The collectors: Keeping history alive one piece at a time

Glancing at China’s mostly modern face, the sense of history might feel muted. Now, these collectors are trying to keep the legacy of China alive, while fulfilling their own wandering dreams.

标题

What is it about collecting things that keeps us so focused? Years of old birthday cards, seemingly rare paper money, fading scribbles piled high, all stowed with the expectation of future need. Is collecting aimed at preserving the past for future generations or a fear of the uncertainties still yet to come? If you never get wished another happy birthday, at least you’ll have cards to remember the good old days. This all begs the question: is collecting irrational?

While most collections are practically passive—meaning items come from people giving to others—some individuals take their gathering much further, spending huge chunks of time, energy and money looking for what they consider to be precious objects.

1020_15

Yin Huiming (尹惠铭)

Much like plenty of other nations around the world, China once prefered eschewing the past in favor of the future, which brings up important questions. Namely, do Chinese people today feel nostalgic about their nation beyond the famous five-thousand-year history talking point?

To get a better idea, we spoke to a handful of local cultural addicts to gain their perspective on what keeps them enthused about relics from yesterday.

Everyone’s looking for something
Nostalgia is a concept that affects most people. Think about it, you see it often. Facebook, for example, has a program—“Remember what you posted (insert number) years ago? Share it again.”—that people use regularly. What is it exactly that makes memories from the past so attractive?

“You can buy whatever modern car you want—if you have the money. But being rich doesn’t guarantee you every vintage car you’d like. I have a great feeling of satisfaction after I resurrect a vintage car and if there are no people like us in this community, these special cars will eventually go extinct. If you don’t lengthen their ‘life,’ they will eventually deteriorate beyond use,” defended Yin Huiming.

“For me, collecting vintage cars is addictive. When you collect one car, you’ll later find another, which is older. Then, you’ll definitely want the second one. On and on, you’ll never be satisfied. In 2008, I got my first vintage car. Now, I can’t stop,” said Yin Huiming (尹惠铭), presently an owner of nearly 20 vehicles.

Hobbies should be pleasurable, but they can also be surprisingly competitive.

Zhang Tiewen (张铁文) once worked for the Dongguan Cultural Center and Dongguan Cultural Affairs Bureau from 1970 to 2002. It was during this time, that pride for his hometown’s history went from basic interest to intense purpose.

DSC03886

Zhang Tiewen (张铁文)

“I collect almost everything about Dongguan. For some time, I focused more on ceramics. Later, I paid more attention to deeds and have already collected more than 50,000 of them. Contemporary people might be different from me, but I am against Japan. Before, for example, Japan had collected a lot of Muyu libretto, so anyone who wanted to study libretto had to go to Japan. But by now, I have more pieces than Japan,” said Zhang Tiewen.

Other times, people might focus on specific objects as a way of never letting themselves forget the past—good or bad.

Li Yongli (黎永利)

Li Yongli (黎永利)

“I’m collecting food and goods stamps (vouchers) from the early days of the PRC. I believe many people in Dongguan probably have them, but they may not value them. They only think, ‘Oh, it’s just a food stamp.’ They don’t consider it as evidence of history, but I do,” said Li Yongli (黎永利). “Now, I have stamps for clothing, oil, food, feminine products and more.”

A Chinese teacher who both attended and now works at Dichong School spent about 10 years collecting ancient and modern Chinese myths. Her work finally came together in a book, Chinese Story, which was made possible through crowdfunding and finally, successfully launched.

“While I was pregnant, my husband and I read plenty of books, but thought they were inappropriate for kids. We were idealists and thought we should make a collection similar to Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Initially, I wanted to do it after I retired, but after I lost my husband to an accident, I had a tough time, so I dove further into collecting. I invited someone I found online to join me since the workload would be very heavy, but nobody was willing. I even submitted some stories to publishers, but they weren’t interested. It didn’t matter, I continued,” said Huang Qiaoyan (黄俏燕).

Huang Qiaoyan (黄俏燕)

Huang Qiaoyan (黄俏燕)

“let’s do a metaphor. If Chinese civilization is a lush tree, then the stories I collect are the fruits, which contain the gene code of Chinese history. If you directly teach children about moral character, they won’t understand. So, if you want them to understand, tell them a story and their inherent creativity can put them in it. Through these tales, they’ll learn more about China and become Chinese,” described Huang Qiaoyan.

Still, of course some might feel that collecting should have strict regulations attached to adding additional pieces. Others might be driven simply by the joy experienced with each new item.

“Most toy collectors will have a ritual when opening a new package. They will take photos and maybe post it on social media. This is part of the toy culture. Some of these people will even buy two of the same toy: one for collecting, the other for opening. They are much crazier. I usually just open them violently. I am not rich, so I cannot buy two for all, said Liang Xiaozhi (梁晓智), a local comedian, movie producer and toy enthusiast.

No hobby is more important than another to the average individual, but having a passion lasting decades since youth is certainly beyond the norm.

“When I was younger, I couldn’t afford many motorcycles that I liked. Now that I’m older, it makes me so happy to buy the things I couldn’t previously buy,” said Li Jiada (李佳达), a local industrialist.

To preserve or to hoard?
After seeing room after packed room—sometimes enough items to fill warehouses—a sort of creeping skepticism may quietly appear: when does a respectable collection become an excessive expanse of absurdity? Is it possible to ever have enough of something you love?

