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Cultivation of relic restoration talent remains a tough task

Author  :  LI SIHUI     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2019-03-19

According to a media report, Shan Jixiang, curator of the Palace Museum, said in a forum at an annual conference on Feb. 17 that the documentary Masters in the Forbidden City has aroused the enthusiasm of many young people, and this year, a total of four thousand young people have registered for the examination to work in the Palace Museum and become masters of relic restoration in the museum.

Through the documentary Masters in the Forbidden City, in which the dignified and heavy gates of the Palace Museum open, the public can see the antique restoration techniques used for calligraphy, painting, bronzeware, imperial clocks, treasure inlays, court embroidery and other cultural relics. The documentary displays the process of restoring rare relics and the masters’ life stories, making the previously obscure relic restoration work increasingly popular. 

The fact that four thousand young people desire to become masters of relic restoration in the Palace Museum demonstrates the public’s enthusiasm to engage in relic restoration, which is worth celebrating. However, it should be noted that restoration work requires a long-term and arduous accumulation of craft. Most of the time, it is not as easy as a relic doctor performing miracles of resurrection, and it is not as aesthetic as the documentary shows. The work needs employees to endure loneliness, to buckle down and commit and bear hardships—even the patience of choosing one career and sticking to it all your life is required.

Being time-consuming with a low rate of return is one important reason for the serious shortage of relic restoration talent in China. In this sense, to make up for the shortage of relic restoration talent, the sector needs to be popularized and further enter the public eye. But high-profile public attention and discussion is not enough. As the Chinese saying goes, “Ten years’ hard work molds a sword”—persistent talent cultivation is also necessary. 

According to the surveys conducted by the National Cultural Heritage Administration, of the more than 30 million cultural relic holdings nationwide, half are damaged to a varying degree. In China, only about 2,000 people are actually engaged in the work of relic restoration, and there are almost no professional relic restoration personnel in many museums. Making up for the talent shortage is indeed urgent for relic protection.

However, making up for the talent shortage does not mean recruiting vast numbers. As some experts say, “It is easy to hire people, but the truly qualified are few.” For the restoration of calligraphy and painting alone, there are more than 30 procedures, each of which does not allow any sloppiness. The restoration procedures for other types of relics are also complicated. Detail is the key to success. How can practitioners make it without patience, perseverance and sense of responsibility? The relic restoration sector is highly specialized, and the professionals must receive long-term training before taking up their posts. Passion alone does not work. 

What is the method for talent cultivation? In many places in China, the training still follows the traditional way of skill inheritance: the master teaches the apprentice. Mostly the method is one-on-one or point-to-point. Multiple modes or any systematic training systems have not been established, which objectively results in the minority nature of relic restoration work.

In addition, many relic restorers are not satisfied in terms of their academic, social and economic status, which leads to the fact that talent depletion and loss in this sector is common. At one point there was a phenomenon of technical personnel who repaired bronze quitting their job to go repair air conditioners instead. This is worth the attention of the authorities. 

As the ancient Chinese said, “Better to preserve things in their old appearance if there is no good craftsman.” This stresses the professionalism and importance of a skillful craftsman. The cultivation of relic restoration talent must respect such professionalism and pay attention to the long-term arduous process of training. While the Palace Museum has become an online sensation, attracting many to actively enroll in relic restoration work, we need to see the other side of this spotlight—the shortage of relic restoration talent remains huge and talent cultivation remains a tough task.


This article was edited and translated from Guangming Daily. Li Sihui is a distinguished research fellow from the News Commentary Research Center at Huazhong University of Science and Technology.



(Edited by BAI LE)

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