CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 20, December 2009


National Commemorative Ceremonies | China Heritage Quarterly

Research Notes:
National Commemorative Ceremonies

Geremie R. Barmé and Sang Ye

The following material consists of preliminary research notes on two of the eight sites listed as intangible cultural heritage items by a May 2006 State Council decision. Under the title 'Reconfiguring Ideology: Embodying China's new concepts of heritage in commemorative rituals' ('Reconfiguring Ideology' for short), we are undertaking a study of China's newly created 'national rituals' (guoji 国祭). This research was initiated by Bruce Doar with Geremie R. Barmé as part of The ANU China Heritage Project. Funded by the Australian Research Council from 2008, the project is now being carried out by Barmé with Sang Ye.

In May 2006, China's State Council took an unprecedented step into the terrain of civil and popular religion by listing a number of locally based ceremonies and commemorative rituals as cultural heritage items. The legitimisation of these rituals marked a noteworthy departure from long-standing government policy towards popular religious phenomena that, since 1949, were consistently categorised as 'feudal, superstitious remnants'.

It is significant that the State Council included eight traditional, quasi-religious commemorative rituals in its inventory of officially endorsed intangible cultural heritage properties. These augmented previous listings of protected immovable cultural heritage sites—belonging to both the ancient and modern revolutionary periods—issued by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH). For more on this see earlier issues of China Heritage Quarterly, in particular Bruce Doar, 'Approaching the past: Preparing an inventory of intangible cultural properties', and Doar, 'List of 518 intangible cultural heritage properties'. Together, these intangible properties and tangible sites are now identified for protection through government funding, legislation, enhancement and 'development'. In mid-2006, ethnic heritage protection was also significantly included for the first time in a government Five-Year Plan (2006-2010).

Our project, 'Reconfiguring Ideology', aims to examine, document and analyse the particular and broader significance of these commemorative rituals. The eight rituals under investigation are structured around specific commemorative events, ceremonies, locations, cultural landscapes, events, mythical personalities, historical figures and cult heroes. The rituals not only have an appeal within China, but throughout the Chinese diaspora. The preliminary official Chinese documentation of the rituals, some of which have a long history others more recent provenance, does not conform to familiar academic criteria or frameworks provided by anthropology, religious studies, philosophy or even Sinology. Furthermore, these selected rituals cut across the usual categories of ethnicity, philosophy and religion, and form new dynamic categories within the official Chinese conceptual framework which links heritage and development. Any discussion of Chinese heritage and tradition must, we would posit, now take account of these new religious or quasi-religious activities and place them in the broader context of Chinese cultural history. It is also important to investigate how the state is manipulating the rising tide of religiosity by channeling it into politically 'safe' directions and activities under official control.

The concept of jidian 祭典 or 'sacrificial/commemorative ceremony/ritual' ranges from the sacred to the secular; it has different weight in different contexts. In studying Chinese concepts of ritual (li 礼, ji 祭 and dian 典), variously translated into English as rites, ritual, commemorative services, memorial services, and sacrificial services, we must be mindful of the social context in which these concepts are usually explained and interpreted. These traditional notions of ritual are hierarchically normative, and the hierarchical context, as well as the 'ecumenical' reach, of the new ceremonies needs to be studied, as does the more general context in which both official and popular thinkers and policy makers today discuss the sacred and secular (cults vis-à-vis ritual systems). An issue of particular interest to our research is how these new ceremonies attempt to integrate different locales and groups in a less hierarchical way than is achieved by secular state ritual ceremonies.

The scope, research issues and methodologies relevant to this project will be further outlined in future issues of China Heritage Quarterly. For the present we are publishing our preliminary research notes on Qufu 曲阜 in Shandong province, the site of rituals related to Confucius and its fate during the early phase of the Cultural Revolution, and material on the Tomb of the Great Yu or Yu Tomb (Yu Ling 禹陵) outside Shaoxing 绍兴 in Zhejiang province.