His youthful looks belie Yongsong Huang’s age of more than 70 years. Amiable and outgoing, Yongsong is founder, chief planner, and art director of Echo of Things Chinese. Located in Taiwan, this magazine is devoted exclusively to collecting and preserving traditional Chinese folk culture and crafts, and after 44 years recording five millennia of China’s cultural heritage, the sheer delight of discovery still brings a twinkle to Huang’s eyes.
Huang shares with Taste of Life some of the passions, philosophies, and challenges that have kept him motivated for more than four decades.
TOL: As a young man, you studied modern arts — painting with a major in sculpture. How did that lead you to publish a magazine that focuses on traditional Chinese culture?
Huang: When I graduated from art school in Taiwan, I was eager to go abroad. By happy chance, I met a friend — my future business partner Wu Meiyun — who had just returned to Taiwan from overseas to make a documentary which would provide information about our culture for Chinese people studying or living abroad — which was exactly what I have always worked hard at doing. She told me that Taiwanese society was in the process of rapid change but without someone to connect its old and new parts together, it would break.
One of my teachers had also told me our traditional culture was like a head that was falling behind while modern arts were like feet running forward with all their might — we needed someone to become “the torso” so our culture could go forward as one whole body. Both these people’s remarks greatly inspired me.
Shortly after, Wu Meiyun and I began our preparations and in January 1971, we published our first issue of Echo. We haven’t stopped publishing since then.
TOL: Echo has been publishing continuously for over 40 years. What were some of your biggest challenges and what gave you the strength to persist?
Huang: Everyone involved with the magazine was completely dedicated right from the beginning — even during the periods when we were losing money. My partner suggested we all strive to illustrate profound issues in simple terms through our photography, layout design, and text. In fact, this was a very difficult thing to do. Plus all the information had to be carefully and clearly verified.
“Making a mountain out of a molehill” became our modus operandi, because if you research every topic in detail, you learn a lot. We built these topics into a well-arranged system that’s like a gene bank for traditional Chinese culture.
From a young age, all of Echo’s staff was part of a culture that worshipped anything foreign. When we uncovered our own invaluable cultural genes, the contents we discovered touched our hearts in wonderful ways which helped us persist.
TOL: What other interesting projects are in your cultural gene pool?
Huang: Recently, we’ve become more involved with folk arts and crafts. Looking at topics that are about the basic necessities, we have put together five classes, six categories, 56 items, and several hundred topics.
For example, Chinese cuisine is world-famous, so we looked at topics ranging from traditional, ancient foods to modern safety issues like food additives and preservation. Our ancestors used past “sciences” like drying, pickling, or marinating in sauces to preserve vegetables and meat. Unlike modern, chemical preservatives, these methods often actually enhance the food flavours. Just think about how delicious steamed rice with cured sausages or bacon tastes — no wonder the Cantonese love this dish.
And I still consider the flavour of our pickles the very best. When my foreign friends come to visit, I serve them my pickled vegetable soups so they can savour the cultural experience of this traditional food. It is very smooth and exudes a variety of flavours on your tongue and all the way down your throat. Foreigners appreciate fine wines in a similar way… but I still like my soup better than even the most expensive wines.
TOL: Why you have collected and organized so many folk arts and crafts?
Huang: The growth of Mainland China’s industrial production and aggressive culture is rendering traditional handicrafts invisible to people and cheap price tags are everywhere. If the Chinese people want to dominate the market and find our own style, traditional arts and crafts must once again become a rich part of the equation.
We have a a long history of this. The scholar Song Yingxing (1587 - 1666) from our Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644) published the encyclopedia Tiangong Kaiwu (English name: The Exploitation of the Works of Nature, also known as “Heavenly Creations”) in the 10th year of the Chongzhen Emperor’s reign, that is, in 1637. It is the world’s first book recording the production techniques in agriculture and making handicrafts.
It is an interesting coincidence that in the same year, René Descartes published his Discourse on the Method. Because of this book, cognitive science became mainstream in the West and actually dominated the new Western culture.
Tiangong Kaiwu became lost during the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1912), but fortunately, many other countries in the world had kept the book and it was rediscovered in the early years of the Republic of China. There were versions in seven languages, including Japanese, English, French and German. However, there was no Chinese version.
Such backwardness in crafts later contributed to China’s disadvantaged and inferior position in the art world in modern times, which further affected the Chinese nation’s self-confidence. From this perspective, handicrafts are very important. We cannot break away from our roots, only to chase the modern trends or we’ll become waves that drift aimlessly with the stream.
TOL: Can traditional crafts still be useful references when designing modern industrial products?
Huang: Yes, because only things that work well and have a unique kind of aesthetic experience would be passed down. Let’s take the example of paper folding. The modern coronary bypass surgeries place heart pacemakers into blood vessels, which need to swell up. This technique exists in the art of paper folding.
Another example would be Chinese herbal medicines. Many Western medicines come from Chinese folk remedies which European missionaries took back to their countries during the Qing Dynasty. The West would then analyze the herbs and create expensive, chemically-based medicines that get rid of the symptoms but do not solve the underlying cause of an illness.
There is an effective, but very expensive, cure for avian flu made in the United States. We purchased and analyzed it, and found that its main ingredient is star anise — a common Chinese herbal medicine and seasoning. The Chinese traditions are amiable, practical, and look for the underlying causes at a deep level, instead of simply carving out places with problems.
TOL: Many people believe the pinnacle of Chinese artistic achievement lies in imperial artwork. Why have you chosen to focus your research on folk handicrafts?
Huang: The imperial objects were like today’s luxury goods — everyday utensils made with luxurious materials. But the function of those utensils remained the same: people still ate with a bowl and chopsticks or dressed warmly in the cold. Folk culture retained the same functionality but was often designed to be much warmer and with more human interest.
For example, when the family of a village’s landlord had a baby, the child’s grandmother would go door-to-door asking each neighbour for a piece of used cloth. As each person gave their pieces, they would offer a blessing for the child: health, superior intelligence, wealth. Grandma would return home and sew all the pieces together into a vest for the baby — a vest that carries the “blessings from 100 families.” I believe this single piece of clothing is more valuable than the robes of a crown prince, and we should share this concept with all mankind.
TOL: What projects are you currently working on?
Huang: I am trying to involve more young people and be involved in hometowns where people feel nostalgia. In Suzhou, the famous water garden city, I’m working on a project called “Eight Fresh Aquatic Plants” which are, and many people don’t know this, lotus roots, water caltrops, wild rice, fox nuts, water chestnuts, watercress, water shields and arrowheads. Our ancestors ate them on a daily basis but many of these plants no longer grow here. So we are rushing to collect information and species. For two and a half years, Echo’s staff has grown these plants and interviewed chefs from the old generation to learn how to make them delicious. We don’t want these plants that exist in Tang Dynasty poetry and Song Dynasty literatures to disappear without a trace.
Traditional culture is like our elder generations. We have to understand them and know what they used to eat, wear and use in the past. It is only in this way, when our young people become homesick, will they know what their home looks like and how to go back to it.
Photography by Hsuyi Shih