Fossilisation, Commercialisation or Participation? Exhibiting Intangible Cultural Heritage in China

By Philipp Demgenski

Paper presented at the “Museum Collection, Exhibition and Interpretation: in Anthropological Perspective” Museum Anthropology Conference organised the Chinese National Museum of Ethnology, held in Beijing, China, August 1-2, 2017.

Abstract:

The 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage has opened up a discursive space and provided a distinct value framework to state parties, enabling them to conceive, define and appraise their Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH). The Convention can thus not merely be seen as a neutral tool to identify and safeguard existing cultural practices and traditions, it has to also be regarded as an active agent in (re)shaping and (re)making “culture” under the label of ICH. In China, for instance, ICH or what is locally known as feiyi (非遗) introduced a new category, a new value system, under which different stakeholders (government, scholars and bearers alike) have been able to operate and get a grip on what was previously indistinctly labelled as “folk culture” (民间文化) or “folk ways” (民俗). It is for this reason that the question of how to exhibit ICH can only be addressed with reference to and within the specific context of the Convention. Based on currently ongoing ethnographic research on the implementation of the Convention in China, in this paper, I discuss different forms and contexts in which ICH is being exhibited and displayed in China. I provide examples from so-called ICH Exposition Parks (非物质文化遗产博览园), Cultural Theme Parks, Ecological and other Museums. I show that the majority of these ways of exhibiting ICH either lead to the fossilisation or to the commercialisation of a given ICH element or to both. I also show that the participation, as defined by the Convention, of the heritage bearers is often only minimal. In this regard, ICH as it manifests itself through exhibitions and displays in China diverts from the spirit of the Convention that particularly emphasises the widest possible participation of ICH communities, groups or individuals in the maintenance, transmission and management of heritage. However, viewed from a different perspective, in the context of China’s larger development and modernisation programme, ICH exhibitions actually offer heritage bearers an opportunity to actively participate in and benefit from national economic development.

 

China’s Cultural and Natural Heritage Day

Since 2006, the second Saturday of June each year marks China’s Cultural Heritage Day. Since last year, following respective suggestions by the UNESCO Office Beijing, it goes under the name of “Cultural and Natural Heritage Day”. Two days ago, the Ministry of Culture held a press conference announcing the main theme, the slogans and events for this year’s “Cultural and Natural Heritage Day,” of which ICH turns out to be the major element. The main theme reads “ICH Safeguarding Practices: Transmission and Development Coming to Life” (非遗保护——传承发展的生动实践). The key slogans are “ICH Safeguarding: Promotion in everyday life, revitalisation in practice” (保护非遗——在生活中弘扬,在实践中振兴”), “Safeguarding and Transmitting ICH, Displaying Wisdom of Everyday Life” (“保护传承非遗,展现生活智慧”), “Living Communities, Living ICH (“活力社区,活态非遗”) and “Revitalising Chinese Traditional Arts and Crafts (“振兴中国传统工艺”). On the 10th of June, over 1700 events will simultaneously take place across the country, with the main one in Chengdu (Sichuan province) between June 10 and June 18. According to the official report, it will include a series of international ICH exhibitions, international conferences and forums (including an Open ended intergovernmental working group on developing an overall results framework for the Convention), ICH competitions and a series of activities involving traditional Chinese performing arts entering communities. The festival will focus on the “transmission and development of China’s excellent traditional culture, the revitalisation of traditional arts and crafts and the active mobilisation of the international and national community to widely participate in and comprehensively display the unique charm and safeguarding results of Intangible Cultural Heritage”.  On top of this, workshops, training sessions, forums and conferences will be held in all parts of the country. So, as the report promises, “at the time, all citizens will be able to participate in ICH activities not far from where they are”. Several TV stations will furthermore broadcast ICH related programs.

This year’s Heritage Day will possess the following special characteristics:

1. Implement the essence and spirit of a series of documents issued by the Central Government pertaining to the transmission and development of China’s excellent traditional culture and firmly propagating the notions on correct ICH safeguarding practices.

2. Focus on ICH practice and pay attention to the innovative transformation and creative development of excellent traditional culture.

3.Actively bundle all efforts and try everything to build a structure and stable system to propagate ICH safeguarding to society.

4. Actively create new and innovative forms of activities and work towards raising the attractiveness and influence of the Heritage Day.

An Urban Neighbourhood is Trapped in Transformation: The Past and Present of Old Qingdao (城市空间的转型困境:青岛老城区的历史与近况)

By Philipp Demgenski

Public talk given at the Research Centre for Land and Cultural Resources at the Department of Cultural Heritage and Museology of Fudan University, China.

The talk was the seventh in a series titled “Fudan Cultural Heritage Preservation Series”. 5. April 2017 at Fudan University, Shanghai, China.

The talk was given in Chinese and addressed the problems revolving around a run-down inner city neighbourhood in the northeastern Chinese city of Qingdao that was not so long ago rediscovered as a place of historical and cultural importance. So-called experts have been calling for the preservation of its “tangible” artefacts, namely the architectural remains. The talk questioned the distinction between “tangible” and “intangible” by focusing on how the neighbourhood, its architecture and spatial composition had specific meaning and “use-value” to different predominantly disadvantaged urban groups. The talk also highlighted that the neighbourhood itself is an evolved urban entity whose value is to be found in its transformation over the past century, a transformation that is still ongoing. Finally, the talk addressed some more fundamental issues pertaining to urban development and so-called “preservation-oriented redevelopment” projects in China.

A summary with photos can be found here (in Chinese).