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11.00  Heritage in Bondage: On the (Exc)use of “Intangible Cultural Heritage” in Tibet

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In this ethnographic rather than theoretical paper, I intend to examine the cultural, economic, and political dynamics of a specific artistic genre, Tibetan Opera, within the People’s Republic of China since the 1980s up until the present day, and analyze the specific twist brought about by intangible cultural heritage policies and practices.  

Ache lhamo, often considered the emblem of Tibetan performing arts, was revived at the beginning of the 1980s, after over fifteen years of ban. The revitalization was engineered by the state, but also actively sustained at a grassroots level. Following shifts in political and economic policies, local fervour dwindled, while state support was upheld for selected forms of the art in Lhasa. Then, the “Develop the West” campaign (2000) intensified the commodification of Tibetan culture, while the aftermath of the 2008 uprisings intensified the state’s control over, among others, the content and form of what was a primarily amateur folk art. In 2006, Tibetan opera was among the first nominations on the Chinese government’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, and in 2009 the genre was selected on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, putting a new political, aesthetic, mediatic, and chiefly economic spin on the performing genre.  

Local Tibetan artists have little grasp of the meaning and implications of this dual national and global category of “intangible heritage.” They strive for the economic bonuses that they can elicit from the new recognition, which has led to dramatic conflicts over authenticity and inequitable financial support among diverse troupes and actors. Tibetan intellectuals, for their part, understand “cultural preservation” (T. rig-gnas srung-skyob) in ways that are sometimes reminiscent of, sometimes painfully at odds with, state-driven refashioning of traditional culture. This paper aims to reflect on the critical intersection reached by Tibetan intangible culture today, at once locally disappearing, yet nationally re-emerging under the auspices of political orthodoxy, economic, and touristy concerns, yet still obliterated in the global gaze, as Western tourists have so limited access to Tibet. Han and Tibetan cultural entrepreneurs use the available political and economic resources in differential ways to foster new understandings of intangible heritage, such as the pairing of Tibetan opera troupes with mainland troupes on one side; versus the mixing of various Tibetan performing genres on the other. The unspoken corollary of heritage is thus paradoxically that of hybridization.

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