CHINA HERITAGE NEWSLETTER China Heritage Project, The Australian National University
ISSN 1833-8461
No. 2, June 2005


No. 2, June 2005


In this second issue of China Heritage Newsletter we address issues raised by China's embrace of the notion of intangible cultural heritage, a category of heritage work that still awaits definition by international convention, although this should happen in November 2005.

The People's Republic of China has a surprisingly sound tradition of documenting the nation's cultural heritage, although ironically, prior to the 1980s, it developed at the same time that PRC politics gave license to the wide-scale destruction of that very heritage, both tangible and intangible. This schizophrenic situation mirrors, perhaps, the perennial cultural dichotomy between, for instance, the vaunted obligation to collect folk songs that reflect popular sentiment, as Confucius did, and the concomitant steely determination to outlaw "lascivious music", the dangers of which Confucius spoke about in relation to the corrupting songs of the State of Zheng ("Zheng sheng yin").

In this issue we look at the Chinese interpretation of the concept of intangible cultural heritage, as well as at the threat to that heritage which today is posed by rapid commercialisation, rather than by politics.

The manner in which items of cultural heritage are determined and processed is also of extreme interest, providing as it does a veritable 'case-book study' of the Chinese approach to the politics of lobbying. We leave discussion of this topic to future issues of our newsletter.

We also include here a link to Geremie R. Barmé's recent essay cum manifesto, On New Sinology.


Uyghur Mukam Music of Xinjiang was recently selected as China's single permitted national nomination for possible inscription in late 2005 as part of UNESCO's "oral and intangible heritage of humanity", winning out over its main rival, the martial art form, Shaolin Gongfu (Kung Fu), sometimes bracketed for reinforcement together with Taijiquan ("shadow boxing"), on behalf of which a high-profile campaign employing overseas PR firms, lawyers and scholars had been waged to help prepare the bid. The nomination of Uyghur Mukam Music was revealed in Beijing by the Vice-Minister of Culture, Zhou Heping, at a press conference on 26 April 2005.

These two intangible cultural heritage items are utterly dissimilar. How can one be compared to the other? Uyghur Mukam Music is part of a musical system that extends from China through Central Asia to Turkey, and is specifically the classical musical basis for most Uyghur popular music. With a history extending back to the 15th century at least, its antecedents may well extend much further back in time. It is the quintessential expression of a specific ethnic tradition, albeit greatly distorted in the acculturation of the various Turkic groups of Central Asia. Shaolin Kungfu is, however, even more "intangible", and yet tangible. It exists as a registered trademark in the USA, as a performance form, and as a cinematic tradition in a global and commercial context. It is difficult to position Shaolin Kungfu at this point in history within the confines of the Shaolin Temple at Songshan in Henan Province, and even more difficult to align it with Chan (Zen) Buddhism as some of the proponents of its nomination for listing have recently done. All statements about intangible cultural heritage bristle with theoretical minefields and political pitfalls as they are examined within different cultural contexts, and it becomes difficult to define intangible cultural heritage without recourse to either metacultural constructs or globalised discourses. In other words, how can a unilateral or unified theory address pluralistic cultural forms? Although millions of words have been used to discuss issues related to intangible cultural heritage and folk cultures in UNESCO, few guidelines are actually provided by that organisation to member states.

The debate on intangible cultural heritage began in UNESCO in the 1990s and even earlier, but the organisation only began to list intangible cultural heritage items in 2001, adding new items to the list every two years. China enthusiastically embraced the concept, and by the end of 2003 UNESCO had included Chinese Kunqu Opera and Guqin Music in its list of 47 "world cultural intangible heritages", and, if successful, Uyghur Mukam Music will become China's third cultural heritage item to gain this status.

At the UNESCO biennial conference in Paris on 17 October 2003, China voted in support of the call for a new convention to safeguard "oral and intangible heritage of humanity" – described as the epics, tales, traditional music, rituals and celebrations, craftsmanship, and systems of folk knowledge about medicine, astronomy and the natural world. In August 2004, China joined the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, becoming one of the few member countries included by UNESCO. It is anticipated that the final draft of UNESCO's Convention on the Protection of the Diversity of Cultural Contents and Artistic Expressions will come into effect towards the end of this year.

The concept of intangible cultural heritage has been exhaustively treated and examined by many European and American scholars, yet no translations of key studies such as those by Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, to name just one prominent scholar in the field, have appeared in Chinese. Nor have many international theoretical legal studies on cultural property in relation to either intellectual property or cultural heritage. UNESCO has encouraged, but stood aside from, scholarship and detailed definitions, in a deliberate effort not to impose theoretical constructs on member states. "Intangible cultural heritage" is simply defined by UNESCO as the practices, representations, expressions and knowledge and skills that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognise as part of their cultural heritage.

