Artistic restoration keeps traditions in villages

Author:QU XINGFU Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2021-12-23

As President Xi Jinping pointed out in the 19th CPC National Congress report, “cultural confidence represents a fundamental and profound force that sustains the development of a country and a nation.” That said, the creative transformation and innovative development of excellent traditional Chinese culture are much needed to enhance cultural confidence and cultural identity. 

As a carrier of Chinese culture, villages have important roles to play in this endeavor, so the exploration and restoration of excellent traditional culture in the countryside has gradually begun to boom. Artistic restoration in rural China has creatively transformed rural rituals and customs (lisu) in its unique way.

Fieldwork with the Xu Village project in Shanxi Province and Qingtian Village project in Guangzhou Province, two projects initiated by contemporary artist Qu Yan, has made clear the role of art’s potential in rural vitalization, to keep village rituals and customs alive in a gentle and flexible way.

Rural rituals, customs

The traditional Chinese village is an acquaintance society built on rituals and customs. The rituals and customs—as a normative framework for the organization of social, political, and economic life as grounded in “ethical relations”—are the concrete manifestation and extension of early Chinese ritual and music culture in village settings. In the imperial court, where officials deliberated on affairs of state in ancient China, rites and music served to anchor political life, maintain hierarchy in society, and regulate ordinary people.

However, in the countryside, rites and music moved beyond high society, were given new life, evolved, and eventually gathered into the customs of rural life, thus becoming representative of rural civilization and its value.

In the past hundred of years, the Chinese countryside suffered structural damage during turbulent times. Rural civilization and its value systems were also in crisis. One of the most prominent problems was the fracture and disintegration of rural traditions and customs. The ethical connotations of rural rituals and customs based on lineage, kinship, and clan systems were constantly challenged, the social structure and order of the countryside was disrupted, and people-to-people relationships became estranged and even antagonistic.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Chinese scholars Liang Shuming, Yan Yangchu, and others launched a vigorous “rural reconstruction movement” to transform society and save the countryside. It was in fact an enormously diverse movement varying in scale, goals, methods, and political outlooks which became referenced under the umbrella term “rural reconstruction.” Liang put forward several incisive theories on rural rituals and customs. He argued that in traditional Chinese society, “rituals and customs” from a Confucian tradition effectively extended over the entire social spectrum, so that, as we read in the classical text the Great Learning, “every single person, from the Son of Heaven down to the common man, considers cultivating oneself the foundation.”

Liang even describes the countryside as the “root” of society and the “home of humanity” as corresponding to the “formless root” of Chinese culture. Furthermore, rituals and customs are the “system” and “root” of rural culture, representing the fundamental truth of village life. However, rural construction experiments were prematurely ended in response to historic necessity.

At present, as socialism with Chinese characteristics enters a new era, artistic restoration in rural China closely follows the national strategy of rural vitalization. It aims to promote rural values and traditional culture, realize the creative transformation of rural rituals and customs, and transform the artistic culture with new forms of expression, to sustain the heritage of rural culture and allow it to resonate with the times.

Community with emotional bonds

In rural China’s artistic restoration, understanding rural rituals and customs comes in two layers. The surface level contains visible ceremonies for new birth, adulthood, marriage, funerary, and ancestral worships, as well as regional customs which include different seasonal festivals and folk activities. These are the rituals and customs inherited in rural life. The deeper layer contains those tangible or intangible systems and norms in rural areas, including local regulations, folk covenants, as well as folk beliefs inherited from past communities.

In contrast, deep-seated covenants and beliefs are more foundational, which points to the core of rural rituals and customs—a community with emotional bonds. It can also be said that the emotional bonds of villagers help rural traditions take root and develop. In other words, rituals and customs embody the power of morality, reflect the countryside’s values and beliefs, and form a stable system in which intimate emotional connections between people play a key role.

Reshaping a community with emotional bonds is the key to creative transformation of rural rituals and customs. The fundamental goal of artistic restoration in rural China is to focus on repairing interpersonal relationships, so that villagers can maintain emotional resonance and value identification.

Therefore, in the context of rural vitalization, the activation of rural rituals and customs through artistic means and media should not only focus on physical restoration, but also promote contemporary development of its meaning.

