China’s Great ICH Wall…

About one month ago, I arrived in China to study Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) as part of our UNESCO Friction project. It is about time to take a stock of some of what I have encountered and found so far. This is of course not to be taken as a well-thought-through or fleshed-out summary. I am merely pooling together some random thoughts and experiences. In a nutshell: I have come across a lot of references to ICH, but I have rarely had the chance to see what really lies behind them. Or more metaphorically, it has been a lot of “bark” and not too much “bite”. I have had the feeling that there is a “Great Wall” protecting not Chinese ICH itself, but the process of defining, selecting and protecting it; I have been coming across (or running against) this invisible “Wall” many times already; it is embellished with banners telling us what lies behind it, but prevents us from ever really seeing it or getting to it and thus understanding how ICH protection really works in China.

Over the past weeks, whenever people asked me what I am doing, I would say that I am studying “ICH in China” followed, if necessary, by a brief explanation of what ICH is (supposed to be). I would then usually get a reaction along the following lines: “there is simply too much of it (ICH) in China,” “China has such a long history and rich tradition, ICH is such an essential part of our country,” “China is a great cultural power” (文化大国)” etc. etc. Explaining what ICH means seemed like a cue for people to ascertain that ICH and China are like chalk and cheese, they simply belong together. ICH, loosely defined as being about “tradition,” “culture,” and “cultural practices,” is indeed found everywhere. One encounters it all the time in everyday life; and, evidently, even more so, when one actively looks for it. Since I arrived in China, there has not been a single day on which I did not discover a new website or WeChat account dealing with something related to ICH. There are shops, museums, badges, signs, brochures and so on that all allude to something “old,” “traditional” and “cultural”, sometimes explicitly using the ICH label, sometimes not. Just yesterday, I walked out of my compound to buy a few groceries, when I came across a small shop selling “Dezhou Braised Chicken.” Underneath the sign “德州扒鸡,” it reads “National-level Intangible Cultural Heritage” (国家级非物质文化遗产). (See photos below).

When asked why they advertised their products with the national ICH slogan, the shopkeeper referred to the long history and the fact that Dezhou braised chicken is famous. A standard answer; but it is undoubtedly true that Dezhou braised chicken is known by (I would imagine) over 80% of China’s population, which, in turn, makes one wonder why the shop feels the need to emphasise/add to the “value” of a well-known product with a label that many people are not so familiar with.

In any case, the point is that ICH is indeed everywhere in China, one finds it at every corner. And this is not least a result of the government’s heavy promotion of heritage in general and ICH in particular. Since 2006, for instance, the second Saturday of June each year marks the “Chinese Cultural Heritage Day” (since 2016, it is referred to as “Cultural and Natural Heritage Day”), when all of the country’s heritage—cultural, natural, intangible—is celebrated and further engrained in people’s minds (officially, the day exists to “increase society’s awareness of heritage protection” 增强全社会的文化遗产保护意识). 

Getting a glimpse behind this facade, behind these slogans, banners and behind the constant talk of “tradition” and “culture”, however, has turned out to be challenging. I have been searching for a “VPN” to “jump the great ICH wall” (翻非遗的墙) of China. But it is just as it is with connecting to a VPN on my computer: not impossible, but extremely difficult, time-consuming and requiring patience.

The question is: what could possibly be so sensitive about ICH that officials are afraid to let anyone take a look at it? I am, at least judging on people’s reactions to the ICH label, interested in learning more about “China’s rich tradition and culture”. Isn’t that something to support?

“ICH is a government project,” I learnt from someone working within a government organisation on protecting “folklore culture” (the predecessor of ICH in China). This is a rather “intangible” and quite broad statement that is nevertheless quite telling. ICH is a government project precisely because it links to global diplomacy, of which UNESCO and its lists are undoubtedly an inherent part. To just give one recent example, Indian media recently reported on its plans to submit Tibetan medicine to be added to the “Representative List,” which is a clear affront to China that quickly followed suit to announce that it would also submit Tibetan medicine (more here). The diplomatic importance and political significance, but also sensitivity, of this case is an extreme example, but very much representative of what ICH is really about. ICH, at least at the level of the UNESCO lists (and to some degree also the national lists) is highly political. This is also why we are never fully allowed to look behind the “Great ICH Wall”. The ICH that we get to see, hear and talk about is not “raw” ICH, it has already been processed and “cooked”. For instance, while diplomatic skirmish has been going on between China and India over the “ownership” of Tibetan Medicine, some interlocutors at Traditional Chinese Medical (TCM) clinics and research centres were happily talking to me about the long tradition and the ICH qualities of TCM in general and the already inscribed acupuncture in particular. Clearly, however, this was already processed ICH that had been made visible for all of us on the outside of the “wall”.