Zhao Rongjie’s third film takes us to a wide valley on the western fringes of southwest China where the Nu Jiang (Salween River) emerges from the world’s fourth deepest gorge, slows to a languid pace, and begins its wide meandering course through Myanmar toward the Bay of Bengal. In the small hamlet of Namu, surrounded by fields of crops, we are introduced to the Dehong Dai (Tai Nüa), the northern branch of the Tai ethnic family, through a solemn, yet enlightening encounter with three generations of Buddhist artisans from the Sobao Family.
Since the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), they have offered their talents in the service and restoration of their local Hinayana temple known as Zang House: preserving records, transcribing scripture, reciting sutras, and maintaining the upkeep of the sanctuary. The family’s commitment to the preservation of Buddhist iconography manifests in sculptures, paintings, and weavings that adorn the temple’s interior. Their work is tattooed onto their bodies, ancient symbols of protection and cultural identity. Grandfather Sobao set clearing the rubble from the ruined temples once the orgy of destruction was satiated. The work led him to discover a duty that that would fulfill his life’s mission and establish a legacy for his heirs.
Tradition may be fated to make way for modernity, but perhaps never as colorlessly and calamitously as was forced upon rural China’s reluctant “ethnic minorities”. And yet, through the artistic contributions of the Sabao Family, we learn that the preservation (and restoration) of what we consider “sacred” requires resilience, innovation, and the courage to nourish seeds of creative renaissance.
*Stay tuned for the final two episodes of “Seeds & Seeds” from the Lisu and Tibetan regions of Yunnan.