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11.30  Everyday Narrative Singing and Intangible Cultural Heritage: The Case of Dongguan muk-jyu-go in China

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This paper examines the official construction of Chinese traditional performing arts as an intangible cultural heritage (ICH) project, and interrogates the cultural heritage policies in light of the actual everyday practices of such traditional art forms. I argue that the official constructions of traditional performing arts utilize the ICH policy to reinforce a top-down re-interpretation of traditional cultures and detach cultural practices from their own everyday local settings. The purpose is to strengthen a consolidated national identity throughout the country against the backdrop that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is shifting its ideological emphasis from “realizing communism” to “becoming a prosperous and strong country,” or “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” 

In particular, I will use Dongguan muk-jyu-go as a case study. Muk-jyu-go (木魚歌,“wooden fish song”) is a genre of Cantonese narrative singing and literature that was popular in the Cantonese-speaking regions of China from the late Ming Dynasty (1500s-1644) to the 1950s. After the fatal destruction during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), muk-jyu-go is now only practiced by a few older locals, mostly women, as a daily pastime. In 2011, muk-jyu-go was registered as one of the Chinese national ICH projects. The government-led performances and practices of this folk art tend to break away from the local contexts and incorporate muk-jyu-go into the grand nationalistic narratives. Ironically, the actual everyday practices of muk-jyu-go by older people remain isolated. It points to a common paradox that the implementation of ICH in China tends to marginalize the local and the everyday, and reinforces its governance of everyday traditions from an official and national level. In addition, muk-jyu-go is a regional cultural practice, and seems to contradict “national” culture in certain ways. For instance, it is sung in dialects which are accessible only to people of a particular region. Therefore, the re-construction of muk-jyu-go also reflects the intricate relations between the local and the national while a certain regional practice is claimed as a national heritage. 

This paper will be theoretically informed by post-colonial studies and performance studies. It will begin with a brief description of ideological shaping in contemporary Chinese society, and will present a detailed analysis of the official construction of muk-jyu-go and how this construction is related to the broader ideological and economic domains. The analysis will be divided into three parts: the reciprocal and conflictual relations between the national and the local over the ICH policy; the agenda of “the disappearing voice” of public media which creates a sense of urgent crisis and enhances cultural tourism; and the cultural and political implications of transforming an everyday cultural practice into a modern on-stage performance.

Ms Cuiyan Wen


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