‘Worse Than the Cultural Revolution’: An Interview With Tian Qing

Tian Qing may be China’s leading cultural heritage expert. A scholar of Buddhist musicology and the Chinese zither, or guqin, the sixty-four-year-old now heads the Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Center, an institution set up by the government to protect China’s native traditions in the performing arts, cuisine, rituals, festivals, and other forms of culture. I spoke to him recently at his offices at the Academy of Fine Arts.

Ian Johnson: Sometimes I wonder if people want to have their old traditions protected. You note that people flood to museums, but in daily life it’s a different story.

Tian Qing: The problem is that modernization and protecting heritage are at odds with each other. It’s like driving a car and then you tell someone to look back. You can’t do it. On the one hand everyone says yes, yes it’s great, wonderful, let’s do it. But you say, for example, to a Miao woman, “Your clothes are beautiful,” but she says, “No, I want to wear jeans”. The old clothes are so difficult, they take half a year to make and you can’t wash them easily; jeans are better. Or you say to a Dong person [an ethnic minority concentrated in south China’s Guizhou province], “Your homes are great—wow, it’s made of bamboo, it’s great!”—and they say, “I don’t want it. It’s cold and there’s no running water”. People want modernization.

Can’t one unite the two? For example, Bach’s sacral music is now more often than not performed in a concert hall. The music has been preserved but has a different function in society.

It’s possible. But it can lead to horrible things too. In Yunnan Xishuangbanna [a popular tourist area in China’s far south] there’s a Water Splashing Festival of the Dai minority. It’s related to the birthday of Sakyamuni and used to be once a year. But now people splash water on you every day. As long as tourists come, they splash water. It’s lost its religious function.