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.
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.
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.