Working with Intangible Culture Heritage in China

Dr Nicola Thomas explores how China is using intangible cultural heritage to protect and develop the craft sector

‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ (ICH) was not a term I expected to be in daily use during the Living Research programme. Experiencing the ease with which crafts practitioners, factory managers and designers talked of ICH in relation to craft practice was a culture shock. During our visits to Xi’an and Chengdu we were frequently told about the positive impact that had resulted from the Government of China signing the UNESCO Safeguarding ICH Convention in 2004.

We heard how languishing crafts had been revived, how new generations of makers were getting involved, of government supported training schemes, and of national and provincial conventions gathering ICH participants to share their expertise. We learnt of grants to develop skills, exchange visits between makers, and stipends paid to the people identified as Bearers of ICH.

When I explained to the makers and creative intermediaries we met, that the UK Government had not signed up to the UNESCO Safeguarding ICH Convention, the response was surprised disbelief. I shared that practitioners in the UK would love to experience the recognition that the UNESCO Safeguarding had brought in China. I talked about organisations like the UK Heritage Craft Association who make visible the importance of ICH in the crafts sector, and their desire for the UK government to sign up to the UNESCO Convention. It seemed impossible to those hearing me talk, that the UK could not be signatories to something that has become so important in China.

Indeed, Professor Gao of Beijing University has called the rapid adoption of ICH practices and principles a ‘social movement’ in China, with the last 14 years seeing the widespread adoption of the concept of ICH, supported by law and cultural policies that have been swiftly embedded in the public domain. Since signing the Convention in 2004, China has adopted a Cultural Heritage Day, and in 2011 The People’s Republic of China’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Law was passed, making ICH part of the political discourse of the state government system (for details of these developments see Gao 2017).

Signing up to the UNESCO convention was a very public marker in China, confirming that the 20th century political cultures which denied, destroyed and denigrated many traditional practices were at an end. The policies that had previously turned away from tradition in the relentless pursuit of modernity, damaged both tangible and intangible heritage, including the destruction of temples, burning of artefacts, alongside the enforced ruptures of inter-generational skill transmission.

Heritage is always something that is defined politically. For the 20th century, the traditions of craft knowledge and skilled practice were often antithetical to the modern state. In the 21st century, re-presenting these traditions as ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ allows a new way of talking positively about the practices, and enabling them to be valued, and offers an important signal to international audiences that China is a Western facing nation. Valuing craft heritage is now firmly part of the way in which China presents its future, giving respect to practices that have struggled in the past to maintain a presence.

One of the most important aspects of the UNESCO ICH safeguarding is that it does not wish traditional crafts to be locked in a preservationist category, frozen in time, but to see intangible practices live and evolve to meet the needs of those who are practicing in the present. We saw this future facing approach at work in many of the workshops that are proud to identify themselves within the ICH envelope.

Jijun Bamboo Weaving Factory, Chongzhou (Photo: Steve Coombs)

At the Jijun Bamboo Weaving Factory, Chongzhou we saw functional baskets being made for consumers who want a traditional design, sit alongside a range of design lead handbags destined for a more cosmopolitan urban market. These contemporary design skills were being brought into the workshop through a partnership with the China Academy of Fine Art and the University of Sichuan province, enabling a new generation of contemporary designers to work with the traditional material of bamboo, whilst also diversifying the product range.

Baskets made in the Factory for use in the home (Photo: Steve Coombs)
Part of the range of bag designs destined for customers looking for a designer led hand crafted purchase. (Photo: Nicola Thomas)

The director of the bamboo weaving factory shared her making life story with us. Mai had grown up in the Bamboo Weaving Factory and was the fourth generation in the business. She went to University and trained to be airline cabin crew, but returned to run the factory, working with the 20 permanent employees and 300 piece workers based in the town. They take bulk orders alongside bespoke commissions.

Batch production of hamper baskets for a department store. (Photo: Steve Coombs)

Mai is one of the youngest people in China to be a recognised bearer of ICH, and now takes her skills to local schools and shares knowledge at ICH conventions and festivals in China. A fire had destroyed the factory in 2013, but Mai proudly showed us round the new factory which was rebuilt without government support.

Mai, splitting bamboo, in the workshop/showroom of the factory. (Photo: Nicola Thomas)

The retail space of the Jijun Bamboo Weaving Factory has a long table at which the Living Research group sat down to learn how to weave. Our clumsy fingers took time to remember the techniques which were so effortlessly demonstrated. ‘I’m starting to realise why it’s intangible’ quipped Ingrid as we struggled to make progress. Mai’s young daughter, just walking, roamed amongst us, playing with the threads of bamboo, her mother gently helping her, inter-generational transmission happening in front of our eyes.

Living Research participants learning to weave bamboo. (Photo: Nicola Thomas)

The challenge to safeguard ICH in the face of market forces and economic development in China was revealed when the Living Research met a family of paper makers who had travelled into the city of Xi’an from their village to display their practice for us.

Finished paper product (Photo: Marc Barto)

The current family has three generations working, the oldest being the grandfather who started paper making aged 7, in the absence of access to schooling. He taught his son when he was 16, who in turn taught his son at 17. On receiving their ICH certification they were invited to Taiwan to show their techniques, and since 2016 the government has given them about 20000RMB or £2220 a year, however, they make most of their money selling products. The paper is now mainly used by artists, prior to this it was used for newspapers, certifications and important papers.

Raw fibre for making paper (Photo: Jon Flint)

Travelling with their materials and tools to give us a demonstration of their practice (from processing the raw material of tree bark, to the cutting of the paper) was a testament to this families passion, but also their predicament. Their home village is in the path of an urban development project and they face loosing their workshop and home. While this family may be receiving the support of the Chinese governments safeguarding policies, there are still relentless market forces that challenge the livelihoods of those like them, who seek to make their life through making.

Paper used for traditional calligraphy art work. (Photo: Jon Flint)

During our time in Chengdu and Xi’an we witnessed on countless occasions the incredible enthusiasm and desire to enable the heritage crafts of China to thrive. The deployment of UNESCO Safeguarding ICH and the level of Government support for the industry gave us great hope. However, the challenges for the sector remain ensuring livelihoods by securing new markets for goods, enabling access to work spaces and materials, and having skilled practitioners who are able to pass on their own skills and knowledge to the next generation of makers.

References

Gao, Bingzhong., 2017, The Social Movement of Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage and the End of the Cultural Revolutions in China, Western Folklore 76.2 pp.167–180 (accessed 23rd September 2018).

The Living Research programme is a partnership between the British Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

In China, the British Council has partnered with MakerNet to co-develop the project in Chengdu and Xi’an.

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