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Tibetan artists preserve 'thangka' tradition in China

In remote Qinghai Province, Buddhist scrolls provide a living for some

Artist Jia Yang Dan Ba sits at his home studio in front of thangka scroll paintings he is still working on. (Photo by Kit Yeng Chan)

TONGREN, China -- Bent over a stretched canvas that will become a Tibetan thangka (traditional scroll painting), Jia Yang Dan Ba uses a fine brush to etch an intricate web of gold threads over the tunic of White Tara, a Buddhist deity who sits at the center of the scroll. Around her, a painstakingly penciled outline of a group of minor gods is waiting to be brought to life by Dan Ba's brush.

Creating visually striking thangkas is both the artist's life mission and his bread and butter. It is a desirable career path in Tongren, also known by its Tibetan language name of Rebkong, the main city of the Huangnan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in China's Qinghai Province.

Once part of Tibet's northeastern region of Amdo, Tongren is the home of the finest Tibetan thangkas in the Tibetan plateau. Production has not slowed this year, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, in part because Qinghai has suffered only 18 coronavirus cases and no deaths, making it the second least-affected provincial-level region after the neighboring Tibetan Autonomous Region.

"All of Huangnan's villages locked down, and it wasn't possible to travel between them, but otherwise we didn't have too many restrictions," said the 34-year-old Dan Ba. "We are still painting as usual, even though business [has] dropped about 50% compared to last year because tourists and outsiders cannot visit."

Dan Ba, who works from a home studio in the apartment block he shares with his wife and children, is one of about 2,000 thangka artists working in Wutun and other villages around Tongren, where the production and sale of artworks -- thangka paintings, sculptures and engravings -- employs about 40,000 people.

Top: The finest, most expensive thangkas can be several meters long and take years to complete. Bottom: This thangka's fine golden colors are achieved by mixing minerals such as gold to produce paint that will never fade. (Photos Kit Yeng Chan) 

Wutun's thangkas, made with expensive minerals such as gold, silver and bright-colored rocks that are ground into paint, are among the most prized, with local scrolls selling for up to 80,000 yuan ($11,500) -- a substantial sum in China, even though each thangka takes up to four months to complete.

Traditionally hung at family altars or in monasteries, thangkas are painted on canvas or silk using bright mineral pigments that do not fade, and can be rolled up into scrolls to be easily transported. Listed by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009, thangkas were first made in the seventh century as portable textbooks for traveling monks, who used them to elucidate Buddhist meditation and describe important historical events and religious teachings.

Over many centuries, thangka art became the work of laymen, and was ultimately transformed into a commercial commodity. "When the old generation moved from inner Tibet to Tongren they already knew how to draw the thangkas," said Dan Ba, who started learning the art at age 7, and at 16 became a disciple of Ji Ta Ben, a famous Tongren painter.

Top: The paint used in thangkas is produced by grinding minerals of different color, as exemplified in this exhibit from the Rebkong Art Museum. Middle: In Tongren, local Tibetans are often employed in the dozens of family-owned ateliers that sell Rebkong thangkas, monastic robes and Tibetan paraphernalia. Bottom: Tongren Tibetans at work on a flag inside the Longwu Monastery. (Photos by Kit Yeng Chan) 

"Switching from tradition to business was considered natural, as there weren't many job opportunities in the region, and the elders thought that passing on the knowledge would give their people a valuable professional skill," said Dan Ba.

According to China's state-owned Global Times newspaper, thangkas have become prized items in China and abroad in the last 30 years, with substantial sales in Beijing, Shanghai, Taipei, Hong Kong and the U.S. Most scrolls sell for a few thousand dollars, but the oldest and finest have fetched millions at prestigious New York art auctions.

New thangkas are often commissioned by clients who want representations of specific gods to attract health and fortune into their homes. "Some send me pictures requesting to draw one specific deity, while others leave me free to create," said Dan Ba. Each god is drawn following a precise set of long-established style rules covering the colors used for clothing and skin to facial expressions and objects associated with specific deities, such as the lotus blossom of White Tara.

Top: An artist works on a thangka in his home in Wutun, where the Rebkong arts originated. Bottom: Monk Jian Chan took up scroll painting when he was a child and today works with his layman brother in a studio along Wutun's main road. (Photos by Kit Yeng Chan) 

Illustrated reference books help the artists to visualize the deities who, in the past, were only described with words in Tibetan books of teachings. "The only thing we can be creative with is the thangka's background," said Dan Ba. "We can draw leaves, clouds, flowers, anything we think suits the overall image best."

Works by many artists, including famous thangka producers such as Wutun's Shawu Cenam, are exhibited in the imposing Rebkong Thangka Art Gallery, opened last year within walking distance of the 14th century Wutun Monastery. Others are for sale in dozens of family-owned workshops lining the main access roads to Wutun and Longwu -- a monastery in the heart of Tongren -- along with monastic robes and other Tibetan paraphernalia aimed at visitors.

The COVID-19 lockdown has not changed the habits of thangka artists in Wutun, where thangka art skills have been passed down since the 10th century. "I am happy to stay indoors all day working on my scrolls," said Jian Chan, an 18-year-old Buddhist monk who started painting as a child.

"The largest, most complicated and expensive thangkas can take between one to two years to complete," said Jian Chan, who paints in a workshop owned by his layman brother. "Hence artists also need to work on smaller pieces they can complete in one or two months, so that they can sell more frequently at cheaper prices."

Top: Artistic activity in Tongren comes to a halt during the 10-day Shaman Festival, when local Tibetans gather to dance and pray to their mountain god. Bottom: Children parade in traditional Tibetan attire during the event, which is celebrated in July in villages around Tongren and Wutun. (Photos by Kit Yeng Chan)

Many such artworks are produced by young painters who have failed their university entrance examinations and are attracted to the art industry for its seemingly quick gains -- especially from sales to tourists, many of whom visit Tongren for the 10-day Shaman Festival in July, when villages engage in ritual dances and body piercings to appease a local mountain god.

No pre-COVID-19 visitor numbers are available for Tongren, but 33.6 million tourists visited the neighboring Tibetan Autonomous Region in 2018, including 270,000 foreigners -- a 31.5% increase from the previous year. Qinghai Province also draws many visitors to the annual Tour of Qinghai Lake cycling race -- a major international cycling event -- and is expecting a tourist boom on the back of its growing winter sports industry, according to Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency.

Thangkas sold to tourists are often of relatively poor quality, and visitor numbers were down this year because of the lockdown. But the thangka business gives locals a source of income and helps to maintain Tibetan culture in Huangnan.

Some of the best artists also help local communities directly by donating artworks to local charities, which use the funds raised from sales to assist schools and disadvantaged families.

"But painting thangkas is not just about making money -- it's a lifelong commitment to Tibetan culture and arts," said Dan Ba.

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