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Forbidden City masters: Revitalizing traditions through modern creativity

Author  :  ZHANG TIE |     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2017-01-18

A restorer cleans a small figure of Buddha for an exhibition in the Palace Museum in January.

Early in 2016, the three-episode TV documentary Masters in the Forbidden City was broadcast on China Central Television. It became an instant online hit. Receiving 2 million views, it was rated by Internet users as one of the most influential documentaries. The film version was screened in December 2016 and the book was published on Jan. 1, 2017.

The film looks at relics and antiquity restoration professionals, and uncovers the spirit of craftsmanship and the group’s daily life with jokes and laughter.

Whether it is the Along the River During the Qingming Festival with more than 800 figures in it, longevity screens full of gold embroidery, or carved wooden Buddha statues with solemn and serene faces, these magnificent cultural relics, dusted and damaged as they may be, are brought back to their previous brilliance at the magic hands of the masters.

As the documentary impressed millions of viewers and scored an impressive rating on a major video-streaming website in China, the technicians have risen to be heroes among many members of China’s post-80s and post-90s generations.

Scrubbing the rust off the bronzeware so that the cabinet radiates, adjusting the gears on the clock so that the wild ducks start to spread their wings, painting the musical instrument again and again so that it regains its glory, the masters in the Forbidden City gaze through time and dialogue with history at their finger tips. After all, the world of antiquities restoration is filled with vigor, conviction, and inner peace.

Through various art forms, the series Masters in the Forbidden City offers audiences a chance to peer into the “resurrection” of treasures. It also provides glimpses of the everyday life as well as the philosophy of the masters. The film focuses on how preservation techniques are handed down between generations, the influences of people and the relics, and the notion of cultural heritage.

As Shi Ningchang, head of the Palace Museum’s conservation department, put it, the film showcases the people who preserve these relics as patient and persistent people who spare no effort in what they see as a meaningful career.

What strikes the audience the most is the “deadly charm” of the technicians. It is in essence the everlasting but long-lost spirit of craftsmanship. Shan Jixiang, director of the museum, said that craftsmen gain excellence through endless time and practice, and what matters more is the spirit behind their skills.

Behind the high walls of the Forbidden City, there is a place that has not been opened to the public. The nothing but ordinary courtyard is the only place in the Palace Museum with access control. The conservation department is located in the yard, like a “hospital for conservation.” Outside there are exhibitions while inside it is quite a different world where masters give a second life to the antiquities.

Since the Palace Museum set up the conservation department in 1950 and expanded in the 1980s, the masters have restored a total of 110,000 relics.

The restoration workers, though not legends, pass on their techniques and spend their entire lives in the pursuit of perfection. They are living exemplars of the spirit of craftsmanship.

When the restored pieces are put on display, viewers cannot help but be impressed. Though the excited young viewers might not really go into a career in antiquities restoration, the legacies of the craft and spirit passed on by the masters is likely to win more understanding and recognition.

Editor: Yu Hui

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