The concept of "intangible heritage" itself presents problems for Chinese translators. As Zhang Jinping pointed out in the 7 May 2004 issue of Zhongguo wenwu bao (China Cultural Relics News), fei wuzhi yichan (literally, "non-material heritage") perhaps better conveys to most Chinese the sense in which "intangible" is intended than does the now accepted translation of wuxing yichan (literally, "formless heritage", an expression that mirrors the Japanese term mukei, long in use in that country). China's active embrace of UNESCO's new principle of intangible cultural heritage was seen as providing China with the opportunity to formulate its own guidelines on intangible cultural heritage and, in November 2004, Zhou Heping suggested at an International Symposium on the Preservation of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Beijing that China should establish its own list. China is formulating a law for the protection of intangible cultural heritage, but the theoretical guidelines for this law have yet to be spelled out. The Chinese notion of intangible cultural heritage is best viewed through the specific intangible cultural heritage items nominated throughout 2004 and the first half of 2005.

Despite the broad guidelines allowed by UNESCO, the intangible cultural heritage items proposed for nomination by the Chinese Ministry of Culture have been dominated by musical forms. This might reflect the earlier listing of Kunqu and the Guqin. Kunqu has certainly benefited form being listed. In May 2005 the central government announced that it would spend about RMB 10 million yuan (roughly USD1.2 million) annually from 2005 to 2009 to revitalise Kunqu Opera, by collecting traditional librettos, creating new plays, supporting public performances, saving rare materials, promoting opera distribution, and training and rewarding professionals. However, it is arguable that Kunqu was returning to popularity in the 1990s, before its listing by UNESCO. No similar initiatives have been announced for Guqin music, but prices for antique instruments have soared on the local auction market!

The following musical forms have been suggested for nomination over the past two years: the Uyghur Twelve Mukams, Peking Opera, Nanyin, Tibetan drama, Nakhi ancient music, Guangdong Opera, Hua'er, and Yiyang tunes. At the same time the following non-musical intangible heritage properties have been suggested: epics and tales (King Gesar recitative epic of Tibet); languages (Nüshu script, Shuishu script); folk arts (paper-cuts; Yunjin embroidery); and systems of folk knowledge (traditional Chinese medicine; Shaolin Gongfu and Taijiquan).

Every nomination has merits, but it is remarkable how few of the items stray beyond the confines of the traditional PRC notion of folk music and folk culture. This becomes readily apparent when one examines items of intangible cultural heritage nominated in many other countries such as Iran, where community celebrations, rituals and other systems of folk knowledge are preponderant among nominations. The nominated Chinese non-musical intangible heritage items show little innovation, with the exception of traditional Chinese medicine and Shaolin Gongfu. Yet these bodies of knowledge are vibrant, profitable and far from threatened.

The problem is that China has hundreds of individual folk arts and crafts, as well as musical forms and systems. It is in recognition of this that the debate on intangible cultural heritage turned towards folk art forms and folk music. In April 2005, Zhou Heping announced that a UNESCO listing was certainly not the sole focus of the government. China, he said, would conduct a nationwide survey this year to obtain authoritative data on the kinds, number and distribution of intangible heritage items in the country. At the same time, he added China's Law on the Protection of Intangible Cultural Heritage has been drafted and is under review, and China will begin listing forms of heritage at the State, provincial, city and county levels. China hopes to complete the county-level listing by the end of 2005. Thereafter China would begin listing heritage items at the provincial and municipal levels.

In April 2005, it was also reported that the General Office of the State Council was issuing a document providing suggestions on the safeguarding of China's intangible cultural heritage and calling for the establishment of a protective system "with Chinese characteristics".

China is simply far too large, and heritage problems are legion. Many of China's 120 minority languages face extinction, while minority ethnic groups face absorption. China's government has little interest in alternative belief systems, beyond the revival of traditional festivals, largely for purposes of tourism.

On 5 April 2005 China Daily reported that the Suzhou municipal government had announced that it would conduct a general survey of the city's folk arts and crafts and establish a comprehensive database of these within the next ten years, noting that "of 24 categories of folk arts and crafts remaining across the country, Suzhou alone possesses 22".

Rather than define the concept of "intangible heritage" and engage with international debate, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage and the Ministry of Culture have simply steered the debate back towards the traditional, and manageable, notion of state-legislated folk art. [BGD]