region. While Naxi culture seems a “hot” commodity, the actual preservation of the inheritance is almost non existent and the area’s deforestation is a sad symbol of the population’s “deculturation.”
At some point in the discussion, my friend used an expression that struck me ‘All our cultural resources are transformed into cultural capital” he said. The formula goes far indeed, and I would like to say how I understand it, and what it inspires in me.

“Cultural resources” are ways of life, practical knowledge, belief systems or landscapes and cultural relics that belong to a community as a whole. The community takes its sense of identity from them, it uses them as tools for preserving and adapting its existence. It is ultimately the stuff from which people are able to enrich and create new resources that will help their descendants to go on with the task of living a meaningful existence. Cultural resources are a product of time, are nurtured by time and evolve with time.

“Cultural capital” makes such resources a “commodity” that can be priced, privatized, and transferred, while striving to get the best profit in the shortest time-span. The accumulation of cultural knowledge and the control of cultural goods are then used in such a way so as to confer money, power and status. This is exemplified in the way tourism nowadays is often conceived and conducted: not as a way of enhancing a community as a whole but rather as an appropriation of landscapes and relics to the profit of some people, to the extent that the life of many of those who were living in the original environment is actually spoiled.

The “commodification” of cultural resources is indeed a phenomenon that is seen in the whole world, including China. Its effects are particularly felt in minority areas. It is certainly not easy to remedy such situations. Changes in property laws constitute one direction: there are duties to fulfill when it comes to biodiversity, beauty of landscapes or water conservation, and, conversely, these resources can be treated as assets. Community awareness and search for a balanced developmental model are attitudes to be fostered in the long term, through the granting of more local autonomy. More important even is to cherish “culture” as a way towards full humaneness, as an endeavor that develops throughout history and by which humankind pursues a quest towards self-realization. In this light, if cultural resources are to be protected and preserved, rather than privatized and marketized, it is not only out of respect for the past, it is because they allow us to continue to invent and to adapt.
My Naxi friend does not content himself with complaining and lamenting. He collects texts and testimonies, and considers writing as his mission. Let us continue to collect and create, even among the cultural ruins we are witnessing today. In time of protest and emergency, the human mind often displays its full creative power.


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Thursday, 21 June 2007 04:14

The Time of a Flight

I took these pictures while flying from Beijing to Frankfurt through the North road during the winter of 2006. Rivers were struggling with ice, signs of human life were alternating with endless wilderness, the magic of white was broken by zigzags of black and grey, the lines of the Earth seemed to have been created by the strokes of a gigantic Chinese brush... Transformations of Time and Space were melting into one...

Looking again and again at these pictures makes me meditate on the wonders of the planet, the frailty and stubbornness of life, the splendor and rigor of winter from which, at last, spring germinates and triumphs. Of course, such meditation has inspired countless generations of human beings, but each one of us has indeed to make it his own, to feel anew what it means for us, to transform the images of the Earth into images from the heart.

The more so when these wonders are threatened by our recklessness. Looking at images might help us to ponder what we are up to and the choices we have to make. Black, white and grey are always struggling on the surface of the earth, but as the struggle is endless so is their harmony. Should the struggle end by the victory of one of the protagonists, the harmony (and life itself) would cease also. May we preserve the subtle balance of all the colors and nuances of our planet…

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I have been doing photo reporting in China’s southwest for the last twenty five years or so, and am struck more and more deeply by the riches of the intangible patrimony that can be found from one place to another. This is not only the result of the variety of people and ethnic groups, this is also the fruit of encounters, adaptations, migrations, cross-fertilization. At its best, cultural diversity is not the addition of different traditions living in isolation, it is rather the web of evolving ways of life that take inspiration from each other and add up in a creative pattern of colors, feasts, beliefs, craftsmanship and social organizations.

Cultural riches are the process of a long evolutionary process. A culture grows like a tree, nurtured by time, love and aptiience. This is something that we need to remind ourselves, as China’s development relies now on speed and immediate profit.

Nowadays, the ecology and culture of China’s southwest, especially of minority areas, is fragile. Traditions are not eternal. They adapt, they die, they are recreated… What I feel sure of is the fact that these riches are not only a treasure of the past, they are indispensable tools for tackling the challenges that come from natural and cultural erosion. When I travel on the highlands of Ganze, I feel the impact of a way to deal with natural phenomena, animals and other people that, for sure, cannot be repeated in the cities but can still inspire our behaviors and help us to articulate a wisdom for today.

I deeply hope that this diversity will be preserved, enhanced and more and more appreciated. Ultimately, the cultural diversity of China is what should make it able to renew in depth its spiritual civilization. A civilization that has blossomed through patience and wisdom....


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