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09.30  Conceptualizing Living Heritage in China: The Contested Chinese ICH Discourse

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Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH)? What is that? Although the concept of ICH has been extensively discussed within UNESCO, the media, and state bodies since the 1990s, the meaning of the concept and the inherent global norms still remain elusive to many. Since the 2003 Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, the concept has entered the domestic realm and is further influenced by national heritage discourses and processes, especially within the ICH Convention’s member states. After its arrival, the travelled ICH concept has come into contact with indigenous domestic conceptualizations of “living heritage” or “folklore,” whose understandings may further differ across national languages, regions, or social strata. As Natsuko Akagawa (2012) for instance has shown, starting with the translation of the term, domestic appropriations of the concept differ in interpretations and connotations. Yet, also after an official translation has been agreed upon, the way state bodies, social groups, or individual actors strategically employ and disseminate the notion of ICH may differ significantly, thus leading to the emergence of a plurality of domestic ICH discourses, which significantly diverge from the internationally “authorized heritage course.” 

ICH discourses play a major role in diversifying local understandings and safeguarding measures of ICH. Government officials’ conceptualizations for instance are strongly influenced by official (political) state discourses. As a result, their interpretation of what ICH is or should be impacts the implementation of ICH policies and thus the local community’s cultural life. The official discourse, in turn, may deviate from the scientific ICH discourse of academics which have studied international conceptualizations of ICH, interpreting the notion of ICH according to their disciplinary “lens,” and, finally, local cultural practitioners may be more influenced by traditional meanings and popular conceptualizations that had been established long before the concept of ICH arrived in their locality. 

But why and to what extent do these conceptualizations differ? How much of the carefully drafted global norms and values remain and are diffused by these domestic conceptualizations? And finally, how do these different understandings of ICH affect domestic ICH safeguarding in practice? In order to answer these questions, this paper will examine how international ICH discourses and conceptualizations have travelled and impacted domestic heritage discourses, paving the way for new actors as well as new conceptualizations and debates to enter the established national heritage discourse—on a national as well as local level. 

The People’s Republic of China—a country eagerly trying to catch up with the Japanese and South Korean lead in ICH safeguarding—will serve as a case study. By applying an interdisciplinary approach linking anthropological and political science theories and methods, this paper will focus on how UNESCO’s concept of ICH has been transferred, received, and discussed in Chinese ICH discourses, particularly in relation to the Chinese so-called “representative ICH Inheritor” system. As the system is implemented along a four-tier administrative system ranging from the national to the local level, the ICH concept and that of “the representative ICH inheritor” is appropriated by different actors within the system, each adding to and shaping the domestic Chinese ICH discourse. 

By analyzing and differentiating the Chinese official state, academic, and popular discourse, this study will demonstrate how individual stakeholders involved in the “ICH inheritor system” strategically frame the concept of ICH to pursue their interests and enhance their agency. Although making use of different arenas and media to spread their understanding of ICH, the diverging ICH conceptualizations clash and come in conflict with each other—both behind closed doors and in public. Ultimately, it is precisely the knowledge and power over, as well as the ability to navigate between the different ICH discourses that decide how ICH is safeguarded in practice.

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