China’s New Intangible Cultural Heritage Encyclopedia: Celebration of Multi-ethnicity, or Aggressive Cultural Appropriation?

Encyclopedia of Intangible Cultural HeritageChina unveiled its premier Encyclopedia of Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage (中国非物质文化遗产, 史诗卷) on June 12, reports China Daily (Released). This is the first of three volumes, and is dedicated to three great oral epics of the Tibetans, Mongols and Kyrgyz, respectively: King Gesar, Jangar and Manas.

The cover is in Chinese and English, but I do not know if the content itself is bilingual. For a fuller press release in Chinese, see 首发式.

Compiled by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles, the volumes will document China’s vast treasure house of ancient culture in the fields of folklore, traditional music, dance, opera and even herbal medicine. I have not seen the book, and it is not clear from the article whether the 1,219 items to be cited will be ones that have been registered with UNESCO, or simply ones that China has unilaterally categorized as its “intangible cultural heritage.”

China has been very pro-active in winning international recognition of its intangible cultural heritage, particularly traditions of its non-Han ethnic minorities, and some of its neighbors are less than pleased about it. For instance, China initially registered the Epic of Manas as an Intangible Cultural Heritage with UNESCO back in 2009. This has since been vigorously contested by Kyrgyzstan officials — who maintain they were not informed about China’s application for recognition — since they consider it “an artifact of Kyrgyz nationhood.” See UN Recognition. 

The larger issue here, of course, is whether this flurry of registrations and publications represents China’s desire to embrace and celebrate its multi-ethnic society, or whether it intends to possess and monopolize — “appropriate,” if you like — the outstanding cultural achievements of peoples such as the Mongols, Tibetans or Kyrgyz, some of whom do not perceive of themselves as “Chinese” no matter which side of the border they live on, and who fear, rightly or wrongly, colonization or a less obvious form of cultural genocide.

I am interested in this issue, and in particular, how the authorities package the cultural artifacts of its minorities for consumption by Chinese society at large. Take the Kyrgyz epic, Manas, for instance. During the Cultural Revolution, one manaschi — revered China-born Kyrgyz storyteller Jusup Mamay — was labeled as a “rightist” and sentenced to hard labor. The records of this voluminous epic, over 200,000 lines of Kyrgyz verse chanted by Mamay from memory, were almost all “lost.”

Just a few years ago, however, details of Mamay’s life and his amazing contribution to the Manas storytelling tradition were painstakingly documented in a Chinese-language book that borders on a hagiography, 居素普·玛玛依评传 , by CASS scholar Adili Jumaturdi and his wife Tohan Shayik. I have just finished reading it, and hope to review it soon. If you’d like to be informed when my review goes online, write me here.


  1. Your question about appropriating other people’s cultures generally leave me struggling to frame a response. On the one hand, anything that will arouse an interest in the languages and cultures of these peoples is a good thing. On the other hand, I can never help suspecting that the ultimate aim is essentially to “translate their literature into Chinese and throw away the original”. I personally never been able to arrive at a coherent synthesis because there are too many things involved.

    First, the Manchus set a precedent when they used maps and dictionaries to symbolise their domination over their vast domains. I have a copy of the 五體清文鑑 from the late 18th century which is a very clear demonstration of this, with its listing of vocabulary in the five main languages of the empire (Manchu, Tibetan, Mongolian, Chagatai, and Chinese). Manchu and Chinese tacitly held pride of place. The pronunciation of Tibetan and Chagatai was indicated in the Manchu script (Mongolian didn’t need this because it used the same script as Manchu) and of course Chinese didn’t require any notation. The modern Silk Road translation enterprise seems to be very much in character with this precedent.

    But the Manchus were different from the present government because they did recognise the validity of non-Chinese cultures, even if Qianlong appears to have turned his back on it. China today seems to be reverting to its Sinocentric roots. The Chinese seem to have a mental division between the universal sublimity of their ancient civilisation and the particular earthiness (土) of the ‘folk’, whether this is the earthiness of the common people or that of surrounding cultures. There are people in China who revel in the ‘earthy’ but don’t necessarily afford it status. In fact they probably like it precisely because of its lack of status. Ultimately, for the ‘earthy’ to be validated at a higher level, it needs to be co-opted it into the universal, which is invariably expressed in Chinese characters.

    Then there is the “nation-building” project. The Japanese set the precedent for this when they decided to copy Western models and develop the concept of a “national language” and “national literature” in the late 19th century. The way they completely redrew the map is interesting. The existing literature in Japan involved a heavy Chinese component, given that the Japanese had always studied the Confucian classics (among others), written Chinese poetry, and written much of their serious political and economic work in what was essentially Chinese. This all had to be thrown out the window because the overriding criterion in defining the national literature was “Japaneseness”. A pastiche of works in different genres written in many different kinds of “Japanese” was cobbled together and called “Japanese literature” (国文学). The works involved were never considered to have much in common before this. There was ancient poetry, prose and poetry written by the Heian court (much of it written by women), works written by literate Buddhists, tales of derring-do by itinerant storytellers, and cheap fiction churned out for urban consumption during the Edo period. The only thing that tied it together was that it wasn’t written in Chinese, which made it an expression of “Japaneseness”. Genji monogatari was eventually given pride of place as a classic of world literature, even though it was incomprehensible to most Japanese and far from universally admired. We now accept “Japanese literature” (国文学) as a valid category, but it really did require a wholesale wrenching of categories (and the reprinting of books in the new European format) to get to this point.

    China is trying to do something along those lines, but the Chinese project has totally different goals. In the case of China, the obvious point of departure is pride in the ancientness and sublimity of Chinese civilisation (Han literati love this), but this conflicts with the pretence that all of the cultures of the empire form part of a harmonious whole (中华民族), which is mainly espoused in order to lay claim to those huge territories.

    Essentially China has impure motives. The belief in Chinese native civilisation is inseparable from China’s grandiose project to regain its preeminent position in the world, but the doctrine of 中华民族 and the burning thirst to regain ‘lost territories’ requires China to at least pay lip service to the cultures and literatures of the peoples that it is laying claim to. I don’t believe that the ultimate goal of the Chinese state is to preserve these cultures. It seems to me that its goal is to wipe out ethnic differences and create a strong and indivisible whole. That means that ethnic differences must eventually be neutralised.

    Given these factors, the long-term prognosis for the survival of ethnic culture and literature in the hands of the Chinese state doesn’t look good. Highlighting these languages and literatures is simply designed to bolster Chinese control and ownership over them. The long-term goal of the Chinese state is to preserve it and own it a China-friendly form. That is, what is likely to happen is that these cultures and literatures will be validated through survival as Chinese texts. This is so far out of line with ordinary Western thinking that it’s laughable. Not that the West has anything to crow about with its destruction of indigenous cultures around the world in the past few centuries, but at least literate Westerners nowadays understand that preserving a people’s literature and culture means more than just translating it into English. I honestly don’t believe that the Chinese government really cares about these literatures at all, except to the extent that it can be manipulated and leveraged to China’s advantage. That is the bottom line.

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