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Vanishing bronze drums raise concern in S China


15:00, October 24, 2012

Wei Zhenli has just finished teaching children how to play bronze drums. After they have gone he feels lonely, disappointed and worries about the inheritance of the thousand-year-old instrument.

"Television, cell phones and the Internet have changed the lives of villagers, and traditional culture cannot attract people's eyes anymore, the young people in particular," said Wei, a villager of Lanyang Village, Donglan County of Hechi City in south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

"People who can master the skills of beating bronze drums are few, and many of them are in their 40s or 50s," said Wei, who is one of the successors of the bronze drum, which is a cultural relic of ethnic groups living in south China.

Wei said that the young people of his village migrate to cities for work, so people in their 40s or 50s take up the task in teaching the children to play the drums.

Dating from BC 200, bronze drums used to be a must-have instrument for a family, and it has been a tradition of local people to play drums to pray for rain and a good harvest. Currently, there are only 2,400 of the bronze drums in the world, more than 1,400 of which are in the city of Hechi.

Wei still missed the days when every family in his village carried the drums onto a nearby mountain and played day and night. "Things are no longer the same now, and few people can play the instrument," Wei said.

Wei's father, Wei Wanyi, who has collected more than 40 of the instruments, has been considered as the "king of the bronze drum."

As his father grows older, Wei Zhenli takes up the duty to pass on the bronze drum culture and teach people skills to play the instrument. He has also led the drum team of Donglan county to perform in cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Nanning to promote drum culture.

"During the Great Leap Forward campaign from 1958 to 1960, almost all metal things, including the bronze drums, were melted down producing steel. Hundred-year-old bronze drums were destroyed at that time", said Liang Fulin, the former director of the cultural heritage management station of Hechi.

Liang said businessmen had rushed to his village to purchase ancient drums from local people to make greater profits, which also led to the loss of the original drums.

According to a survey by the management station in 2000, only 22 out of 87 examined bronze drums in Hechi remained intact. Nine were badly damaged and could not be used again, Liang said.

Both the government and villagers have gradually realized the importance of protecting and passing on the ancient culture, Liang said.

"A single bronze drum is a story, and also an irreplaceable cultural symbol for this area," Li Gang, director with Folk Opera Department of the Public Art Museum in Hechi. He added that they staged large-scale bronze drum performances last year calling on people and local government to protect and inherit the custom.

Liang said that some successors of the instrument have made great efforts to regain the techniques of producing ancient drums, only to find that new bronze drums are not as good as the ancestral ones in quality and timbre.

To preserve the drums and culture, experts call on local government to designate a district for the preservation of the drum culture.

The city will explore ways to protect the "living fossil" and make the world hear the drum from the old remote place, said Rao Yongheng, deputy director of cultural, radio and TV administration of Hechi.

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