Intangible Cultural Heritage “Information and Awareness Raising Event”, Agios Nikolaos, Crete 5/4/2017

Working on the UNESCO Frictions project, I attend Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) related events in Greece. This event was organised by the Directorate of Modern Cultural Assets and Intangible Cultural Heritage (DMCA&ICH) of the Ministry of Culture and Sport in collaboration with the Region of Crete – Lasithi Regional Unity and with the support of the Cultural Associations of the Prefecture of Lasithi.

“The event [was] addressed to local authorities of Eastern Crete (municipalities, development companies, etc.), national and cultural associations and local folklore, historical and other museums and archives of the island, as well as those involved in the recording and study of the folk culture and traditions of Crete, but also to anyone interested in it.

On Wednesday 5/4/2017 [they had] the opportunity to discuss the various aspects of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Eastern Crete, the possibilities offered by the [2003] Convention for the promotion of these cultural traditions and their use for the benefit of the sustainable development of the local communities.” (DMCA&ICH website)

The locals replied to the invitation arriving from much earlier to the room and very soon many people were standing at the back since all the chairs were full. The event began with the Director of DMCA&ICH, Ms Villy Fotopoulou, presenting the 2003 Convention as well as how the DMCA&ICH implements the Convention. Soon after representatives of local ‘communities’ who are preparing a submission or already submitted an element to the DMCA&ICH for inscription on the National ICH lists, presented their work. This provided an example to other ‘communities’ on how to collaborate in order to also draft their own nominations for the inscription of their cultural elements on the National Inventory of the ICH. A few other presenters followed an alternative strategy and presented the actual elements and not the nomination procedure. The audience welcomed both presentation formats and stayed until the end of the event which closed with a brief discussion of the audience with the presenters.

This event was an opportunity for me to come in contact with Cretan cultural associations that engage with the implementation of the Convention. This first contact has already shown some ‘frictions’ between the various interpretations of the Convention by the various participants. These frictions will be explored further in following posts as the Greek part of the research project will start to unfold.

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.

UNESCO at the Chinese New Year parade in Paris

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?

mazu_ich

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.