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10.00  The Politics of Scale in the ICH-ization of Popular Religion in China

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9:00, Monday 6 Jun 2016 (30 minutes)

This paper will addresse the politics of scale in issues regarding the ICH-ization of popular religion in recent China. Popular religion, symbolized political incorrectness in Mao’s era, has gone through a revival period since the late 1970s and some of the Chinese beliefs and practices have been inscribed as ICH on provincial, national, or UNESCO’s lists. The ICH-ization of popular religion in China, this paper will argue, is a phenomenon that emerged in the post-Mao context where the neo-authoritarian party/state reshaped and negotiates the relationships between state and society and where the rise of nationalism echoes the post-revolutionary ideological crisis domestically as well as China’s new international engagement in the Reforms era. 

Popular religion in traditional China was strongly territorially bounded. Its beliefs and practices commonly signified the solidarity of local communities. Since the religious revival in the late 1970s, the majority still remain as communal religion. When the Chinese government launched the first provincial and national ICH listing in 2005, some religious community leaders proactively or reactively engaged in the ICH inscription for official recognition and cultural legitimacy. In such processes, the level of ICH status has to be identified. Furthermore, in 2009, the Mazu belief and customs were inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of ICH. Hence, there emerged three levels of ICH-ized popular religion in an official hierarchy of symbolic status, associated with different levels of official resource inputs and administrative facilitation. 

This paper will analyze the implication of the status hierarchy of an ICH-ized religion when the religious community leaders engage in different scales of heritage experiences. The case study here is the Mazu belief, not only an ICH item on UNESCO’s list, but also with national and provincial ICH statuses. This paper will point out that the community leaders tend to address the Mazu belief on both national and transnational scales, not only because they tend to keep the ideological conformity with the state’s agenda on overseas pilgrimage and cross-strait Taiwanese affairs, but also because the existence of these scales of heritage experiences legitimates this folk belief’s privileged status on the hierarchy of the official list. Meanwhile, it is still necessary for them to fulfill communal or individual requests from believers in local communities whose relationships with the goddess are based on cultural intimacy or religious efficacy. The overlapping of and tensions among various scales of heritage experiences sometimes leads to communal conflicts, challenges the legitimacy of religious community leadership, or to the exclusion of individual practices as legitimate heritage experiences.

Ming-chun Ku


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