Culinary Tensions: Chinese Cuisine’s Rocky Road toward International Intangible Cultural Heritage Status

Demgenski, Philipp. 2020. “Culinary Tensions: Chinese Cuisine’s Rocky Road toward International Intangible Cultural Heritage Status.Asian Ethnology 79 (1): 115–35.


This article focuses on the so-far unsuccessful attempts to inscribe elements of Chinese cuisine on the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Food designated as heritage has sparked a heated debate among academics and heritage experts, while being embraced by state parties. In China, food-related ICH nomination initiatives have come mainly from private businesses, local governments, and the China Cuisine Association. Only recently have national-level ICH experts taken several initiatives to make Chinese culinary ICH fit the ideas of the Convention, thus making it a potential candidate for a submission to UNESCO. This article discusses different actors’ ideas about food and heritage, how they conceive of culinary ICH, and for what purposes they are pursuing it. The story of Chinese food-related ICH is one of commercialization and the mushrooming cultural industry, but it is also very much a story about different understandings of the concept of ICH and provides insights into how a global concept gets localized in China and is appropriated by different governmental and non-governmental actors, to then be realigned and adapted again to fit the criteria for international inscription.


“When it Comes to Intangible Cultural Heritage, Everyone is Always Happy” Some Thoughts on the Chinese Life of a UNESCO Convention


Demgenski, Philipp. 2020. “When It Comes to Intangible Cultural Heritage, Everyone Is Always Happy” Some Thoughts on the Chinese Life of a UNESCO Convention.” Contemporary China Centre Blog. April 22, 2020.

Proving participation: vocational bureaucrats and bureaucratic creativity in the implementation of the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage

Bortolotto, Chiara, Philipp Demgenski, Panas Karampampas, and Simone Toji. 2020. “Proving Participation: Vocational Bureaucrats and Bureaucratic Creativity in the Implementation of the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.” Social Anthropology 28 (1): 66–82.

This paper investigates the bureaucratisation of the (utopian) ideal of community participation in Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) safeguarding and management. The analysis considers the whole ‘policy life’ of the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of ICH. Our ethnographic examples from UNESCO, Brazil, China and Greece illustrate how bureaucratic operations often disenchant the participatory ideal, alienating it from its original intention. At the same time, driven by their commitment to ‘good’ governance and informed by sentiments of frustration and disappointment with actual policy results, vocational bureaucrats at different administrative levels experiment with and conceive of new tools in order to produce evidence of participation. We demonstrate how this bureaucratic creativity has concrete consequences, which may differ from the intended utopia, but nevertheless bring to life particular interpretations of the participatory principle among the recipients for whom heritage policies were originally designed. Thus, we present a more nuanced picture of bureaucratisation in which officials’ emotions and engagement sustain their agency against structural constraints as well as the futility and fragility of administrative procedures.

International Workshop on “Intangible Cultural Heritage: Reconceptualization, Uses, Marketization” (18.-19. May 2019, Hangzhou, China)

The UNESCO 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage heralded the beginning of a new era pertaining to global (and local) cultural politics. It clearly departed from previous, more rigid definitions and understandings of cultural heritage, instead promoting an understanding of culture as evolving, integrated, subjective and diverse. According to the Convention, it is the communities, groups and individuals—the heritage “bearers”, not experts—that define ICH, imbue it with meaning and value and work towards its safeguarding and management. Today, the Convention has already been ratified by almost 180 State Parties and the concept of ICH is globally operational. However, as the international standard encounters respective national heritage regimes, many controversies and tensions arise pertaining to its interpretation, translation and actual implementation at local levels. Heritage actors in different countries are often struggling to reconcile already existing heritage frameworks with the principles of the ICH Convention, which frequently results in the global standard being subject to transformation and reconceptualization in its implementation process.

The challenges and paradoxes become particularly noticeable in the encounter between the abstract ideal and the concrete uses and manifestations of ICH. One specific and often-discussed issue here concerns the marketization and economic considerations in and of ICH. This is because ICH is by definition “living heritage,” it belongs to its “bearers” and is deeply entangled with their daily lives. Unlike tangible heritage, it is also explicitly allowed to change over time. Hence, as long as it is some “bearers’” wish, marketization may be perfectly in line with the spirit of ICH. At the same time, however, heritage policy-makers, administrators and experts often stress that uses of ICH for the market must be avoided, with the boundaries between what might be acceptable degrees of marketization and what would be over-marketization remaining anything but clear-cut. Similar situations and debates exist pertaining to the issue of staging ICH, which often detaches cultural practices from their original environments and contexts and explicitly turns ICH into a tourism resource.

