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Birch bark culture: a blend of primitive nature and modern art

By Liu Ning, Xian Jiangnan, Yuan Meng (People's Daily Online)    13:46, October 02, 2020

Wearing a long dress and a warm-toned woolen shawl, Tao Dandan was shy and amiable with ginger-colored hair and an oval face at first sight. Years of dedication to traditional Chinese art has given this soft-spoken woman a sense of serene elegance.

Tao’s workshop is housed in a modern shopping center in Heihe, northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province. The surprising collection of quality paintings and crafts made of birch bark placed throughout the property speaks volumes on her devotion to the art. Despite the minuscule size of the room, there is plenty to appreciate of the unique charm of birch bark culture.

Born into a Manchu family, an ethnic minority group, Tao became familiar with birch bark at a very young age. However, birch bark at that time was no more than utensils for salt or rice in the eyes of Tao, who didn’t realized that this unnoticeable, little thing would later become her lifelong bond.

Tao Dandan, inheritor of intangible cultural heritage birch bark culture. (People’s Daily Online/Xian Jiangnan)

Tough journey, unswerving love

A birch bark painting. (People’s Daily Online/Xian Jiangnan)

In the eyes of Tao, each artwork is created after having a soundless dialogue with the birch bark. “Every time I come across a beautiful birch bark, I would pore over it for a long time before I would start to paint. Each and every brush stroke I put on it has to be deliberate.”

Tao knows the birch bark craft is by no means an easy-to-learn one. As the natural birch bark is stiff, one has to peel off the bark layer by layer with bare hands until it becomes soft enough for making handicrafts. Some works can even take a few years to complete.

Through years of hard work, Tao’s hands have become rough and scarred. (People’s Daily Online/Xian Jiangnan)

Through years of hard work, Tao’s hands have become rough and scarred. “This scar was caused by a cutter; that scar was caused by a needle,” Tao told People’s Daily Online in a relaxed tone. “Fortunately, hands have strong self-healing capabilities,” she smiled.

Throughout the years, Tao’s obsession with birch bark continues. “The birch bark culture is my whole life,” Tao said.

According to Tao’s brother, nothing could change her love for birch bark, not even a pile of gold. “One of the reasons for my unswerving love for it is my responsibility and obligation to spread the culture,” she said.

Inheritance and innovation

Tao Dandan makes a piece of handicraft made of birch bark. (People’s Daily Online/Xian Jiangnan)

At the age of 23, Tao set up her own workshop. Since then, Tao has endured a long, tough journey in promoting the birch bark culture.

“The birch bark culture, which originated from northern minority ethnic groups, is not a popular one. In the early years of my career, many people knew basically nothing about birch bark,” she said.

The situation started to change a decade ago as China attached greater importance to the cultural industry, especially the intangible cultural heritage, the folk culture has witnessed a leapfrog development.

Tao Dandan teaches a student about birch bark crafts. (People’s Daily Online/Xian Jiangnan)

Currently, the birch bark culture has become an intangible cultural heritage, with Tao being an inheritor of it. Tao has opened various training classes free of charge for school campuses and residential communities, teaching people from different walks of life the history of birch bark culture and the ABCs of the craft.

Due to the special talent introduction policy by local authorities, Tao has also become a professor at Heihe College, which has set up a course of local folk culture, inviting masters like Tao to teach the traditional ethnic cultures to students. Some outstanding students have also been invited to work at her workshop.

Photo shows various birch bark handicrafts. (People’s Daily Online/Xian Jiangnan)

“As some students have received systematic courses of art, they have a more artistic sense in designing and creating handicrafts. In this way, the traditional culture could take on features of the times, which is crucial in inheriting this culture,” said Tao, adding that tradition and innovation should be developed side by side.

Though the promotion of birch bark culture is beginning to pick up, Tao also expresses her concerns, noting that many only have a shallow understanding of the culture, and few have chosen it as a career.

Photo shows a piece of birch bark handicraft and the necessary tools. (People’s Daily Online/Xian Jiangnan)

“Compared with other crafts, birch bark craft is difficult to learn. Thus for many, their love for it would quickly trickle away,” Tao said, adding, to be a master one has to have sheer tenacity, undisturbed by external distractions. You must love it, so that you will devote yourself to letting others get to know it, and then to love it too,” she noted.

“[Inheriting the birch bark culture] is a difficult journey, and it cannot be accomplished by one person, or one generation,” Tao shared, adding that she is prepared to continue this journey for the rest of her life. 

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)
(Web editor: Xian Jiangnan, Bianji)

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