Culinary Frictions: Chinese Cuisine and the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Regime

Paper presented at the Sun Yat-sen University Second International Conference on Food and Culture, Guangzhou, China. April 20-22, 2018.


This paper focuses on the so far unsuccessful attempts to inscribe elements of Chinese cuisine on the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH). Food designated as heritage remains a controversial topic. It has sparked a heated debate among academics and heritage experts, while being embraced by state parties. Despite UNESCO’s ongoing reluctance to consider food-related nominations, many countries have managed to inscribe their cuisines or culinary items on the list (e.g. the French Gastronomic Meal, the Mediterranean diet, Kimchi, Washoku or Naples’ Pizza twirling). In China, a country proud of its culinary tradition and diversity, the question of how to prepare a successful cuisine-related bid has also prominently featured in public discourse. However, the Chinese government, in the form of the Ministry of Culture and its subordinate ICH Department, has not yet chosen to participate in the global race for culinary ICH status. This makes it different from other already successfully inscribed food elements that were mainly top-down state-driven projects. Nevertheless, there are many ICH food nomination initiatives in China coming from private businesses, local governments and the China Cuisine Association (CCA), a commercial association for the Chinese food and catering industry, that try to find ways to indirectly make use of the ICH label and thus capitalize on some of the fame that comes with UNESCO inscription. In this paper, I discuss different actors’ ideas about food and heritage, how they conceive of culinary ICH and for what purposes they are pursuing it. I specifically present ethnographic data on the case of Confucian Family Cuisine (kongfucai), a cuisine that remains strikingly unknown to the general public, but was announced as a potential nomination for the UNESCO Representative list in 2015. It turned out to be an initiative mainly by private actors in Confucius’ birthplace Qufu who wanted to use the UNESCO label for promotion and branding purposes. The way in which actors behind the bid conceived and thought of ICH diverts from the idea of ICH as put forward by UNESCO in that the emphasis rested upon culinary standards, long traditions, techniques and skills and in that the pursuit of the ICH label was mainly for commercial reasons. This paper discusses some of the frictions that exist at the nodes where a global (food) heritage regime intersects with national and local heritage discourses and more fundamentally, also wishes to raise some questions pertaining to the ambiguous stance of UNESCO and the ICH regime towards commercialization and economic development.