Preservation of China’s Intangible Cultural Heritage

From: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2011-09-20 13:10
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 The intangible cultural heritage of a nation is the crystallization of the essence of the culture and wisdom of that nation. China is a nation comprised of 56 nationalities that have created a great treasure of intangible cultural heritage over a long period of time. The accelerated pace of industrialization and urbanization taking place since the country initiated the policy of reform and opening up, however, has brought about major changes in the work and lifestyles of the people and damaged to varying degrees the environment on which the country’s cultural heritage relies for existence. This has presented us with the pressing task of rescuing and preserving the country’s intangible cultural heritage that is in danger or facing a difficult future.

 China signed the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2004. The following year, the General Office of the Chinese State Council issued the “Guidelines on Intensifying Efforts to Protect the Intangible Cultural Heritage of China,” and the State Council issued the “Notice on Intensifying Efforts to Protect Intangible Cultural Heritage.” These documents outlined the government’s principles and policies concerning preservation of our intangible cultural heritage. The Chinese Ministry of Culture has been gradually setting up a fairly comprehensive system over the past few years for the preservation of intangible cultural heritage with Chinese characteristics following a principle of “putting preservation first, concentrating on salvation, making rational use and carrying on and developing China’s intangible cultural heritage.” We have mainly been working in the following areas in recent years.

 We carried out a nationwide survey of intangible cultural heritage. This is a basic part of our efforts to preserve China’s intangible cultural heritage. The Ministry of Culture arranged the survey in June 2005 in order to obtain a clear picture of the country’s intangible cultural heritage, surveying the types, amounts, distribution, conditions for survival, state of preservation and current problems for the intangible cultural heritage of all ethnic groups in the country. This was the first nationwide survey ever taken of the country’s intangible cultural heritage. All local governments viewed this survey as an important matter and carefully organized the work, involving millions of people from the top down to urban communities and rural towns and villages. Through this survey, the public learned about the significance of preserving intangible cultural heritage and became more knowledgeable about how to preserve intangible cultural heritage. The survey had a great impact on the general public and made people more aware of the importance of preserving intangible cultural heritage, and as a result, more personnel were trained in the preservation of intangible cultural heritage.

 Sichuan Province attaches great importance to the rescue and protection of intangible cultural heritage in the reconstruction work following the Wenchuan earthquake. Efforts to protect the intangible cultural heritage of the Qiang ethnic group have already produced results. Xiuxi Village and some other Qiang villages in Puxi Township, Lixian County have already begun receiving tourists. / Photo by Xinhua reporter He Junchang

 Catalogs of the country’s intangible cultural heritage were created. The creation of these catalogs is a manifestation of the government’s leading role in this work. The State Council approved the publications of the first and second national catalogs of intangible cultural heritage in 2006 and 2008 that contained 1,028 items in total and were grouped in ten categories. The ten categories are folk literature, traditional music, traditional dance, traditional theatre, vocal art, traditional sports, entertainment and acrobatics, traditional fine arts, traditional skills, traditional medicine and folk customs. Each province, autonomous region and municipality directly under the central government created a catalog of intangible cultural heritage of their own, and these contained 4,315 items in total. Some local governments below the provincial level also made their own catalogs. A fairly comprehensive catalog and preservation system is now taking shape for the intangible cultural heritage of China.

 We identified representative inheritors of China’s intangible cultural heritage. The inheritors are important in carrying on and passing on intangible cultural heritage. They represent a living treasure house of intangible cultural heritage and are responsible for passing down this heritage from generation to generation. Protection of the inheritors of intangible cultural heritage is a key link in the work of safeguarding intangible cultural heritage. In order to ensure effective protection of these inheritors, the Ministry of Culture promulgated the “Interim Measures for the Determination and Administration of Inheritors of Intangible Cultural Heritage.” Since 2006 the Ministry of Culture has officially recognized three groups of people totaling 1,488 individuals as state level inheritors of intangible cultural heritage. The governments of the provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the central government have recognized 5,590 persons as inheritors of intangible cultural heritage at the provincial level. The cultural departments recorded information on the recognized inheritors of intangible cultural heritage, arranged sites where they could pass on their knowledge, provided financial support for activities to pass on their knowledge, organized exchange activities and publicity, collected and stored representative works of intangible cultural heritage, and set up archives to energetically support efforts of inheritors to pass on their knowledge to apprentices.

 We set up cultural ecology protection zones. A cultural ecology protection zone is a specific area set up for the core purpose of protecting intangible cultural heritage in places where there is a rich historical store of intangible cultural heritage that is well preserved, has a strong local cultural flavor of high value and is worthwhile to preserve the entire area intact in order to promote balanced and sustained economic and social development. The Ministry of Culture has now set up four pilot cultural ecology zones, the Southern Fujian Pilot Cultural Ecology Protection Zone, the Huizhou Pilot Cultural Ecology Protection Zone, the Regong Pilot Cultural Ecology Protection Zone and the Qiang Nationality Pilot Cultural Ecology Protection Zone. In addition, Meizhou in Guangdong and other localities have applied to the Ministry of Cultural to set up cultural ecology protection zones.

 We sped up construction of museums and schools for the preservation of intangible cultural heritage. These buildings serve as the important infrastructure for storing, displaying, studying and teaching the general public about intangible cultural heritage and serve as important sites for the work of preserving and passing on intangible cultural heritage. Provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities under the central government have been building museums and schools for the preservation and dissemination of intangible cultural heritage and have already completed construction of a varied group of museums and schools for intangible cultural heritage.

