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

Roundup: Talking About History

Ian Johnson writes from Beijing and Berlin on religion and society. His most recent book is A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West.

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. As Tian notes, these are gaining in popularity but the nature of this revival is ambiguous: Are they being recovered as living traditions or as objects for urbanized Chinese to enjoy as tourists in their own land?

Tian grew up in Shandong province but his education was interrupted by the Cultural Revolution. He spent five years as a “sent-down youth” on an agricultural production team in Heilongjiang province. Nearly thirty by the time he graduated from college, he moved to Beijing to work as a musicology professor at the Chinese Academy of Fine Arts; in recent years he has served primarily as a cultural official. Along with running the Intangible Cultural Heritage center, he sits on the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress, a body of cultural and social figures that advises the government on policy, as well as half a dozen other government bodies. I spoke to him recently at his offices at the Academy of Fine Arts, which are stuffed with volumes of research, scrolls, recordings, and papers.


...How do you feel about your work? It sounds hopeless.

No, we’ve had some successes. One is the national holidays. In the past we just had three: Chinese New Year, Worker’s Day on May 1, and National Day on October 1. But now we’re celebrating soon the Qingming Tomb-Sweeping Holiday on April 4 [during which families visit cemeteries and leave offerings or flowers for departed ancestors] and we have others as well. A few years ago the government announced that half a dozen traditional holidays were now national holidays. That changed people’s awareness. Most young people are still more interested in Western holidays like Valentine’s Day. But now people are aware of these other festivals and some will learn about the stories behind them or the traditions associated with them.

The real problem is modernization. It’s worse than the Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution was forced on people. But modernization is yearned for by people themselves, it’s their own desire. You can’t force the Miao girl to wear traditional garb. If she wants to wear jeans, she will.

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