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A better way to protect intangible cultural heritage

(People's Daily Online)

15:03, September 20, 2012

(File Photo)

Local governments arranged for a large number of inheritors of intangible cultural heritage (ICH) to attend various expos every year, but many of these inheritors are not happy about that. A Qinghai province-based Thangka artist told the reporter, “Almost all of our products are tailor-made for temples, and it takes several people more than half a year to fill an order as it is pure handwork. Expo is not a suitable place for these artworks, which are not for sale. I felt very uncomfortable when some visitors took a casual look at our products and asked about their prices.” Intangible cultural heritage will become as cheap as most tourism souvenirs one day if it continues to be showed and hawked this way.

There is no lack of intangible cultural heritage in China, but not all of its ICH items are suitable to be exhibited at expos. Many products sold at expos in the name of intangible cultural heritage are actually the same as other commercial products. Shadow play is an ICH item, but products developed based on shadow play is beyond the scope of ICH. Sellers boast their liquor or herbal tea of being intangible cultural heritage, but it is the liquor-making techniques and herbal tea recipe, rather than the beverage that have achieved ICH status. Handicrafts carry the memories of various ethnic groups, and the ICH title covers much more than just unique and exquisite handicrafts.

There have appeared many ICH theories in recent years, and many ICH items have bowed to the pressure of industrialization. For example, the so-call “productive protection” is misleading and may lead to blind practice. Productive protection is not suitable for all ICH items. Handicrafts can be recognized in the form of production while some of the traditional art forms are sponsored by commercial performances, such as Quyi, folk dances, and plays. However, certain traditional cultural practices, rituals, and customs cannot be “commercialized.” In some areas, local authorities restore ancient ceremonies of heaven worshiping, the intention were good though, and make it every year as a tourism lure, which discredit ICH indeed.

China has announced thousands of national ICH items, and named thousands of representatives of the inheritor. However, the huge number does not keep authorities on the right track in protecting intangible cultural heritage. Many local governments struggle fiercely for intangible cultural heritage, and some claim to be the hometowns of such legendary figures as Meng Jiangnu, Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, Cowherd and Weaving Girl, and Bai Suzhen. ICH parks and cultural ecosystem parks were quickly constructed when locals finally won the ICH status. Instead of boosting local tourism and create new economic growth points, the specially made sites soon fell into disfavor.

Government subsidies and legislation are not enough to hand down ICH generation by generation ICH. The inclusion in an ICH list means nothing but the recognized responsibilities. The masses are in fact the main force in carrying forward intangible cultural heritage, while the government should be more supportive and provide with fertile soil for cultural heritage taking roots. ICH, the treasure of human civilization, is not allowed to be used as tools of local tourism industry growth nor the achievements of officials' career.

Read the Chinese version: 非遗不是摆设
Source: People's Daily; Authour: Wen Bai
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