In small straw huts set along the river, men reach into cold pulpy water with large mesh racks, deftly picking up a thin sheet of pulp which they transfer to a stack of sheets. They are making paper in Heshui village, as they have for over 600 years.
The technology seems little changed: between the straw huts are brick and stone kilns, and wooden water wheels along the river bank are connected to wood mallets that help pound the wood pulp to prepare it for its transformation into paper.
Today one of the village leaders is making longer larger sheets that have been special ordered by a calligrapher in Hunan who appreciates their handmade quality. We will try the calligraphy later, and indeed the ink stays in its place, making clear marks on the linenlike surface, speckled with splinters of pulp but clean crisp and hard to the touch. There are 30 or 40 families that make paper in Heshui, and the lower sections of wooden walls on the houses are bleached white from years of hanging paper there to dry.
The traditional houses are in need of repair, protected by landmarks laws but decaying, In their ci tang or ancestral altars in the center of the sanheyuan courtyards you can find not only each family’s ancestors but also the name Cai Lun, the semi-mythical inventor of paper who lived two thousand years ago.
In most cases of intangible heritage, the challenge is to make sure the next generation carries on a tradition it may see as antiquated, but that is not the problem in Heshui. Here the young people want to make paper. The problem lies in the market – the profit margins on the paper are small and they have had to import some of the wood pulp they need. Outside of the special calligraphy paper, much of their handmade product is used for wrapping or even paper money that is burned for funerals and festivals.
This is what GHF is doing in Guizhou. With half a dozen partners, we will tackle the challenge of how to preserve a living landscape and traditional crafts and traditions in a modernizing world. If successful, this replicable model will work not simply throughout the province of Guizhou or the nation of China, but throughout the developing world.
Our partners are public and private, local, regional, national and international. Guizhou is poised on the cusp of change: modern highways are reaching into formerly remote rural areas, threatening traditional landscapes. The world heritage minority villages of Guizhou have numerous festivals and traditional crafts that will be attracting tourists from China and around the world. These villages are linked to a planned tourist circuit that includes the dramatic FanJing mountain as well as numerous scenic valleys set within sharp towering mountains shrouded in mist. The Guizhou project offers a rare opportunity to undertake planning before the hordes of tourists arrive.
The cultural landscape model is being promoted in China by Dr. DU Xiaofan, head of UNESCO in Beijing, one of our key partners in the project,. You Cheng, a pioneering Chinese NGO provides craft training to help local traditions find new purposes and new markets. The Cultural Ministry of Guizhou province is involved in conservation projects and training as well as helping coordinate community involvement. GHF’s China Director Han Li has been working with all of the partners for over a year, and all the partners are focused on insuring equitable community involvement.
GHF will focus on tangible heritage – the traditional houses, the squares where festivals are held, the lanes that link the houses in their mountainside setting, and the covered bridges and water wheels that make this a special place with a look all its own. We will help develop design guidelines so that the traditional houses still have a use and are not relegated to become museum pieces. Design guidelines will also help position new construction and insure that the significant features of these cultural landscapes – the elements that give them outstanding universal value – are preserved.
The urge to preserve our past comes from a recognition that tradition in both its tangible and intangible formats is being lost to the change incipient in modernity. It is not enough to save buildings alone if they are empty, unproductive shells that require massive subsidy. At the same time, we recognize the need to modernize. Heritage conservation is a community- and place-based process whereby a community determines what elements of its past it wants to have in its future in order to maintain its identity.