*For a whole host of related posts, see heritage tag in sidebar!*
One of the more entertaining excursions of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) project is in the field of cuisine, under whose august portals “Mediterranean diet” has been loftily inscribed.
Among many fun BTL comments there is one from a certain Nickov:
Might have a stab at protecting the Bristol Channel Diet:
Gregg’s pasties, white cider and chlamydia.
I also eagerly await an application from the Glasgow cultural authorities (whoever they might be) to, um, preserve the venerable deep-fried Mars bar.
What of Spotted Dick, I hear you cry? And I now note that Fray Bentos is not just a real place, but another UNESCO world heritage site!
I was musing on all this during my recent trip to Lisbon, whose fine cuisine hardly fits into the Mediterranean gastronomic jigsaw.
While we’re on the topic of transmission, this important corrective doesn’t entirely confound the popular cliché that Bach’s music fell out of use after his death. His sons, and their audiences, might not have taken kindly to being told to continue performing their father’s music—though doubtless ICH funding would have influenced their attitude.
Were one to be at all jocular (surely not?—Ed.), one could query many ancient cultural traditions. Where might UNESCO stand on  wife-beating? Or indeed FGM? And whatever happened to child chimney-sweeps? Witch-burning, a tradition eradicated in most parts of the world, is also seriously endangered. Molvania has nice comments on all this kind of flapdoodle.
- Richard Kurin, “Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage in the 2003 UNESCO Convention: a critical appraisal”, Museum 56.1 (2004), pp.66–77.
The definition, as given in the Convention, can encompass a broader range of activity than the framers assumed. Such cultural forms as rap music, Australian cricket, modern dance, post-modernist architectural knowledge, and karaoke bars all symbolize cultural communities (albeit not necessarily ethnically or regionally) and pass on their own traditions (though not usually genealogically). (69–71)
Not all intangible cultural heritage is recognized for the purposes of the Convention. To be recognized, intangible cultural heritage must be consistent with human rights, exhibit the need for mutual respect between communities, and be sustainable. This is a very high and one might say unrealistic and imposing standard.
Understandably, UNESCO does not want to support or encourage practices inimical to human rights such as slavery, infanticide, or torture. Yet the standard is not without controversy. Is female genital mutilation a legitimate part of intangible cultural heritage to be recognized by the Convention or not? Is a religious tradition that includes Brahmins, but excludes non-Brahmins disqualified as intangible cultural heritage because of its discriminatory quality? Is a musical tradition where only men play instruments and only women sing inequitable, and thus contrary to human rights accords? Determining what is allowable or not as intangible cultural heritage under the Convention will be a difficult task.
Similarly problematic is the “mutual respect” clause in the Convention. Intangible cultural heritage is by definition something used for community self-definition. Many cultural communities though, define themselves in opposition or resistance to others. Their very identity as a people or community relies on their victory over or defeat by others. Their defining songs and tales may celebrate the glory of empire, victorious kings, religious conversion, or alternatively resistance to perceived injustice, martyrdom and defeat—not the mutual respect of peoples. The Convention’s standard is quite idealistic, seeing culture as generally hopeful and positive, born not of historical struggle and conflict but of a varied flowering of diverse cultural ways. Including the “mutual respect” standard can however disqualify much of the world’s traditional culture from coverage by the Convention.
Kurin goes on to query the problematic standard of “sustainability”:
The whole treaty is about safeguarding heritage thought to be endangered to some degree or other. The very fact that a tradition is endangered means that it is not sustainable in its current form or in its current context—hence the need for national or international intervention. Yet by definition a tradition to be recognized as intangible cultural heritage under the Convention and thus worthy of safeguarding, must itself also be sustainable. The provision, though well meaning, is confusing. Sustainability here is an ideal to be achieved, not an eligibility requirement for action.
Surely no one rationally envisions the Convention as safeguarding the transmission of intangible cultural heritage through such coercive forms as legally requiring the sons and daughters who practise a tradition to continue in their parents’ footsteps. No cultural treaty should ensure results through the denial of freedom promised under human-rights accords, with the opportunity for social, cultural, and economic mobility.
Culture changes and evolves. Practices of the past are discarded when they cease to be functionally useful or symbolically meaningful to a community. UNESCO and Member States need not guarantee through financial and symbolic rewards the survival of those customs and practices, beliefs and traditions that the community itself wants to discard. Nor should they encourage particularly harmful practices, or “freeze” cultural practices in the guise of preserving cultural diversity or defending against cultural globalization.
The Convention tends to reduce intangible cultural heritage to a list of largely expressive traditions, atomistically recognized and conceived. The actions it proposes miss the larger, holistic aspect of culture—the very characteristic that makes culture intangible. This is the intricate and complex web of meaningful social actions undertaken by individuals, groups, and institutions. Thousands of human cultures today face a myriad of challenges. Whether they survive or flourish depends upon so many things—the freedom and desire of culture bearers, an adequate environment, a sustaining economic system, a political context within which their very existence is at least tolerated. Actions to safeguard “tangibilized” inventoried items of cultural production are unlikely to safeguard adequately the larger, deeper, more diffuse intangible cultural patterns and contexts. Saving songs may not protect the ways of life of their singers, or the appreciation due by listeners. Far greater more holistic and systematic action is likely to be required.
