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March 24, 2011

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Preserving sacred Tibetan art

GRIPPING a fine brush dipped in golden pigment, Chagxi carefully draws the outline of a Buddha on an oversized scroll, all the while wearing a reverential expression.

The scroll painting, also known as thangka, took the 43-year-old Tibetan craftsman two years to compose and another year to sketch the outlines of hundreds of figures using a pencil.

He said that he needed at least one more year to complete the work, which depicts Shadakshari Avalokitesvara, a four-armed deity widely revered by Tibetan Buddhists on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.

"This artwork can be priced at above 2 million yuan (US$304,200). But it's not for sale. I paint it for myself," Chagxi says in an interview in his glass-walled studio.

Chagxi was born in Tongren County in Huangnan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in northwest China's Qinghai Province. Tongren is also known as "Ragoin" in Tibetan, which means "golden valley."

In 2009, the county's thangka paintings, murals, patchwork crafts and sculpture, which are known collectively as Ragoin arts, were listed as an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO.

Meticulous work

Chagxi sticks to the millennium-old techniques of highly detailed thangka painting, which largely accounts for the high price of his work.

"The image of Buddhas on thangkas must exactly fit the descriptions in Buddhist scriptures. To show our respect to Buddha, even a minor change is not allowed," he says.

He adds that he and his father painted thangkas in the Labrang Monastery in neighboring Gansu Province for more than 20 years. "The figures on the centuries-old thangkas have long been engraved in my mind."

He is especially proud of the mineral pigments he uses in the artwork - the formula was passed on by his grandfather.

Every day, as a devout Buddhist, Chagxi burns pine branches to worship Buddha at dawn before he starts painting. Then he paints for at least nine hours.

Taugar, a 69-year-old thangka guru in Tongren County, can no longer do the meticulous and intense work, but he enthusiastically teaches apprentices.

"I ask them to study and recite Buddhist scriptures every day, which is the foundation of thangka painting," says Taugar, who was awarded the title of Chinese Arts and Crafts Master by the state in 2006.

In addition to government-certified thangka masters, there are many craftsmen in Tongren who are preserving the original techniques of thangka painting, says Tang Zhongshan, a Tibetan art professor with Qinghai University for Nationalities.

However, Chagxi says that some unorthodox artworks have defiled the holy traditional art.

"Some young painters pay little attention to details and they make mistakes in using dye," he says.

Chasing money

Traditionally, only Tibetan Buddhist monks were entitled to paint thangkas, which were mainly enshrined in monasteries. Nowadays, everyone is free to learn the skill since thangkas have gained immense popularity in art markets at home and abroad. But in the meantime, the pursuit of profit threatens to undermine the overall quality of Thangkas.

"Thangka painting has been transformed from a folk art into a highly lucrative industry. Surging prices have inevitably caused speculations," says Sonam Doje, deputy director of the Qinghai Folk Literature and Art Society.

To tackle the problem, the Qinghai provincial government issued a set of standards to distinguish qualified Ragoin Thangkas, specifying requirements in materials and techniques.

Although Chagxi greatly values traditional techniques, he is open to modern marketing. His customers are scattered all over the world.

"Some American tourists watched me paint at the Labrang Monastery for days. Then they followed me back home to buy my works," he says, recalling his early encounters with foreign buyers.

Five years ago, he sold more than 100 thangkas to tourists from the United States and Singapore.

In recent years, through the introduction of the government, he has frequently traveled to Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen to exhibit his works. Now, some of his works are on display in Spain.

Last year, Chagxi started a Thangka company and employed more than 20 painters. He earns nearly 300,000 yuan (US$45,700) a year.

He is contemplating opening shops in big cities and overseas.

In several villages where thangka craftsmen gather, nearly every family has rebuilt their homes and purchased cars.

"Thangka sales have been booming for years. Some excellent works of thangka gurus can be auctioned for millions of yuan," says Professor Tang.

Still, the home of Taugar is surprisingly plain.

Taugar uses most of his income to help impoverished farmers and herdsmen in nearby villages, according to his son.

"He's a merciful man. I think he's doing the right thing," says the teenager who wears an earring and a pair of baggy jeans.


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