UNESCO at the Chinese New Year parade in Paris

On February 5, Europe’s biggest Chinese New Year’s parade took place in the 13th arrondissement of Paris. In preparation of my upcoming fieldwork on Intangible Cultural Heritage in China, I ventured out into the crowds to take a look. Chinese New Year (itself commonly celebrated as the epitome of lived traditional culture) among diasporic communities would most certainly offer a colourful array of traditional cultural practices. And I was not to be disappointed. What I encountered was indeed an intangible cultural heritage feast, a carnivalesque potpourri of colourful costumes, martial arts, dance, singing, religious rituals, cultural exchange and also a bit of politics. Several groups that were part of the parade performed or displayed cultural elements that are part of the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. What particularly caught my attention was the members of the Association of Fujianese in France (法国福建会馆) who were moving a small Mazu (妈祖) shrine on wheels along the parade. Mazu is a goddess of the sea and thus particularly worshipped in coastal regions (for more on Mazu, see here and here). The Mazu Beliefs and Customs were submitted to UNESCO by China and inscribed on the Representative List in 2009. I was surprised to see two eye-catching yellow banners (one on each side of the shrine) proclaiming the fact that Mazu is included in the UNESCO World (Intangible) Heritage List (see image). Notably, the word “intangible” is only mentioned in Chinese, but omitted in French. The claim is evidently wrong because Mazu was inscribed on the Representative List of Intangible Heritage, which is very different from the World Heritage List and there is no such thing as a “World Intangible Heritage List”. But nitpicks aside, the interesting question is why the Association of Fujianese in France evidently regarded it as important to use the UNESCO label at a Chinese New Year’s parade in Paris. Why was that piece of information necessary? Why indeed was it so prominently displayed on two fairly big banners on either side of the Mazu shrine? Was it a way to stand out among the many cultural practices, the dragons, the snakes, the costumes that after a while seemed to blend into and become indistinguishable from each other? Was it going to add any cultural capital to the display of Mazu (culture) at the parade?


Well, perhaps it means nothing at all. But the fact that the Fujianese were the only group that used the UNESCO label at the parade seemed at least peculiar. And it certainly hints at what may be waiting for me in China in terms of the many ways in which the UNESCO ICH Convention impacts cultural practices.