This workshop is the outcome of a collaboration between the “UNESCO Friction” project based at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in Paris, France and the Institute of Anthropology of Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China. Researchers on both sides have engaged in empirical studies on how the concept of ICH is operationalized and put into practice, including the many challenges that this involves. The “UNESCO Friction” project explicitly traces the social life of the UNESCO 2003 Convention, investigating the entire policy chain that links the international arena with national heritage institutions and local heritage programs in China, Greece and Brazil. Researchers at Zhejiang University have conducted studies on how ICH is implemented in China at national and local levels. We both believe in an engaged approach to the study of ICH and so this workshop is designed to bring together different actors involved in the ICH field—scholars, administrators, policy-makers and “bearers”—to engage in a discussion and exchange about the tensions that exist between the normative ideas and principles underlying ICH on the one hand and its uses and manifestations on the other. The workshop aims at generating a better understanding of what the challenges are that different involved actors at different levels face in bringing to life an idea that was conceived at the global level and subsequently travels down to national and local levels, often being appropriated, reinterpreted and even transformed in the process. Specifically, the workshop wants to understand: how do different ICH actors at different (administrative) levels and in different capacities

  • reconceptualize ICH?
  • use ICH for the market in the context of its safeguarding and management?
  • evaluate/assess the marketization of ICH?

To address these questions, the workshop includes, but is not limited to the following five themes:

  1. Understandings of ICH and its market uses at different (administrative) levels.
  2. Community participation: marketization as heritage self-determination.
  3. Staging intangible cultural heritage and tourism.
  4. Transmitters of ICH: Benefits, reputation and competition.
  5. Cultural Industry: Intangible Cultural Heritage Production-oriented Safeguarding Bases (非物质文化遗产生产性保护基地).

Association of Critical Heritage Studies, Hangzhou, China, 1-6 September 2018

Session Title:

The Global Intangible Cultural Heritage Regime and the Politics of Community Participation in China

Philipp Demgenski

Since ratifying the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) in 2004, China has embraced local culture as an important resource for domestic social and economic development and has been eagerly submitting its ICH elements to be included in the international lists. In this process, the participation of communities, groups and individuals in heritage safeguarding and management– a key idea and defining feature of the 2003 Convention– must be demonstrated and complied with.

In China, min (民), the word for people, is a central and frequently used term and notions such as “folk culture” (minjian wenhua), “ethnic culture” (minzu wenhua) or “folkways” (minsu) are inherently part of the Chinese ICH discourse. This focus on min as the fundamental component of ICH resonates with the UNESCO concept of “community” as the bearer of heritage. But how and to what extent are the ideas of min and “community” actually similar or different? And how is the concept of “community participation” (shequ canyu) localized in China?

This session discusses and scrutinises how the UNESCO ideas of “community” and “community participation” are translated into practice in China, whether and how they may divert from indigenous understandings and how they are understood, interpreted and utilised at different administrative scales and among different ICH stakeholders, at the national/institutional level, among heritage experts or at the level of so-called communities. We particularly investigate case studies on ICH elements that are prepared by China for submission to UNESCO and on those that have already been inscribed on one of the lists. We also particularly welcome contributions on different geographical regions in China.

This session is based on the premise that the notions of “community” and “participation” are never unproblematic or neutral, but inherently political. So instead of asking questions about the efficacy of community participation in heritage safeguarding or whether communities are really empowered by the Convention, what we would like to address and investigate are questions of what community participation actually means to different ICH stakeholders, how the idea is used and for what purposes, who benefits from it and in what ways. In short, we are looking to gain a better understanding of how the 2003 UNESCO Convention shapes and informs a distinctive politics of community participation at national and local levels in contemporary China.

The Participatory Principle in UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage and in China: An Introduction (Philipp Demgenski)

Mass Participation and Commodification of Intangible Cultural Heritage: A Case Study of Quyang’s Stone-Carving Skills in Heibei, China. (Prof. Selina Ching Chan)

Fading Divinity and Rising Glory: Rediscovering “Huangshan” in a Heritage Context (Dr. Luo Pan)

“Leaning on the Big Tree, Sheltering with its Shade”: Mazu as Intangible Cultural Heritage and Local Temple Reconstructions (Dr. Huijuan Ma)

Making “Community” in the Context of Patrimonialization: A Case Study of the Dance of Nuo in Leizhou Peninsula (Shanshan Zheng)

Contested Communities: Negotiating the Politics of Participation in Intangible Cultural Heritage Safeguarding in a Yao Village in Guangdong, China (Daina Chen)

Universe, Windmill, Museum: Diverse Ways of Intangible Cultural Heritage Knowledge Production (Wu Jie)