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The fine art of bringing the past to life

By Source:China Daily 2017-08-19

Restoration specialists in Tibet strive to repair the region's ancient books

By Palden Nyima and Daqiong in Lhasa, Tibet

As one of only two staff members at the Tibetan Ancient Books Restoration Center, Yangla is the first ancient book restorer in the Tibet autonomous region.

She works to preserve and repair ancient scriptures at the center, which was established in 2015 as an affiliated institution of the Tibet Ancient Documents Preservation Center.

"Those ancient religious scriptures were damaged and had signs of abrasion and corrosion, I felt sad seeing those valuable books remain unrepaired," said Yangla, 44, who used to be a librarian in the Tibet Library and has had access to ancient Tibetan scriptures since 2012.

She decided to become a restorer of ancient books. Uncertain how to proceed, she consulted Saren Gaowa, an official with the National Library in Beijing, who advised her to take some professional courses.

Yangla became an apprentice of Du Weisheng, a well-known ancient book restorer and an intangible culture inheritor with the National Library, in 2013.

At first, she started learning the skill of cleansing. "My teacher spent half a day teaching me, and I spent the rest of the day learning the skill by myself," Yangla recalled, explaining that Du taught her to knead flour in water to create a paste that is resistant to moths.

In addition, she learned skills such as mending, dusting, cleaning, ironing and color matching. The complete restoration of a single page of ancient scriptures requires 26 procedures, she said.

One problem Yangla faced was that the scriptures are usually written on Tibetan paper, which is different from typical paper.

"I told my family to send me two volumes of ancient Tibetan scriptures from Tibet. With the help of my teacher, I learned how to restore Tibetan paper, otherwise, I would have wasted what I had learned," she said.

After two months of intensive study in Beijing and Tianjin, Yangla returned to Tibet and became involved in restoration work. She has now been repairing ancient Tibetan scriptures for five years.

"There are many rules. Restorers cannot use skin care products on their hands, so my hands are very coarse," Yangla said.

She also has to concentrate to avoid damaging the priceless documents. "Restoration requires patience, more patience generates more gain, and I regard book restoration as a way of meditation," she said.

Separating the pages is a difficult part of the work, as ancient scriptures are often unearthed from the debris of ancient monasteries in Tibet and the pages are often stuck together. The scriptures look like bricks.

The pages need to be separated using tools such as tweezers, screwdrivers and pins.

"The job tests one's courage, skills, patience and experience," Yangla said. "It often takes me two days to unveil one page."

Gradually, more people and monasteries have invited her to carry out restoration projects.

In 2015, at the invitation of Mangra Monastery in Tibet's Maldrogungkar county, Yangla and a colleague undertook the restoration of an ancient scripture with more than 200 pages. They managed to restore more than 170 pages.

While her skills have increased, so too have the challenges. At the center, Yangla and her colleague are responsible for collecting, cleaning and repairing ancient documents. The two are always busy and have not much leisure time apart from official holidays.

The center has held two training courses since 2015 and trained more than 60 monks and other monastery workers.

"Restoring ancient books is like communicating with history," Yangla said. "I need not only to improve myself continuously, but also pass my knowledge and skills to new generations.

"I tell my apprentices that when we are dealing with a page of an ancient book, a respectful heart is always needed."

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