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.

Abstract:

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.

What did Confucius eat? China’s struggle with culinary heritage

By Philipp Demgenski

Paper presented at the American Folklore Society 2017 Annual Conference in Minneapolis, USA, October 18-21, 2017.

Panel: Traditions in Transition: Intangible Cultural Heritage in Asia

Abstract:

In this paper, I focus on the example of Confucian Family Cuisine (kongfu cai), which was selected as a potential nomination for the UNESCO ICH list, but which also remains strikingly unknown to the general Chinese public. The case reflects a struggle at national and local level, among and within different heritage bodies to get the UNESCO label attached to elements of Chinese cuisine. My paper illustrates some of the frictions that exist at the nodes where a global (food) heritage regime intersects with national and local heritage policies and discourses and also reflects upon some general problems pertaining to the meaning and purpose of food as ICH.

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.

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” 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.