Cultural inheritor revitalizes intangible heritage among youngsters

By Chen Ziqi China Plus Published: 2018-03-28 13:51:34
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Reporter: Chen Ziqi; narrated by Luo Laiming

PPerformance of Imperial Academy Five Tiger Choreographic Cudgeling Battle was held in the Haidian District in Beijing. [Photo: from IC]

Performance of Imperial Academy Five Tiger Choreographic Cudgeling Battle was held in the Haidian District in Beijing. [Photo: from IC]

By June 2017, the UNESCO had recognized 39 intangible cultural heritages in China. They included, among many other things, paper cutting, the Dragon Boat festival, Peking opera, and the practice of acupuncture. Unfortunately some traditional cultures are struggling to remain popular among the younger generations, and there are fears that some legends may be lost. Thankfully a number of cultural enthusiasts are stepping into the breach to stop this traditional culture from vanishing and helping to revitalize them among the general public. 

[Photo: from IC]

[Photo: from IC]

Imperial Academy Five Tiger Choreographic Cudgeling Battle, or Wuhu gun for short in Chinese, is a folk performance combining martial arts with dance and music. Dating back to the Qing Dynasty, it was only performed for the imperial family during ritual ceremonies and at times when people had to be rescued from natural disasters. 

The name of this Chinese folklore relates to two elements: the Imperial Academy, or Han Linyuan in Chinese, which was an ancient government institution that choreographed this performance. It had the functions of composing imperial edicts, recording social events, revising historical documents, and attending the royal family members as they studied. The "Five Tigers", Wuhu in Chinese, refers to the five villainous characters in the story. None of the actors could perform the show without permission from the emperor.

[Photo: courtesy of Zhao Wenyue,the ninth inheritor of the Imperial Academy Five Tiger Choreographic Cudgeling Battle]

[Photo: courtesy of Zhao Wenyue,the ninth inheritor of the Imperial Academy Five Tiger Choreographic Cudgeling Battle]

In modern times, the Five Tiger Choreographic Cudgeling Battle has become a regular performance mainly seen at Temple Fairs during the Chinese Spring Festival, as part of the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations and hopes of good fortune for the new year.

The story is about Zhao kuangyin, who witnessed the Dong family brutally bullying people by extorting money from passers-by who wanted to cross a bridge.

Zhao Kuangyin was a hero and an upright person. To uphold justice for the poor people who had been paying illegal and unreasonable fees for years, he fought the five Dong brothers and secured the right for people to freely pass over the bridge.

When the Imperial Academy was dissolved with the demise of the Qing Dynasty, this priceless folklore almost disappeared from people's minds forever – until in December 2016, when the Five Tiger Choreographic Cudgeling Battle was listed as a Beijing Intangible Heritage by the Haidian District People′s Government and the Haidian District Cultural Commission.

Zhao Wenyue and his students [Photo:courtesy of Zhao Wenyue]

Zhao Wenyue and his students [Photo:courtesy of Zhao Wenyue]

This is in part down to the devotion of the ninth inheritor of this folklore, 39-year-old Beijing trolleybus driver Zhao Wenyue, who has tirelessly worked to revitalise and pass down the treasured folklore to future generations. Zhao has been studying the tradition since he was nine years old –thanks to his grandfather, a Chinese folklore enthusiast who gave him the opportunity to keep the almost forgotten art alive.

"When I was little, my grandfather often took me with him to participate in folk activities, with a lot of like-minded people performing cultural shows accompanied by traditional Chinese instruments, like drums and gongs. Then I became fascinated with folklore as well," Zhao says, " One day, I was recommended to meet the eighth inheritor of the Five Tiger Choreographic Cudgeling Battle, and then I started learning skills from Master Chen Xueliang."

Costumes of the ninth inheritor of the Imperial Academy Five Tiger Choreographic Cudgeling Battle [Photo:courtesy of Zhao Wenyue]

Costumes of the Imperial Academy Five Tiger Choreographic Cudgeling Battle [Photo:courtesy of Zhao Wenyue]

Zhao Wenyue learnt this choreographic cudgeling performance for more than 10 years. In 2001, Chen Xueliang encouraged him to take on the responsibility of spreading this culture. Zhao took on the duty and tried his best to fulfil Chen′s will, believing the first step of revitalizing the art is to inform more people about it.

"To gain recognition from our community, I performed a show for the neighbourhood committees. They were impressed by our costumes, movements and instruments and immediately acknowledged this art was a Beijing local folklore. Later, they invited me to join their folklore performing team. In this way, people get more chances to see performances of the Five Tiger Choreographic Cudgeling Battle. "

Zhao Wenyue realises that to successfully pass this culture down, he needs to disseminate all his knowledge to the people who are interested in it. That's why since August 2012 he's been using his weekends to voluntarily teach it to students in a residential park. These young students have been spotted learning new skills from Zhao in the Shuangyushu Residential Park one Sunday.

In recent years, with the support of the local government, the tradition has become a selective course in two primary schools in Beijing. Zhao Wenyue expresses his gratitude towards his company, because without their understanding and lenience over his working hours, he wouldn't be able to teach students in primary schools. He Zhiling is secretary of Zhao's company, the Beijing Public Transport Group, No. 4 Trolleybus Company.

"When our company heard Zhao Wenyue was promoting traditional Chinese culture, especially this famous performance from Beijing, we immediately supported him. His classes in the primary schools are arranged in the afternoon, but that was when his shifts started, so his work clashed with the classes. We decided to let him work the early morning shift, so he can finish work at around noon," said He Zhiling.

After the Five Tiger Choreographic Cudgeling Battle was declared a Beijing intangible heritage, Zhao Wenyue has received financial support from the Beijing Intangible Heritage Office. He says this definitely eases his financial burden.

"Our costumes are very expensive, because they are made by imitation embroidered fabric. Now, I feel like I'm not spreading this culture alone. Our government is financially assisting me, so I can buy more theatrical property for my students."

Zhao Wenyue is thrilled that the number of his students has increased to more than 200. Sadly, though, he says some students only practice this folklore for about a year and a half before they give it up because of their academic pressure. Zhao says he is determined that he won't stop popularising this culture to future generations just like his Master did before.

"The spirit of this show is to spread the sense of justice, maintain a feeling of compassion and encourage people to help the weak out of miserable situations, " Zhao Wenyue says, "I want to thank everyone for contributing to popularizing this folklore. We are all doing it voluntarily, not to make profit. I want more people to join us and revitalize this culture. We simply do not want to see our culture vanish."

Premier Li Keqiang has repeatedly stressed on many important occasions and conferences that culture is the blood and soul of Chinese people; and it is a common wish of all Chinese at home and abroad to inherit and promote traditional culture. Zhao Wenyue is one good example of so many cultural enthusiasts popularizing Chinese culture in their own way and with their whole heart. With their constant contributions and assistance from various sectors, there can be no doubt that it's a culture that will spread far and wide, across the world.

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