Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Dong ethnic group chorus in Guizhou Province, China © Shouyong Pan

Intangible Heritage Inventory-Making Efforts in China

In China, inventory making is at the core of its legal system on intangible cultural heritage safeguarding today. China’s classification, application, and administration are very different to those in Korea and Japan.

There are four different levels of inventory programs: state level, provincial level, city level, and county level.

In 2006, the State Council published the first batch of state-level ICH items on a 518-item list that included the Spring Festival, Beijing Opera, Acupuncture (Chinese traditional medicine), the Legend of Madame White Snake, Shaolin Kung Fu, and others. The second batch of 510 items was published in 2008. The third batch, published in 2011, was a 191-item list. This adds up to 1,219 items in total. The inventoried items are classified into ten types—folk literature, traditional music, dancing, opera, arts and crafts, quyi (Chinese folk-art forms, including ballad singing, storytelling, comic dialogues, clapper talks, and cross talks), folk customs, acrobatic performances, and traditional medicine. Obviously, this classification system does not match with the UNESCO ICH domains.

In 2006, 2008, and 2011, the thirty-one provincial governments (including four municipalities, five national autonomous regions, and two special administrative regions) each published a provincial-level ICH inventory, which includes 8,566 items. During the same period, most city and county governments also published city-level and county-level ICH inventories, respectively. According to incomplete statistics, the total number of inventoried items at the city and county levels exceeds 18,000. However, only two government-level inventories (state level and provincial level) are stated in the Law on the Protection of ICH in China, which passed in 2011

stem is the inheritor system in which the State Council announces the names of individuals who have been designated to pass on China’s ICH. These designated individuals are called ICH inheritors. To date, the State Council has made three announcements listing the nation’s ICH inheritors, and there are currently 1,488 individuals with this designation. In October 2012, the fourth batch of state-level ICH inheritor nominations was submitted. The list includes 490 nominees from 31 provinces, regions, and municipalities, and the new additions to the inheritor list will be announced soon. This inheritor system also has four different levels, meaning that the state, provincial, city, and county governments have their own lists of ICH inheritors.

As a member of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage of UNESCO, China has been strengthening its efforts to save ICH elements from extinction. Apart from inventory-making and inheritors systems, China established Cultural Ecological Protection Zones to build up a living culture area. This is a new creation related to the idea of an eco-museum. To date, China has already set up twelve Cultural Ecological Protection Zones at the state level.

In 2012, China adjusted the steps and processes of inventory making, based on the results of a one-year survey, a self-evaluation, and a re-examination. Six state-level items have been cancelled; two state-level items need to be rectified with a certain time; and ninety-seven state-level items have been adjusted. Provincial-level items and local-level items are in the process of being adjusted and rectified. The inventories will be updated regularly, but this does not necessarily mean more items will be added.

According to the 2003 Convention, inventory making is a responsibility of Member States:

To ensure identification with a view to safeguarding, each State Party shall draw up, in a manner geared to its own situation, one or more inventories of the ICH present in its territory. These inventories shall be regularly updated (Article 12).

China’s inventory-making model is in line with the Convention and its principles. One could say that China enjoys its own character while developing ICH policy to contribute to peace in the world.

Although China’s national ICH policymaking started in the mid-1990s, the concept and principle of ICH were very new to China as late as 2000. Nowadays, however, even housekeepers in remote villages know the term feiyi (ICH in Chinese) and the benefit of feiyi. During anthropological field work at an ethnic minority village in Guizhou province last summer, the village leader showed the researchers her grand plan to establish an ICH museum in the village. This, however, was not a shock, as it is known that the local community takes an inventory at all levels and it is seen as a cultural resource that will bring benefits sooner or later. The local people do not care much about the social and cultural changes in the world, the issues related to increasing globalization, or the perceived homogenizing effects on culture we are facing on, but they do care about their land, their life, and their traditions. Local governors, such as town leaders and county leaders, see inventory making as a part of their regular work, and they do care about state-level and provincial-level inventories, but they do not worry about local-level inventories.

Most researchers have realized that our rich and varied ICH is in danger of disappearing, not only in China but everywhere. To safeguard this heritage, we must conduct professional ICH surveys, keep accurate records of ICH, and make ICH inventories at different governmental levels throughout the country and the world. We have realized that we do have the same aims: to ensure the survival and vitality of the world’s local, national, and regional living cultural heritage. Heritage does not always mean a good life, but it never means a bad life.