An amiable and outgoing character, Yongsong Huang’s youthful appearance belies his age of over 70 years. Huang himself is not only the founder, but also the chief planner and art director of Echo of Things Chinese, a Taiwan-based magazine devoted to collect and preserve traditional Chinese folk culture and crafts. Though he has spent 44 years recording five millennia's worth of Chinese cultural heritage, the sheer delight of each discovery still brings a twinkle to his eyes.
Huang shares with Taste of Life (TOL) his passions, philosophies and challenges that have—for four decades—been his motivational sources.
TOL: So how did you start Echo of Things Chinese?
Huang: When I graduated from art school in Taiwan, I was eager to move abroad. By happy chance, I met a friend, Wu Meiyun, who later became my business partner. She had just returned home from overseas to make an informational documentary about our culture, for those who were studying or living abroad—which was exactly what I had worked hard to do. From our conversation, she told me that Taiwanese society was undergoing rapid change, but lacked someone to connect old and new parts, and could easily 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 in January 1971. We published our first issue of Echo, and haven’t stopped publishing since then.
TOL: In your opinion, what is the importance of folk art?
Huang: The rapid industrial growth in Mainland China had made traditional handicrafts obsolete—today, mass-made products with cheap price tags are everywhere. If Chinese people are to dominate the market, traditional arts and crafts must once again become a part of the equation.
Arts and crafts are a large part of our vast history. The Ming Dynasty scholar, Song Yingxing (1587 – 1666) published an encyclopedia, known as Tiangong Kaiwu (which translates to “The Exploitation of the Works of Nature”, or “Heavenly Creations”), in 1637, the 10th year of Emperor Chongzhen’s reign. It became the world’s first book to record production traditional techniques in both agriculture and handicrafts.
In the same year, coincidentally, René Descartes published his famous Discourse on the Method. Because of his book, cognitive science became mainstream in the West and dominated the emerging wave of “modern” Western culture.
The original copy of Tiangong Kaiwu was lost during the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1912), but fortunately, many other countries had kept their copies of the book, and it was rediscovered in the early years of the Republic of China. There were several versions, translated into seven languages, including Japanese, English, French and German. However, none were in Chinese.
Such a halt in the crafts later contributed to China’s inferiority in the modern art world, which further affected its overall confidence. From this perspective, traditions and handicrafts are crucial to society. We must not break away from our roots only to chase the modern trends, or we’ll become waves that drift aimlessly with the stream.
TOL: Do you think traditional crafts can still be useful references when designing modern industrial products?
Yes, because we turn only to the well-functioning aspects of old, traditional crafts for reference. What past generations have left for us is the knowledge needed to create today’s modern industrial products.
Take the art of paper folding, for example: modern coronary bypass surgeries place pacemakers in the blood vessels, because the vessels need to expand. This modern technique is derived from the traditional craft of paper folding itself.
Another example is Chinese herbal medicine. Most “Western” medicines were, in fact, taken back home by European missionaries during the Qing Dynasty. Those in the West would analyze the herbs only to make them ingredients of chemical-based medicine to relieve symptoms, but not to solve the underlying causes of illness.
TOL: What other interesting projects are in your cultural gene pool?
Recently, we’ve become more involved with folk arts and crafts. We have put together 5 classes, 6 categories, 56 items, and several hundreds of topics—all revolving around the idea of basic necessities.
One of the topics, for example, is Chinese cuisine. We looked at all there is to do with Chinese cuisine, ranging from the making of traditional dishes to the more modern safety issues, like food additives and preservation. Our ancestors also used “sciences”, in the processes of drying, pickling, and marinating to preserve all kinds of meat and vegetables. Unlike the chemical preservatives we have today, these methods bring out flavour. Think about how delicious a bowl of steamed rice with cured sausage or bacon tastes—no wonder the Cantonese love this dish.
I still consider the flavour of our pickles the very best. When my friends visit from overseas, I serve them pickled vegetable soup so they can savour the cultural experience of this traditional dish. The flavour is smooth, and exudes a variety of flavours from tongue to throat. Westerners appreciate fine wine in a similar manner, but I would choose my soup over even the most expensive of wines.
TOL: So Echo has been publishing for over 40 years now. What were some of your biggest challenges and what gave you the strength to persist?
From the beginning, everyone involved with the magazine had been completely dedicated—even as we were losing money.
My partner suggested that we illustrate profound issues in simple terms through photography, layout design, and text. Though it sounded simple, this was a very difficult thing to do. The information had to be verified in a cautious, careful manner.
“Making a mountain out of a molehill” became our modus operandi: the idea was that, if you researched any topic in detail, no matter how small, you would reap much knowledge. We arranged these topics into a system, like a gene bank for traditional Chinese culture.
All of Echo’s staff were, at some point in their lives, part of a dying culture. When they began to uncover these invaluable cultural genes, it touched their hearts in wonderful ways, and kept their culture alive.