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China's efforts to protect its intangible cultural heritage

2014-06-17 10:46 Global Times Web Editor: Li Yan

Intangible cultural heritage (ICH) protection, a topic that has been gaining more and more attention around the world, is accomplished in different ways in different countries.

Helping oversee the application and approval of national ICH protection, Ma Shengde, deputy director-general of the Department of Intangible Cultural Heritage, Ministry of Culture, sat down with the Global Times to share China's experiences in this field over the past few decades.

History of protection

It has been more than a dozen years since the term "intangible cultural heritage" began to be promoted by UNESCO in 2001. That same year, China's Kunqu opera was listed by the organization as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Yet, the protection of ICH in China, according to Ma, actually began much earlier.

"People [in China] knew little about the term ICH back in 2001. It's actually what we used to call 'traditional culture' and later changed to 'folk and ethic culture,'" Ma told the Global Times.

He said that as early as the 1950s, scholars from the central government and other institutions traveled around China collecting such cultural heritage, for example recording blind musician Abing's erhu (a two-stringed bowed musical instrument) music.

"Audio cassettes and wired recorders were still used at the time, and Yang Yinliu, then director of the Music Research Center at the Chinese National Academy of Arts, went to Wuxi (in Jiangsu Province) and recorded six pieces," Ma said.

The second round of national level cultural collection took place during the 1980s and 1990s, through cooperation between the Ministry of Culture, the State Ethnic Affairs Commission and the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles.

A collection of 10 books on music, dance, opera and similar ICH works was published as a result; an encyclopedia introducing folk culture through written records and pictures.

However, protection during the 21st century has taken a different route from previous works, Ma noted.

While past efforts focused on recording ICH that was likely to die out, today's efforts focus on helping people carry on and pass down this heritage.


Ma's work has not been without its difficulties.

When they first started investigations into ICH, they ran into trouble because local governments were not taking the initiative to report what ICH were in their area.

"Reports take time, energy and capital to conduct research and evaluation, so many people in local government were like 'what's ICH protection got to do with me?'" Ma told the Global Times.

And even when some places were active in reporting ICH, they neglected to follow-up with a protection program.

After a decade of work and effort, Ma and his fellow ICH protectors are very proud of the fact that they have managed to instill a nation-wide spirit when it comes to protecting ICH.

Through various exhibitions and presentations, nowadays even kids and elderly people know the term "intangible cultural heritage" and people have become very conscious and proactive when it comes to protecting ICH.

"This is very important. Because last century we took several detours when it came to recognizing our own culture," Ma explained, referring to special time periods like the May Fourth Movement, during which Confucianism and other traditions such writing in Classical Chinese were looked down upon, and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), during which time many cultural traditions were abandoned.

The Chinese path

Ma sums this 12 years of work as a special "Chinese experience," which according to Ma has been acknowledged by neighboring countries like South Korea, Japan, as well as the UN.

The Deputy Director-General introduced four major ways protection is carried out in China: "rescuing conservation," "productive protection," "integrated conservation" and "legislative protection."

Rescuing conservation is very similar to previous efforts to record ICH through technical means. It is applied in cases such as the aforementioned musician Abing, who lost the ability to carry on his skills due to old age and poor health, or when it comes to certain traditions that were specific to a certain type of culture or period of time.

Ma used his hometown in Northwest China as an example. To keep spirits high, people there used to sing traditional folk songs when they went about threshing wheat in the fields, but now that machines are used to do the work, these songs are no longer needed, said Ma.

Productive protection refers to protecting special skills for which there is still a market, such as the production of aged vinegar and traditional Tibetan medicine, by providing subsidies so long as traditional methods are used.

"Such skills survive because a market for the products they produce exists, but we cannot neglect the original production process in exchange for quick production," Ma said, using the examples of aged vinegar and wine, which take years to mature.

Integrated conservation is a method used when ICH is closely related to a specific natural or human environment; basically times when intangible culture is tied to tangible culture.

Established in January, 2008, the Huizhou Cultural Ecosystem Conservation Pilot Area in Huangshan city, Anhui Province, is a typical example of integrated conservation.

Folk houses, Huizhou ink sticks, Anhui opera and Huizhou merchants make up an entire entity that exists as part of the local environment and has distinct regional characteristics. As such, Ma explained that protecting any one separately is of little significance.

Last but not least, legislative protection ensures protection of ICH is continued into the future.

"Because of the system in China, officials often change after two or three years, and new officials are reluctant to carry on the work of their predecessors, because that doesn't count as a new achievement," Ma said. "However, ICH protection needs continued effort."

This is where making ICH protection part of the law comes in. Since joining the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2004, China has issued a number of national laws and local regulations.

Through efforts such as this, Ma hopes that ICH can continue to be enjoyed by future generations.

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