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September 24, 2017

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Tibet's thangkas find new fans across China

BEIJING -- Her eyes riveted to the canvas, Wulan meticulously applies color to an image of the Buddha, using pigments made of crushed pearls, turquoise and agate.

The 34-year-old is one of dozens of students at a school in Lhasa learning the medieval Tibetan art of "thangka" — minutely detailed paintings depicting Buddhist deities or symbols, usually on cotton canvas or silk scrolls.

But she is not Tibetan. Ethnically Mongol, she moved 2,500 kilometers (1,600 miles) to embark on seven years of studies.

Beijing's forces took over Tibet in 1951 and the Communist government reviles the exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, but the region's traditional religious art is now increasingly being embraced by outsiders — including from China's Han ethnic majority — as both buyers and producers.

"Thangkas are captivating a growing number of people," said Wulan. "Traditional cultures are more and more recognized in China, which wasn't always the case in the past, during the economic boom."

In their heyday centuries ago thangkas had patrons and practitioners in Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet and northern India, and in 2009, UNESCO added them to its list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity, calling them "an integral part of the artistic life of people" on the Tibetan plateau.

Now there are more than 100 apprentices — including some Han Chinese, the country's overwhelming ethnic majority — at Wulan's Danba Raodan school, who get free tuition in return for helping their teachers with their paintings.

The students spend 10 hours every day learning how to trace figures in pencil, wield delicate paintbrushes and apply pigment to canvas.

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