 We are making appropriate use of intangible cultural heritage resources to promote the continuation and development of intangible cultural heritage. Traditional skills, a type of intangible cultural heritage, are strongly associated with a particular ethnic group and are not only characterized by low energy consumption, zero pollution and quick returns, but are also suitable for developing a labor-intensive sector of the culture industry. Guangdong liangcha (literally, “cool tea”) is now being mass produced using the traditional formula and technology, increasing the total output value from 300 million yuan to more than 30 billion yuan. After the technique for producing Fujian’s Wuyiyan tea was entered in the national catalog of intangible cultural heritage, sales volume increased more than 10-fold. The many troupes from Huanxian County, Gansu that put on shows with leather silhouette figures are now making a good income performing across the country and production of fragrance pouches in Qingyang County has given a boost to the local economy. These examples all show how intangible cultural heritage can become part of society, be part of the modern age, become part of people’s lives, capture the attention of the public, stimulate the development of related industries, boost domestic demand and expand employment. For a large number of famous long-standing enterprises such as the traditional herbal medicine pharmacy Tong Ren Tang and the traditional Chinese ink and water painting and calligraphic workshop Rong Bao Zhai in Beijing, the preservation and dissemination of valuable Chinese intangible cultural heritage has been the key to their development and gained strength and vitality from preservation through production activities and by reinventing traditional techniques, which has in turn increased the impact of national brands based on intangible cultural heritage. The appropriate use of the cultural content of intangible cultural heritage has had great significance for the effort to promote artistic innovations and the growth of the cartoon and animation industry and develop a group of influential brand names in the culture industry.

 We actively participated in international exchange and cooperation. China was one of the first countries to sign the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage and was elected to the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage by a high vote count. China sent delegations to the committee’s conferences a number of times in recent years. China held the second Chinese Chengdu International Festival of Intangible Cultural Heritage and an international forum in Chengdu, Sichuan on Cultural Heritage Day 2009 which resulted in the Chengdu Consensus. China won UNESCO approval to set up an “Asia-Pacific Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Center” in the compound of the China Art Academy, for which the unveiling ceremony will take place in the near future. China has been actively working to have its items to be listed in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding. China had 22 items of intangible cultural heritage listed by UNESCO in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, including Cantonese Opera that was a combined submission of Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macao, and had three items included in the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding during 2009. The 25 items approved in 2009 plus the four items approved earlier bring China’s total to 29, making China the world leader for the number of items approved by UNESCO for its lists.

 We carried out a great deal of theoretical study. While working to preserve the country’s intangible cultural heritage, China has been constantly making progress and improving theoretical study of intangible cultural heritage, which in turn has helped promote the work of protection of intangible cultural heritage. The Chinese Ministry of Culture and governments of provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the central government have hosted many large-scale domestic and international academic conferences and forums to carry out in-depth exchanges and inquiries on the mechanism for managing intangible cultural heritage, formulating legislation to protect intangible cultural heritage, protection of intangible cultural resources and their ecological environment, protection of inheritors of intangible cultural heritage, development of cultural ecology protection zones, preservation of intangible cultural heritage through production, protection of intangible cultural heritage at sites of natural calamities and international experience in protecting intangible cultural heritage. These have served to guide us in our work. A number of academic works on the subject, including An Introduction to Intangible Cultural Heritage, have been published in China, raising the theoretical level of protection efforts.

 We intensified publicity and education efforts. The State Council designated the second Saturday of June as “Cultural Heritage Day” to raise public awareness of intangible culture and create a good atmosphere in society for the protection of intangible cultural heritage. Local culture departments across the country have taken advantage of “Cultural Heritage Day” since it was established in 2006 as well as traditional festivals like Chinese New Year, Dragon Boat Festival and the Mid-Autumn Festival to stage publicity and exhibition activities such as exhibitions, demonstrations, forums and seminars. They have also used all types of media to mount a concentrated, comprehensive and thorough campaign to keep the public informed about our work. The Ministry of Culture staged the China Exhibition of Achievements in the Protection of Intangible Cultural Heritage, the China Exhibition of Intangible Cultural Heritage, the China Exhibition of Intangible Cultural Heritage and Traditional Skills, theatrical performances to show rare drama forms and performances of the traditional music and dance of minority ethnic groups, as well as the first and second Chengdu International Intangible Cultural Heritage Festival and “Watching over Our Spiritual Home – the First Cross-Strait Intangible Heritage Month.” “Style of the Nation – A Special Theatrical Performance for the Protection of Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage” was staged in the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall in Taipei on November 7, 2009 and “Root and Soul – A Grand Exhibition of Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage” was staged in Taizhong, Taiwan, December 12 the same year, both of which were warmly received among people from all walks of life in Taiwan. The cultural departments of local governments across China have worked with educational departments to incorporate Chinese folk songs and folk music in music classes and paper cutting, traditional New Year’s pictures and other traditional Chinese folk arts into art classes in primary and secondary schools to incorporate intangible cultural heritage into the classroom, into textbooks and into schools. 

  Intangible cultural heritage is a dynamic type of culture that is an important part of people’s lives. It retains its unique brilliance and allure in the modern era, and provides endless drive for passing on culture and promoting social development as well as a good foundation and resource for cultural innovation. Protecting the country’s intangible cultural heritage is therefore an unshirkable mission and responsibility of every Chinese citizen. 

(From Qiushi in Chinese, No. 4, 2010)


Note:  Author: Vice Minister of the Ministry of Culture of P.R.C

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