Wooden and paper-made toys covered with cloth, together with unique arts and crafts rarely seen in superstores and temple fairs, line the shelves in Shengtang Xuan, a 12-square-metre shop on Guozijian Dajie in Beijing's downtown area.
The shop, whose name means "Studio of Prosperous Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907)," was owned by Tang Qiliang, 89, a Beijing-based craftsman famous for making the toys since early last century.
"It aimed to save and promote Beijing's folk toys and other remnants of Beijing's cultural past, but the past three years have witnessed only a small group of visitors," said Tang Yujie, the craftsman's daughter.
Tang Yujie learnt how to make these folk toys from her father. She turned down a chance to live overseas before Shengtang Xuan opened early in January 2003 and began helping her father look after the shop.
"Now only some senior residents with folk arts background and other small groups of foreigners who have showed interests in Chinese traditional culture visit our shop," she said.
However, she was happy to see that the cloth toys in her family were widely recognized at a forum last year by Chinese folk artists, who proposed that the toys be included as a form of intangible cultural heritage that developed in Beijing.
"The proposal made me realize that my family's cloth toys might not disappear someday," Tang said. "But arousing full awareness from the public for protection is a must if we're going to keep the art of folk toys going."
Tang has begun to worry whether this form of folk toys, with a history of more than 100 years, can survive in her family as none of the children seems interested in it.
"Young people these days are showing less interest in the toys," said Tang, whose brother, for instance, is not in the trade and earns more money working in a Beijing coal factory.
"I would teach anyone for free how to make these toys," she said.
"Many of folk artists have passed away; as a result, many other forms of folk toys have also faded away."
In China, folk toy making is a skill often handed down from generation to generation within the same family. Tang's forefathers arrived in Beijing early in the 17th century as members of the Blue Banner group, a battalion of soldiers during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
As a way to support a soldier's meagre income, Tang Qiliang's great-grandfather began making cloth toys, handicrafts that had Manchu roots.
At age 10, Tang Qiliang began learning from his father how to make the toys. He also had to sell them and transport to markets around the city. When Tang Yujie and her brother learnt from him, they represented the fifth generation involved in the craft.
But in this age of digital electronics and computer games, folk toys can hardly compete.
Of the craftsmen in folk toys who are still living, many "don't want to teach someone outside their families, and their own children are showing less interest in their arts," Tang said.
The registered number of folk artists engaged in making toys in Beijing Toy Association now stands at only about 130, according to Wang Zhengrong, the association's deputy-standing chairman.
Even China's reform and opening-up, and today's more globalized economy, have their effect. Wang cited the increasing number of imported toys, such as Disney products and Lego, which make up almost half of the toy market in China, and modern computer games, such as PlayStations, as factors.
Gone are the days when children had fun with small cymbals, bells and little gongs, familiar instruments of traditional Chinese folk music, along with shaken drums and bird-shaped whistles. Almost all of them have faded from urban streets and even rural areas.
"In an era of video and battery-operated games, folk toys have limited marketability," Wang said. "Children like today's toys because they have more pretty appearances and contain more high technology compared with traditional folk toys."
Another factor: Because folk toys are usually made in the artists' small workshops, the production is time-intensive but limited in number, Wang said.
Although Chinese folk toys enjoy a history as old as the country itself and serve as a means through which Chinese people can express their hopes and affection towards their children, the sophistication of today's children limits their appreciation for the folk toys' simple function and design, Wang said.
"I have once bought a bird-shaped whistle for my son, but he showed no interest," said Du Mingjie, who works at a public relations company in Guangzhou, capital of South China's Guangdong Province. "Today's children are not as same as those in my generation, so the toys aren't the same," he said.
Du's 4-year-old son developed interests in Mickey Mouse and Lego sets after Du brought them from Hong Kong. "They are safe with high quality," Du said.
What's more, Du said he wants his son to learn to think from playing with toys, and traditional folk toys might not be able to promote that kind of activity.
Despite the decreasing appeal of folk toys, Wang Zhengrong thinks they should still have a role to play in China.
"Computer games don't develop the imagination of children no matter how much modern toy producers and traders insist that what is new or imported is better," Wang said.
For example, Chinese kites and paper lanterns have the added advantage of getting children outdoors, unlike toys that confine them sitting in front of a screen or slouched in an armchair, Wang said.
"Every toy still has artistic and cultural value as it tells a story of history," Wang said. "As a result, they should be better preserved. I don't know how today's young people can learn Chinese history and culture from only playing with Mickey Mouse or Lego."
The Beijing Toy Association began a citywide survey early last year to collect information on folk toy makers and their works. "We plan to build a database of how many of the toy-makers are still alive and how many their works are still seen, to try to better preserve them," Wang said.
After the survey, they found that most of folk toy makers live on lower incomes or pensions. "Special governmental budgets should be earmarked to help them live and produce more works," Wang said.
Another suggestion would be to invite the toy makers to schools to give special lectures to young people, to enable them to know much about folk toys, Wang said, because "to let young people develop their interest is an effective and permanent way to preserve these traditional folk toys."
Source: China Daily