Lament for Chinese toys of old

Globalization and China's opening threaten a folk culture that had

It's an unlikely venue for a toy show. Paramilitary troops and surface-to-air missiles guard this vast, Soviet-style exhibition palace in western Beijing, but they are unlikely to fend off a long-running assault on the fragile materials inside.

The Museum of Military Affairs is showcasing Beijing opera masks, giant pinwheels, hand-inscribed paper balls, and other antique playthings that are likely to fall victim to the march of time and forces of globalization.

"China's market reforms and opening to the world have been great for the economy, but are threatening the survival of folk toys and other remnants of our cultural past," says toy collector Liang Zuwang.

Mr. Liang organized the just-opened exhibit of ancient toys at the unlikely military museum forum in a bid to preserve this piece of the Chinese arts into the next century.

China's two-decade drive toward global integration has unleashed rapid-fire changes here: Chinese youths drink Coca-Cola while watching "Star Wars" or surfing the Web, and a generation gorge separates them from their grandparents. Mickey Mouse, Belgian cartoon character Tin Tin, and Sony PlayStations have invaded Chinese toy stores, and children across the country are in danger of losing all ties to their cultural roots, says Liang.

"Kids today only want to play with electronic games that bring instant gratification and happiness," he says. "The simpler toys of the past forced children to use their imagination, and each toy carried a treasure house of information about China's past and its evolution."

Liang's nearby courtyard home, in the middle of a maze of hutongs, narrow alleyways, is a time capsule of toys from virtually every corner of China and every stage of its millennia-long history.

The retired toy-factory manager has traveled from the northern steppes of Inner Mongolia to the southern tropics of Hainan Island in his quest to rescue traditional toys.

"These tiny people," says Liang as he points to a group of inch-high, hand-painted clay figures, "represent Beijingers at the turn of the 19th century." The Chinese Lilliputians include stilt-walkers, a hawker banging a tin drum to advertise his wares, and a craftsman preparing to mend an iron bowl.

"They have all faded from Beijing's streets, and now their replicas could completely fade from our memories as the last artisans who create these figures die," says Liang.

Holding up an intricately painted shadow puppet, the collector explains how the first Chinese screen stars evolved. "These puppets were used as far back as the Song Dynasty (960-1279)," he says. Backlit by lanterns, the puppets' shadows would race across a white cloth screen as narrators and minstrels related tales of war, comedies, and folklore to entranced audiences. The shadow puppets flourished during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties, Liang says, but now face their second brush with extinction.

The first came with Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, when "Mao tried to destroy every aspect of our cultural legacy" to pave the way for a new communist society, he says. Traditional artists were jailed or put to work in Mao's propaganda machine.

Although traditional art and toys saw a small-scale renaissance following Mao's passing in 1976, they now face a generation born in the middle of a computer revolution, where yesterday's trends fade with mouse-click speed.

"Why would anyone want to watch shadow puppets when he can watch movies?" asks 10-year-old Li Chen.

Fifth-grader Li and collector Liang live just a few miles from each other, but they seem to inhabit different worlds.

Li says he likes to eat at Kentucky Fried Chicken, watch Japanese cartoons, and "sing along to pop songs from Hong Kong or Taiwan."

Li, an only child due to China's population control policies like millions of his compatriots, brags that he has 30 to 40 remote-control cars and more than 20 computer games on CD-ROM. But Li dispels Liang's theory that virtual toys are creating a generation of passive and unimaginative youths.

"Computer war games make you plan strategies, and you have to think very quickly during race-car driving." Li says that when he grows up, he has two career ideals, one a bit more altruistic than the other.

"I might go to study in America so I can bring back science and high technology to help make China the greatest country in the world." Or, he wants "to join the NBA and become very tall."

Liang is probably facing a tough sell in trying to coax China's high-tech, world-savvy urban youths to embrace nonelectronic pinwheels and puppets of the past, but he still hopes to find a long-lasting sanctuary for his collection after the exhibit at the museum ends next week.

Liang says his only alternative might be to ride rather than resist the tides of globalization. "Maybe I could send my toy collection on a traveling exhibition to the West, where people might appreciate the richness of China's cultural past."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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