American Express and Global Heritage Partnership Protects Rural Heritage in China

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August 15, 2019

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Timothy J. McClimon, Senior Vice President, Corporate Social Responsibility

Spanning thousands of years, China’s rich cultural history is as diverse as its varied landscapes and communities. Remote villages and towns embody the traditions of ages, where people safeguard their communal heritage by passing traditional skills and values from one generation to the next.

Economic changes that have transformed the traditional cityscapes of Beijing and Shanghai have reverberated throughout rural China as well.China has become the site of one of the world’s largest movements of internal migration as many rural youth leave their hometowns in search of employment. Without younger generations to learn traditional crafts, irreplaceable cultural expressions and skills sustained for generations are at risk of vanishing forever.

To protect China’s endangered cultural heritage, Global Heritage Fund and the American Express Foundation have partnered in support of historic preservation beyond monuments® in three areas: Dali Village in Guizhou Province, Maijishan Grottoes in Gansu Province, and Pingyao Ancient City in Shanxi Province. This partnership supports capacity-building programs, connecting communities with opportunities to turn their heritage from relics of the past into modern economic assets.

Such is the case in remote Dali, a rustic village in Guizhou Province that has been home to the Dong people for over 1,000 years.  

Guizhou’s rugged landscape: river valleys, mountainsides, and terraces. Photo: ATLAS Studio.

Guizhou is a land of contrasts. Low river valleys are punctuated by dramatic landscapes and steep mountainsides, many terraced and irrigated to extract as much as possible from the unforgiving land.

Renowned for their carpentry, the Dong people’s villages are characterized by pagoda-like drum towers and wooden bridges. Their villages perfectly integrate humanity and nature, reflecting the Dong principle of adapting their built environment to the natural world.

Architecture in Dali Village, Guizhou. Photo: Global Heritage Fund.

While Dong men practice traditional carpentry and construction skills, the Dong women are equally accomplished in crafts such as textile production. Throughout the village, many women still grow and process their own indigo at home, handing down traditional dye baths from generation to generation.

For centuries, women have turned their hand-loomed, indigo-dyed fabrics into unmistakable traditional costumes embellished with embroidery and hand-woven trims, and  mothers still hope to teach these ancestral textile techniques to their daughters today.

Until recently, Dali Village’s textile and architectural crafts faced a bleak future. Dwindling economic opportunities forced local youth to seek employment far from their homes and communities. With the younger generation migrating to China’s urban centers, Dali’s traditional crafts were on the verge of extinction.

Thanks to our partnership, investments in seed funding, baseline training, and merchandising support have now established a locally-run women’s co-op for traditional Dong textile production. Implemented in collaboration with Beijing-based ATLAS Studio, the initiative also included construction of a multi-purpose community space based on traditional Dong architecture.

The newly-completed community center in Dali Village, Guizhou. Photo: ATLAS Studio

With space for a children’s reading room, communal storage, and textile exhibition, retail and creation, the center enables the Dong women to participate in textile production. The craftswomen of Dali Village can now learn to run the local retail space, host textile making activities, and provide guided tours for visitors.

In addition to capacity-building and skills training, the center is also crucial for developing new economic opportunities that enable Dali’s younger generations to reside in their home village. Dali’s crafting traditions and strong social networks present a unique opportunity to develop local tourism and economic initiatives by promoting traditional crafts and local practices. In turn, these developments can provide employment for Dali’s youth while also connecting them with their ancestral and regional history.

Zhengxian Yang, leader of the co-op women, tells it best in her own words: "I am excited to lead the women at the center. In the past, we barely made any income. There was no place for women to sell textiles or handicrafts. Now, when tourists come to our village, we can direct them to the community center.”

From left: indigo dying supplies in Dali Village; artisan Zhengxian Yang; a pillow produced by the women of Dali Village. Photos: Global Heritage Fund/ATLAS Studio

The Dali textile project has received international attention. Its inclusive approach to community-based heritage protection and craft revitalization been featured at the Venice Biennale 2018, Design Society (Shenzhen) 2018, and Beijing Design Week 2016.


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