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To the Sky

The origins of the English word “bamboo” are uncertain—deriving perhaps from Portuguese and Dutch traders in sixteenth-century India, Java, or Malaysia. For Europe and the West, bamboo was an exotic ornamental garden plant; it was not valued until recently as a durable, flexible material.

In contrast, bamboo has been used in China since as early as 1000 BCE. The Chinese character, 竹, which depicts two bamboo stalks, is associated with harmony and self-sufficiency. Chinese have used bamboo in many aspects of their culture—from eating and writing implements to plumbing, furniture, and home building. In some regions, including Hong Kong, bamboo is still the material of choice for construction scaffolding and other temporary structures.

There are roughly 1,400 botanical species of bamboo worldwide, including some in southern China that grow as tall as 150 feet, with a stalk diameter of fourteen inches. Bamboo reaches to the sky. The Smithsonian Folklife Festival extends this metaphor to highlight bamboo’s significance both in the past and today. The 112-foot-wide festive bamboo structure (“flower plaque”), the bamboo kites flying in the sky, and even the bamboo pipes of the lusheng (a wind instrument) symbolize the vital connection between heaven and earth.

China is the world’s most populous country and second biggest economy. Its rates of industrialization and urbanization are unprecedented. The largest rural-to-urban migration in human history is underway as people move from the countryside to seek work in China’s expanding cities. People face both new opportunities and daunting challenges as they adapt to shifting circumstances and try to reconcile the dynamics of development with cultural and ecological sustainability.

The 2014 Festival program highlighted REUNION and BALANCE, traditional principles that are of greater value than ever in China. Reunions animate and sustain tradition. And as people are increasingly separated from one another by the demands of work and education, they find ways to reaffirm ties to community and cultural heritage both in their daily lives and for special occasions. A traditional Chinese perspective posits that all things - everything from one’s health to a community’s welfare - depends on a balance of internal and external forces. In China today, people are navigating the transformations that emerge from modernization and from frictions between work and leisure, past and present, development and conservation, and global, national, and local traditions.

More than a hundred culture bearers from China participated in the program. Representing 15 provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities, as well as some of the largest and smallest of the 56 officially recognized ethnicities, they provided a window into the country’s diversity. They demonstrated how people sustain a rich range of traditions even as communities are disrupted by migration, natural disaster, and the pressures of contemporary life. At the Festival, they demonstrated the artistry with which balance and reunion are realized within and across communities, and between humans and their environment - both through the changing seasons and in a changing world.

James Deutsch and Sojin Kim were Program Curators; Jing Li was Program Coordinator; and Joan Hua was Program Assistant. Advisors and consultants included: Joan Auchter, Rachel Cooper, Robert Daly, Melanie Fernandez, Yong Han, Bill lvey, Joanna C. Lee, Jing Li, Jun Liu, Adriel Luis, Shengde Ma, Jean Miao, Rodrigo Fritz, May Sun, Sue Tuohy, Jingqiang Wang, Sally Van de Water, Lihui Yang, Yuan Yang, Nora Yeh, Juwen Zhang, Zhizong Zhu, and Nina Zolt.

The program was produced by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in padnership with the China lnternational Culture Association, working with the China Arts and Entertainment Group. Additional support was provided by the West Kowloon Cultural District, Hong Kong SAR; and the Guizhou Provincial Department of Culture.

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