Bang the Drum

A New Documentary Film Tracing the Path Heritage Takes in a Changing China

William Nitzky
California State University, Chico

In the remote Baiku Yao village of Huaili, deep in southwest China, large bronze drums are alive. They produce a sound that speaks to the heavens, opening the path for the souls of deceased villagers to reach the ancestral land. Beyond the funeral, bronze drums are valued by the Baiku Yao for their anthropomorphic role as a protector of the household. Almost two decades ago, when the Chinese government began to step in to protect this sacred heritage, the life of the bronze drum took a new turn. In my directorial debut, the documentary film Bang the Drum traces the path heritage has taken in a changing China.

In 2008, I began a research project with the Baiku Yao (locally called the Dounou), who live deep in the karst mountains of southwest China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Initially, I didn’t go to Huaili village with the intention of researching bronze drums. Rather, my focus was on the recently-established village ecomuseum, an initiative led by Chinese scholars and the regional government to, on the one hand, help protect and manage heritage, and, on the other hand, promote cultural and ethnic tourism. What began as an investigation on museum development approaches in rural China and the impact of village museumification (Nitzky 2012) became also an ethnography on the social life of community bronze drum heritage and how it was changing under the guise of “heritage protection”. Over the course of my fieldwork, I witnessed how bronze drum culture was reconstituted following its identification by scholars and the Chinese government as heritage worth protecting and how it has been exploited as a cultural symbol of the Baiku Yao in tourism development initiatives.

In 2016, Tanner Hansen (cinematographer and editor) and I traveled from Beijing to Guangxi, to capture the multiple perspectives of Chinese officials, scholars, drum manufacturers and sellers, and village residents on the changing life of the bronze drum. The film, Bang the Drum, captures how Huaili and the ethnic culture of the Baiku Yao fall under the tourist gaze and the bronze drum transforms into a heritage icon. The Baiku Yao are forced to navigate the pressures of the government and the tourist market to maintain their intangible heritage. The film speaks not only to the heritage of the Baiku Yao, but, moreover, to what cultural heritage means to us and the power it has in shaping our lives. What does heritage mean to individuals, communities and even nations? Whose heritage are we speaking of? How does the meaning and expression of cultural heritage change over time?

The full film is available for limited streaming on Vimeo until June 24th:

Contact Dr. William Nitzky for further information. The film and supplemental educational materials are available for educational purposes, and the film is available for library collections.