Protection of intangible cultural heritage an urgent task

“It is probably our last chance to save our intangible cultural heritage now and we need to take action,” said Qiao Xiaoguang, director of the Research Center of Intangible Heritage of the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA).

Yang fuxi, the 10th-generation inheritor of Beijing “Juyuanhao” (聚元号) bows and arrows, said his father died before he could learn the last three techniques from him; there were over 100 shadow plays (皮影戏) in western Gansu province in the 1950s, but now the best artists there can only perform around 20 of them. That so many items of intangible cultural heritage are coming closer to the brink of extinction is a worrying fact and practical protection measures are badly needed.

Progress and achievements in China

In the past 10 years, China has made enormous progress in this area. By now, China has announced three batches of state-level intangible cultural heritage, including 1,219 items in areas such as literature, music, dance, traditional opera, acrobatics, traditional customs and handicraft. By December 2013, 37 items of Chinese intangible heritage had been listed by UNESCO as the World’s Intangible Cultural Heritage, which makes China the largest country in the world with items listed as the World’s Intangible Cultural Heritage.

The research and protection of intangible cultural heritage began in China in 2001 when Kunqu was listed as the World’s Intangible Cultural Heritage. In August 2004, China joined UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. In 2012, the Asia-Pacific International Training Center on Intangible Cultural Heritage of UNESCO was established in Beijing.

In June 2011, China released the Law on Intangible Cultural Heritage, which summarized the country’s past experiences in protecting intangible cultural heritage through the legal system. Wang Wenzhang, director of the China Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Center of the Chinese National Academy of Arts, said, “The law laid a legal foundation for our scientific, standardized and sustainable effort to protect intangible cultural heritage and started a new era for our work in this area.”

At present, the Chinese government is working from three aspects in its effort to protect intangible heritage. The first is to save the endangered items and their representative inheritors. “We are gathering knowledge and skills from these inheritors and record them through digital means so that we can pass them down to future generations,” said Dong Wei, deputy director of the Ministry of Culture.

Second, some handicrafts and skills are being utilized for the production and development of new products. “Only in this way can the heritage be integrated into people’s daily life and be better protected,” Dong said.

Third, cultural ecological protection zones are being established to provide overall protection for intangible cultural heritage. “We now have 15 state-level cultural ecological protection zones. Folk literature, traditional music and arts and folk customs can be better protected in these zones. Tangible heritage, such as residences, villages and relics are also preserved,” said Dong.

Current difficulties

The protection of the agrarian culture is key to the preservation of intangible cultural heritage in China, according to Qiao Xiaoguang. “Most items of intangible cultural heritage in China such as paper cutting belong to various minority groups distributed in rural areas, so the protection of intangible cultural heritage is closely related to Chinese peasants. What should be done first is to improve their living conditions. If peasants and rural areas disappear, how can we protect the heritage?” Qiao said.

Qiao mentioned the concept of “cultural ecology,” on which the protection of intangible cultural heritage depends on. “We should discuss the preservation of traditional handicrafts in their birthplaces instead of exhibition halls or museums. They are derived from life so their protection cannot stay aloof from life,” Qiao said. However, it is a worrying fact that an increasing number of rural people are leaving their homes to find work in big cities, which may lead to fewer and fewer people inheriting the traditional cultural heritage. “The mobility of the rural population is not conducive to the protection of intangible cultural heritage,” Qiao said, “And those who inherit the skills cannot match the older generations.”

Moreover, inheritors and handicraftsmen are also struggling to make a living in big cities. Liu Yu Liu Yu, a glassware maker in Beijing and secretary general of the Beijing Association for the Promotion of Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage (北京华商非遗促进会), said, said, “Our handicraftsmen need a better environment to create. A real work of art is totally different from an ordinary product, but they cannot focus his mind on how to create beautiful works of art if they are still thinking about how to make a basic living. However, the reality is just the opposite of what we expect.” He also mentioned that even his own daughter doesn’t want to learn to make glassware because the making of glassware consumes much time and generates little profit. That’s just the point raised by many craftsmen. How can a skill be passed down if nobody wants to inherit it?

The government is providing financial assistance to cultivate inheritors. Apart from that, Qiao Xiaoguang said school education would play a fundamental role in the protection of intangible cultural heritage. “I think the government is not fully aware of the role schools can play in this area. If they open courses related to intangible cultural heritage, I believe there would be students interested in them,” he said.

The Research Center of Intangible Heritage of the CAFA, headed by Qiao Xiaoguang, focuses on the traditional handicraft of paper cutting. “We have spent over 70 years conducting complete and professional research on this subject. It can be said that our academy has played an important role in protecting the art of paper cutting. Our role cannot be replaced by the government,” Qiao said.

Future direction

There is still a long way ahead for China to finding more effective ways to protect intangible cultural heritage. Wang Wenzhang suggests a few steps that the Chinese government should take.

First, an effective protection mechanism should be established. Wang said, “Countries like Japan, South Korea and France do a good job in protecting intangible heritage. They set a good example for us and we should learn from them. The government is in the dominant position by making laws, providing guidance and funding projects. Local protection centers are responsible for enforcing and implementing related laws and regulations. Apart from all this, the participation of the masses is also important in improving public awareness of protecting intangible cultural heritage.”

Second, the relationships between protection and utilization should be properly considered. “In today’s market economy, many people have seen the economic value of intangible cultural heritage. In fact, we are not opposed to the development and utilization of the heritage, but it should be based on the rule that the original status won’t be lost. Over-development and abuse of intangible cultural heritage is absolutely forbidden,” Wang said.

Third, more emphasis should be placed on international cooperation. Wang said, “More and more countries are becoming aware of the significance of international cooperation and communication in the protection of intangible cultural heritage. We have held a series of international symposiums in the past few years. We’ll continue to observe UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage and make the most of its Asia-Pacific International Training Center on Intangible Cultural Heritage.

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