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.

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


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.

ICH and development: a controversial relationship

Paper presented at the International Academy on UNESCO Designations and Sustainable Development, UN Campus, Turin, 8-13 October 2017.

The Academy consists in a mix of lectures, working sessions, seminars and debates, together with visits and meetings with relevant stakeholders. Local case studies have been selected considering their specifi
c relevance and their capacity to show good practices in relation to the role of cultural and natural resources towards the attainment UN Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

Cómo “comerse” un patrimonio: construir bienes inmateriales agroalimentarios entre directivas técnicas y empresariado patrimonial

Bortolotto, Chiara . Cómo “comerse” un patrimonio: construir bienes inmateriales agroalimentarios entre directivas técnicas y empresariado patrimonial. [en línea]. Revista Andaluza de Antropología, Num. 12, marzo de 2017., pp. 144-166. ISSN: 2174-6796

Este artículo explora el creciente dominio del patrimonio cultural inmaterial alimentario en el marco de la Convention de la UNESCO para la salvaguarda del patrimonio cultural inmaterial. El análisis traza la fricción entre los principios y objetivos de la Convención y las expectativas iniciales de los primeros proyectos de patrimonialización en la esfera alimentaria. A partir de la observación etnográfica de la producción del expediente de la “Comida gastronómica de los franceses” se revisará el proceso de adecuación de los proyectos locales al dispositivo internacional poniendo así al día el poder performativo de las directivas técnicas elaboradas a menudo informalmente para alinear las solicitudes de los Estados con las prioridades de la Convención. Esta experiencia técnica permite separar los aspectos culturales dentro del sector de la alimentación de otras facetas, incluyendo la comercial, no obstante orgánicamente relacionados con este campo. Si los documentos presentados a la Unesco se esfuerzan por eliminar estos temas polémicos, siguen siendo el centro de las preocupaciones de los actores sociales y políticos, y se encuentran actualmente en el centro del debate sobre la relación entre la salvaguardia del patrimonio cultural inmaterial y el desarrollo sostenible puestos en cuestión por las implicaciones del uso neoliberal de la cultura como un recurso.

This article explores the field of food-related intangible cultural heritage in the framework of the Unesco Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. The analysis outlines the frictions between the Convention’s principles and objectives and the initial expectations of the first heritage projects in the food realm. Grounded on the ethnographic observation of the making of the nomination file of the «Gastronomic meal of the French», the article examines the complex encounter between local priorities and endeavours on one side and international norms and procedures on the other. The tension arising from this encounter sheds light on the agency of technical directives informally put forward by international organisations to harmonise the States’ requests within global governance apparatuses. In our case technical expertise isolates foodways’ cultural aspects from other features, in particular commercial interests, despite their organic integration within this field. Even if the nomination files submitted to Unesco try to clear these controversial matters, the latter stay high among the concerns of social and political actors. Currently at the core of the raising debate on the relationship between the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage and sustainable development within Unesco, ICH’s economic potential question the implications of the neoliberal uses of culture as a resource.