Lament for Chinese Toys of Old ; Globalization and China's Opening Threaten a Folk Culture That Had

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It's an unlikely venue for a toy show. Paramilitary troops and surface-to-air missiles guard this vast, Soviet-style exhibition palace in western Beijing, but they are unlikely to fend off a long- running assault on the fragile materials inside.

The Museum of Military Affairs is showcasing Beijing opera masks, giant pinwheels, hand-inscribed paper balls, and other antique playthings that are likely to fall victim to the march of time and forces of globalization.

"China's market reforms and opening to the world have been great for the economy, but are threatening the survival of folk toys and other remnants of our cultural past," says toy collector Liang Zuwang.

Mr. Liang organized the just-opened exhibit of ancient toys at the unlikely military museum forum in a bid to preserve this piece of the Chinese arts into the next century.

China's two-decade drive toward global integration has unleashed rapid-fire changes here: Chinese youths drink Coca-Cola while watching "Star Wars" or surfing the Web, and a generation gorge separates them from their grandparents. Mickey Mouse, Belgian cartoon character Tin Tin, and Sony PlayStations have invaded Chinese toy stores, and children across the country are in danger of losing all ties to their cultural roots, says Liang.

"Kids today only want to play with electronic games that bring instant gratification and happiness," he says. "The simpler toys of the past forced children to use their imagination, and each toy carried a treasure house of information about China's past and its evolution."

Liang's nearby courtyard home, in the middle of a maze of hutongs, narrow alleyways, is a time capsule of toys from virtually every corner of China and every stage of its millennia-long history.

The retired toy-factory manager has traveled from the northern steppes of Inner Mongolia to the southern tropics of Hainan Island in his quest to rescue traditional toys.

"These tiny people," says Liang as he points to a group of inch- high, hand-painted clay figures, "represent Beijingers at the turn of the 19th century." The Chinese Lilliputians include stilt- walkers, a hawker banging a tin drum to advertise his wares, and a craftsman preparing to mend an iron bowl.

"They have all faded from Beijing's streets, and now their replicas could completely fade from our memories as the last artisans who create these figures die," says Liang.

Holding up an intricately painted shadow puppet, the collector explains how the first Chinese screen stars evolved. "These puppets were used as far back as the Song Dynasty (960-1279)," he says. …