Two recent books contain useful case-studies and references:
- Michael Dylan Foster and Lisa Gilman (eds), UNESCO on the ground: local perspectives on Intangible Cultural Heritage (2015) (review here)
- Christina Maags and Marina Svensson (eds), Chinese heritage in the making: experiences, negotiations and contestations (2018)
The Introduction to the latter gives some nuanced perspectives:
As several authors have pointed out, the adoption of the intangible heritage discourse means that many cultural practices, including religious rituals that were seen as “superstitious” practices in the past, are now celebrated as heritage. In this heritagization process many of them have been reconstructed and reinterpreted, and some have had their religious aspects downplayed or ignored. (18–19)
Heritage listings and management is not an innocent and non-political celebration of heritage and culture, but a selective process that leads to hierarchies and exclusion. It can furthermore be used as a tool of governance to control and manage tradition, cultural practices, and religion, and to steer people’s memories, sense of place, and identities in certain ways. Several scholars have pointed out that the use of culture and intangible cultural heritage can be a softer and less visible way of “rendering individuals governable”. The listing, reification, and celebration of certain cultural practices can thus be a tool of governance, especially when individuals and communities are excluded from decision-making but still come to internalize the validation of the selected practices and behaviours. In the context of China, ICH could be seen as a new form of governance and a way to control religious and ethnic communities in particular. (20)
The heritage boom in China is partly driven by the central state and by local governments that are motivated by both ideological and economic considerations. The top-down heritagization process has, however, given rise to new stakeholders who may have their own agendas and express different views. At the same time, the language of heritage has also opened up space for individual citizens and local communities to celebrate and safeguard their own traditions and local history. Individual citizens and communities are experiencing, performing, and documenting heritage in a more bottom-up way, sometimes outside of the state narrative, at the same time as many actors try to capitalize on the official heritage discourse in order to gain legitimacy for their own history and traditions. (28)
I’m sure theorists have been beavering away at unpacking the prescriptive assumption that all tradition must be “good”. Conversely, ethnography avoids prescription—I prefer to devote my energies to documenting the traditions themselves, as I find them, rather than awarding prizes on questionable aesthetic and theoretical grounds, or leading them down the tortuous path of state institutionalisation and commodification.
Meanwhile I find similar concerns expressed for flamencology:
Something is wrong with any interpretative method that reifies genres and objectifies abstractions to the point that events in the present are reduced to reflections of the past.
So I’m not alone in my reservations. See also e.g. this review of a volume on UNESCO on the ground:
- Valdimar Tr. Hafstein, “Intangible Heritage as diagnosis, safeguarding as treatment”, Journal of Folklore Research 52.2–3 (2015),
with its opening
Patient: “What is it, Doctor?”
Doctor: “There’s no easy way to break this to you: you have heritage.”
Patient: “Heritage? Are you serious? What kind?”
Doctor: “Intangible. I’m sorry.”
Patient: “Intangible heritage… How bad is it?”
Doctor: “It is in urgent needs of safeguarding. It is already metacultural.”
Patient: “What’s the prognosis?”
Doctor: “Intangible heritage is chronic, I’m afraid.” […]
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Here, and in the thoughtful analysis of Heritage movements by John Butt, there are many lessons for China, which are unlikely to be learned. In the south of Fujian province—alongside the extraordinary Hokkien traditions of Daoist ritual, processions with god statues borne aloft on sedans, and nanyin chamber ballads—vicious chronic inter-village feuds are a hallowed part of the local heritage.
In China at least, one must observe that the ICH is a state agency to trumpet the grandeur of ancient Chinese culture, rather than a dispassionate body supporting scholarly research; except in the most hackneyed of terms, it can hardly confront the most basic aspect of such cultures—their traumatic fortunes through successive upheavals since the 1940s. And where do spirit mediums (anchors in maintaining local ritual life, among both the ethnic minorities and the Han Chinese), cults, and sectarian groups stand here? Perhaps fortunately for them, they seem most unlikely to be offered the poisoned chalice of ICH status.
I’ve introduced Ka-ming Wu’s thoughtful analysis of heritage projects in Shaanbei here. While we always need to understand the involvement/intrusion of the state, I’m still concerned that all the attention that scholars (both Chinese and foreign) currently lavish on a state institution distracts them from studying local cultures themselves (of which ICH may or may not be a part). Even those who are sensitive to the flaws of the system may be driven by the agenda of studying it; even noting the way it may be utilized by local agents, it’s still the focus. In a short space of time, it has dominated the discourse. Contrast, for instance, the vast bibliography on ICH with the virtually non-existent studies of the numerous local Daoist lineages in Gansu province and their rituals in changing society. Look, here I am myself having to go on about ICH when I could be writing about the Daoists!
Conversely, the ICH has recently begun to play a significant role in many local cultures, and it is now likely to be included in the remit of fieldworkers. It has become significant among amateur ritual associations in Hebei (first of my main field sites), which otherwise were becoming partly moribund (though for enduring ritual functions, see here).
But fortunately even the Chinese state seems unable to transform local cultures into one big glossy Disneyland. Much ritual activity tends to be spared the double-edged sword of attention from party-state cultural initiatives.While the Li family Daoists in north Shanxi are nominally part of the ICH system, their livelihood and activities remain almost solely dependent on providing funerary services for their local clients—for those who are still left behind in the villages, that is.
My concern is still that the ICH is neither so all-pervasive nor as malleable as some studies suggest.
If all this commodification and reification is a distressing distortion of Han Chinese cultures, it’s still worse for minority traditions such as those of the Tibetans and Uyghurs, for whom the political agenda to sinicise and tame is even clearer: for the Uyghurs, do read this fine recent report.
 As in “Where do you stand on Donald Trump?” “On his windpipe.”