MU Connect issue 1 (Jan 2022) page 14 and 15

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Keeping traditional Chinese etiquette alive in the contemporary world
Cultural heritage work by the Department of Creative Arts

The HKMU Tin Ka Ping Centre of Chinese Culture partnered with the Institute for Chinese Classics Studies of Tsinghua University to launch the Chinese Etiquette Animation Project. In the past two years, staff and students from the HKMU Department of Creative Arts participated in the design and production of a series of five animations including Yili (The Capping Ceremony of Officer), Yili (Rites of the Provincial Archery Competition) and Chinese Daily Etiquette in the Workplace, as well as a picture book, A Story of the Manner Cat. Their attempt in modernizing the Chinese classic Yili (Book of Etiquette and Ceremonial) with in-depth and easy-to-comprehend explanations has won them wide acclaim. As a result, they scooped the first prize under the category of ‘Reform and Innovation in Aesthetic Education’ in the Sixth National College Student Art Exhibition organized by the Chinese Ministry of Education, and HKMU became the single winner among universities in Hong Kong.

Encouragement: a balancing act between academic and creative pursuits

Credit must be given to the teaching staff for such encouraging results. Dr Lee Lok-man, the Department’s Assistant Professor and Chinese etiquette coach, guided students to interpret the original text of Yili accurately. He believes it is fine to promote ancient classics using a popularization approach rather than doing it solemnly, although there must be some trade-offs for it to work. ‘We must strike a balance between creativity and academic pursuit,’ he says. ‘For relatively hard-to-understand academic content, the gist of the original text must be retained while giving students the freedom to express their creativity. We need to think and rethink in order to strike the right balance. This isn’t that easy though.’

The team from the Chinese Etiquette Research Centre of Tsinghua University turned their research results on Yili into a film, from which students have gained a deeper understanding of the original text of the book and ancient etiquette rules. Dr Lee and Prof. Peng Lin, Director of the Centre, concurred that while academic studies must be rigorous to preserve our traditional culture, students should be given much freedom in story creation. Students’ creative space was vast. For example, the picture book team conceived a dance scene but couldn’t find any record of it in the ancient classics. The idea wasn’t turned down though; instead, the researchers were inspired to dig deeper into the classics, leading them to rethink and come up with new possibilities for costumes as well as scenic backgrounds and furnishings. They then helped students to adjust their content, making the dance scene even more colourful and impressive.

Teachers: Freedom for students to express themselves fully

The project aims to enrich students’ practical experience. Senior Lecturer Mr Vincent Mak was responsible for leading and guiding the animation team. ‘Artistic creation needs to be buttressed by a sense of achievement’, he says. ‘I hope students will see the project as a challenge and develop an interest in it. Once they’ve built up the momentum, they’d continue to produce quality work.’ He grouped the students according to their level of performance. Each team decided on a topic before doing the production during the summer holidays. Although the theme of the animation could not be changed, there was no restriction on the artistic style, and students could choose whatever media they like for their creative work. ‘Good animation is often the result of teamwork, and collaboration between members is hugely important. I hope they will really work hard on this,’ he says. Although students have their own individual creative and artistic styles, he was deeply gratified that they could work in harmony and express their creativity by making their work fun and playful while revitalizing traditional Chinese etiquette.

Ms Patsy Yuen, the lecturer who led the picture book team, was particularly impressed by the students’ devotion to the production. ‘Every illustration in the picture book must be drawn accurately and the content must be arranged in the correct order. As the pandemic was severe then, I often had to discuss details of picture composition with students through video conferencing and work till midnight,’ she recalls. Since no concrete story line could be devised in the beginning, she and the students selected three main parts and used a stray cat character to bring out the dining etiquette of the Zhou Dynasty. Students also added lively and entertaining content to make this modern story more interesting.