“As time goes by, vintage cars are disappearing and becoming more difficult to find, either because their condition is too bad or the remainder is all bought up. You can buy whatever modern car you want—if you have the money. But being rich doesn’t guarantee you every vintage car you’d like. I have a great feeling of satisfaction after I resurrect a vintage car and if there are no people like us in this community, these special cars will eventually go extinct. If you don’t lengthen their ‘life,’ they will eventually deteriorate beyond use,” defended Yin Huiming.

Three of the cars that Yin Huiming collects

Three of the cars that Yin Huiming collects

Nevertheless, if your job presses you to make sure elements from the past are collected and categorized, the question of excess simply doesn’t exist.

“In 1975, Japan published a book with a large amount of Chinese deeds. However, the volume had nothing from Guangdong or Guangxi provinces. Since I was working for the Culture Department at that time, I felt like it meant I wasn’t properly doing my job. So, I started out by only collecting Dongguan deeds and when people found out, they started giving me any deeds they had, but usually not only Dongguan. It soon became a Guangdong deed collection, with more than 5,000 pieces. Today, I have deeds from cities all around China. They’re truly cultural relics,” explained Zhang Tiewen (张铁文).

If educating future generations about historic experiences is the goal, can there ever be a limit to how much knowledge is stored, as well?

The food and goods stamps (vouchers) that Li Yongli collects

“For me, these are not only food stamps, they are an important part of history. I consider them to be culturally significant. These are the evidence of the early days of China. Each stamp is touched by the blood and tears of progress,” Li Yongli rationalized.

But the growth of a nation isn’t always about struggles. When it’s a beautiful tale from the past, the story never gets old.

Li Jiada (李佳达)

Li Jiada (李佳达)

“Let’s do a metaphor. If Chinese civilization is a lush tree, then the stories I collect are the fruits, which contain the gene code of Chinese history. If you directly teach children about moral character, they won’t understand. So, if you want them to understand, tell them a story and their inherent creativity can put them in it. Through these tales, they’ll learn more about China and become Chinese,” described Huang Qiaoyan.

When it comes to knowledge, has anyone ever said another has read too many books or knows too much? No, so why should learning be curbed like everything else?

“For us, our collection is not only about spending money to buy some beautiful motorcycles. The more interesting part is digging out the background of them. This part is endless,” told Li Jiada.

Community matters
Besides amassing item after item, there’s an important subsequent benefit. For many collectors, unlikely friendship often comes along with the hobby. Indeed, the relationships founded through shared interest may become the most important.

Luo Minghui (罗铭辉)

Luo Minghui (罗铭辉)

“Years ago, I went to a big motorcycle event where there would be 1-2,000 people. Halfway there, I saw a guy riding a Harley-Davidson. During that time, I was the only person I knew that had one and considered myself a weirdo. I thought about it: two weirdoes wanted to do something different together. So, we later found each other and are still friends today,” Luo Minghui (罗铭辉) mentioned, smiling.

For other groups, the community may be modest, but growing steadily. A few years into the future, it all may look completely different.

“Right now, there aren’t too many people interested in vintage cars around here. Not so many people have the patience to do it. There is a vintage car association for China, though. It’s possibly most popular in Liaoning, Dalian and northern China, but Dongguan, maybe later,” Yin Huiming clarified.

Sometimes, having a warm network of like-minded people enables you to experience more than you could do alone. Most everything’s better together.

“Actually, there are some toys I could never collect, even if I really want them. For example, I have this super-alloy robot. A real one costs more than 3,000 RMB. Sometimes these things are just too expensive!” Liang Xiaozhi explained passionately.

When history becomes the future
After years of searching, buying and appreciating their collections, what’s next? How long should the habit continue? Is there ever a conclusion to the story, or does it continue on forever, always chasing that “last” final object of desire?

DSC03472

Liang Xiaozhi (梁晓智)

“Zhuangzi has a saying: ‘My life is limited, while knowledge has no limits. To follow a career with no limits would be useless (吾生也有涯,而知也无涯。以有涯随无涯,殆已)!’ I compare this to my collection. Toys are infinite, and it’s impossible to collect them all in your short life,” Liang Xiaozhi explained thoughtfully.

If so much is invested that the people around the collector become worried, should this mark the end of the search?

“My family has told me before that they’re against, even strongly against, me buying and collecting motorcycles,” Li Jiada admitted.

Luo Minghui continued, “I even sold my motorcycles twice because of this same thing. My wife told me directly: ‘We don’t need the second child.’” Of course, something so personal would be hard for others to understand and perhaps, support. But should that be enough to quit?

“Zhuangzi has a saying: ‘my life is limited, while knowledge has no limits. To follow a career with no limits would be useless (吾生也有涯,而知也无涯。以有涯随无涯,殆已)!’ I compare this to my collection. Toys are infinite, and it’s impossible to collect them all in your short life,” Liang Xiaozhi explained thoughtfully.

“I think I have already surrendered to the stories. I now feel myself a farmer plowing in the land of the Chinese tales. There, I have been having a lot of fun and finding wisdom. I will keep on doing this for at least 10 more years,” Huang Qiaoyan declared.

Everyone has one collection or another to which they dedicate so much blood, sweat and tears. Yet, what will happen to them once they are gone?

“When you talk about culture, you need to separate it into traditional and contemporary. Considering traditional culture, it’s very sad because nobody can make a living by studying and preserving it. I have a pension, so I can continue working on it, but not many people would dare be like me. Most of the younger generation tests the water and leaves right away. If we are to preserve the past, we must understand its value in the present by finding and collecting as much as possible,” Zhang Tiewen concluded confidently.

Ultimately, everything has value to the right buyer. And if one thing or another holds importance for you, then avoiding its collection is out of the question.

Category Cover Stories