As I snap remorselessy at the heels of the heritage shtick, my cavils revolve around the Chinese concept of mei(you) wenhua 没(有)文化 “lacking in culture”. It’s a cliché referring to people’s degree of modern state education. Even peasants deprecate themselves with the term, though it is precisely the riches of their quite separate culture that “educated” urban pundits purport to admire—before trying to shoehorn it into their own.
So there’s this Ph.D. student on a long-distance train journey, sitting in the same compartment as a peasant.
He’s dead bored, so to pass the time, he says to the peasant, “I know, let’s play a game. We both ask each other one question. If you can’t answer my question, you have to give me 100 kuai; if I can’t answer yours, then I have to give you 200—because I have a Higher Level of Culture, don’t you know?” The peasant goes, “Oh right—umm, OK then.”
The student says smugly, “You can start, because I have a Higher Level of Culture!” So the peasant thinks for a bit and asks, “OK then, I got one—so…
What is the animal with three legs that flies in the sky?”
The student racks his brains. “Huh?? An animal with three legs that flies in the sky? Hey, there isn’t one, surely… Ahem… Crikey—you’ve got me there. OK, I give up, I guess I have to pay you 200 kuai.” He hands the cash over to the peasant.
The student, still bemused, goes on, “An animal with three legs that flies in the sky… Go on then, you tell me, what is this animal?”
The peasant scratches his head and goes, “Hmm… nope, I dunno—OK then, I can’t answer your question either, here’s 100 kuai!”
As local traditions continue to be distorted, large areas of the world are in danger of being turned into a kitsch Disneyland theme park. A certain amount depends on the “level of culture” of state bureaucrats all along the chain; in China the central ICH authorities do indeed organize “training sessions” for regional cultural cadres.
But the whole system seems inherently flawed. Local, um, heritage bearers have their own ideas about what to do with their traditions—and given the dubious benefits and evident dangers of the state system, with its own “lack of culture”, people like me might hope they could be left alone to do so. But beguiled by the chimera of fame and fortune, they’re all too easily hijacked by the power of state machinery and tourism—in China and elsewhere.