Students: Put knowledge into practice and learn more

Four students including Chan Chi-yan and Choy Yan-tung produced the stop-motion animation Yili (The Capping Ceremony of Officer), which focuses on the theme of coming-of-age. Few people would produce stop-motion animation nowadays as it requires a lot of skills. ‘Members love to make handicrafts! I was mainly responsible for photo-taking. I like the feeling of shooting real objects as the effect would be more special,’ says Chi-yan. ‘I guessed we wouldn’t be able to do this kind of animation in the workplace in the future, so we might as well grab the opportunity and try it out this time.’ Scenic backgrounds and costumes were all hand-made. Yan-tung points out that the ancient architecture, such as the staircases they erected in the beginning, was later found to be far from what is depicted in the classics. So they had to be demolished and rebuilt. She also participated in the production of the picture book and had a similar experience. The idea of a cat looking into a house through a window had to be modified when they found out that houses in ancient times only had small triangular windows at the corners. They really learnt a lesson in ancient architecture.

Yili (Rites of the Provincial Archery Competition), a piece by Fok Ka-him, Ng Tsun-ho and two other students, adopts the Japanese anime style. ‘We followed our favourite animation styles and added elements such as hot-blooded youth, time travel, comedy, fights and friendship,’ says Tsun-ho. The protagonist even wears VR glasses to play video games, travels to the past to learn archery and becomes more mature afterwards. Although the story is highly imaginative and seems outlandish, details such as the protagonist’s bare-arm shooting attire and back caning as punishment are portrayed accurately based on ancient rules and customs as depicted in the classics. Tsun-ho was determined to produce a good piece of work that could stand the test of time. ‘We need a story with a convincing plot and rich imagery. Although the film is a bit long, it can’t be cut as all the content is indispensable,’ he says. The team members collaborated for the first time and it wasn’t plain sailing in the beginning. ‘We barely knew each other and used different computer software. But with our team leader’s coordination, there was a clear division of labour to bring out the best from every team member,’ says Ka-him.

Chinese Daily Etiquette in the Workplace, which focuses on the proper application of traditional etiquette in our contemporary society, was a collaborative effort of Yu Wing-yin, Wong Shu-ting and Ho Hei-to. The theme is presented through different ranks of office workers, emphasizing the story plot and character depiction. ‘We used lots of dialogue to advance the plot and portray the characters, while providing information on etiquette at the same time. We tried to make it fun and not to be didactic,’ says Wing-yin. Office workers are presented through hand-painted cute animal characters. ‘Although this is about traditional Chinese philosophy, we didn’t want to be dogmatic and boring. So we adopted a simple style and included cute characters with over-the-top gestures and lots of colours, hoping to make the story more appealing,’ explains Hei-to. Wing-yin did voice-overs for all six characters in the film, demonstrating amazing vocal skills. ‘This was in fact my first voice-over attempt. It has uncovered my potential in this area unexpectedly,’ she says with a cheerful smile.

Yili (The Capping Ceremony of Officer)

A Story of the Manner Cat

Applause: teamwork boosts confidence

Staff and students worked closely hand in hand. Students put the skills they had learnt into practice and contributed their best towards the project, gaining much appreciation from their tutors. ‘They really put their heart and soul into the production. Wholehearted devotion is important indeed!’ The students’ productions have been presented at academic seminars, not only gaining praise from scholars, teachers and the media, but also winning the first prize in a national art event for college students. Dr Lee Lok-man pointed out that they used the slogan ‘Professionalism and Popularization’ in the competition to highlight the project’s integration of academic pursuit and popular interest, and the importance of striking a balance between the two. ‘The award recognizes the success of the entire project and affirms that we have nurtured outstanding artistic talent,’ he says.

The students are overjoyed and proclaim that ‘The prize was indeed a big surprise!’ Apart from happiness, there are other feelings and expectations. ‘I hope that the award will allow our productions to be seen by more people,’ says Chan Chi-yan. ‘Team members worked hard to build solidarity so that every task could be completed smoothly. It was a precious experience and I’m even happier to have an award to engrave it in my mind,’ Fok Ka-him says emotionally. ‘My capability has been recognized by others. We’re just students, but our productions are “presentable”. I have more self-confidence now and wish to move forward in this direction,’ says Wong Shu-ting hopefully.

With the extension of the project, which has entered its third year, more productions will be released successively. The above productions will be shown in classrooms and at academic seminars, in addition to other platforms. There are also plans afoot to publish the picture book and put it in print.