Localized approaches

The creative transformation of rural rituals and customs involves inheritance and activation, both are indispensable. Without inheritance, the activation of rituals and customs will become a rootless tree. Without the activation of the contemporary spirit, inheritance of customs will become an empty form of imitation.

The essence of artistic restoration in today’s rural China is to let villagers take initiative and adopt a localized and targeted approach. The central idea is to restore the countryside’s value system with art.

In the process of modernization, a dual organizational structure has formed between urban and rural areas. Cities have superior resources and have become dominant, while rural areas are in a weak position in the whole of society and in the value system. In light of this, artistic restoration in rural China strives to immerse artists in the country life, reexamine rural customs with keen artistic eyes, a modest attitude, and flexible means, to redefine its value.

The key link in the inheritance of rural customs is the confirmation and cultivation of subjectivity. In the face of the relative absence of villagers’ subjectivity and the lack of recognition of local customs and rituals, the primary task of artistic restoration in rural China is to activate and cultivate villagers’ awareness and recognition of rural culture. It means artists are sometimes mediators and coordinators between various entities, agencies, and organizations. In the two villages where I worked, we had to coordinate between villagers, the village committee, the local government, entrepreneurs, volunteers, scholars, artists, and academics, to reshape the cognition of and sentiment to the tradition of rural rites and customs.

In the meantime, regional rituals and customs originate from local knowledge and experience. Therefore, artistic restoration in rural China needs to move beyond delineating knowledge pedigrees of local cultural traditions and extract the essence of rural etiquette and customs on this basis. Furthermore, artistic elements are used as media to revive rural life’s cultural style, highlighting the symbolic significance of rural customs, rituals, and behaviors, as well as traditional construction, historical heritage, and folk arts and crafts. Ultimately, it points to the renewal of the cultural ecology of rituals and customs in the countryside, inheritance of traditional ceremonies and meanings of rites, and continuance of the spiritual connotations of rural culture.

Keep pace with the times

Rural rituals and customs can be activated with two words: intervention and timing. The former mainly refers to the gentle action of art intervention. It means that we must respect the cultural context and historic inheritance of rural rituals and customs, understand the context of rural culture, and choose measures that best conform to local conditions. The second, timing, involves taking the initiative to facilitate communication, enhance identification, and construct equal dialogue.

At the same time, rituals and customs are not only the product of tradition. They are also open to innovation. Therefore, based on the countryside’s reality, the practitioners of artistic restoration need to innovate etiquette and customs’ expression forms with contemporary elements. For example, at the “art dragon boat” festival in Qingtian Village, contemporary artists and villagers have renovated this traditional form of performance art, attracting both locals and visitors and injecting vigor to this small water town. Also, in Qingtian Village during the Mid-Autumn Festival folk activities, we reintroduced local customs that had been forgotten for several decades, added a festive atmosphere, and restored the lost coming-of-age ceremony for teenagers, and re-injected cultural connotation into folk activities, bridging history with the present and enhancing villagers’ sense of belonging and home.

Practical significance

In response to the national strategy of rural vitalization, artistic restoration in rural China is of important practical significance. To the hundreds of millions of Chinese who were born in the countryside, their village isn’t just the place where they live or a site of value production—it’s a spiritual home. That means artistic restoration is not just for their houses, but their livelihoods, their customs, their traditions, and their faiths. Going forward, the following three aspects must be addressed.

First, we need to construct a new form of rural rituals and customs, highlighting the value of contemporary rural culture. Societies and cultures are not static. They are living entities that are continually being renewed and reshaped. Rural rituals and customs also need to respond to the times and evolve accordingly. Second, villagers’ cultural awareness needs to be enhanced to cultivate a sense of rural confidence. In fact, in the process of village vitalization, the most effective method is community participation or community-based action. A good partnership between villagers and outsiders can lead to sustainable development of rural areas. For that to happen, we need villagers to take pride in their homes and identify with their local culture. Finally, the goal of combining contemporary art and rural life should be to identify and solve problems. It’s not all superficial events or performances, or making old things beautiful again. Artistic restorations need to integrate into the village. Rural reconstruction through the arts is a long journey that has just begun.


Qu Xingfu is from the Research Institute of Rural Arts and Construction at Guangdong University of Technology.


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