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  • 14 Reconceptualizing Heritage in ChinaMuseums, Development and the Shifting Dynamics of Power

    Harriet Evans and Michael Rowlands

    Heritage, as both discourse and practice, is a recent European import into China, but it already has powerful appeal across offi cial and public domains, transforming the social, economic and cultural life of localities and reshap-ing domestic and global notions of Chinas national identity. Heritage con-struction is a core feature of regional development strategies, especially in the historically poor and ethnically diverse regions of the southwest. Heri-tage tourism is promoted in diverse forms, from the red sites commemorat-ing the Communist Partyled revolution before the founding of the Peoples Republic to the exotic ocean of song and dance city of Kaili, Guizhous main city of Miao culture. However, between government policies and local communities whose claims to their own cultural past are being appropriated by political, developmental and commercial interests, heritage is a problem-atic term and practice, involving competition, confl ict and new hierarchies of power in local communities. Articulated by international and national agendas and integrated into local development strategies, heritage is some-thing that local communities fi nd themselves obliged to engage with. But how? With what implications for local communities perceptions of their own cultural pasts and values, and for their transmission to future genera-tions? What new conceptions and practices of heritage are emerging to con-test the top-down imposition of heritage models that deny the possibility of locally embedded cultural renewal? And with what effects on the changing relationship between local communities and the state?


    One of the main challenges to World Heritage and the concept of universal heritage value has been the very idea of universality. UNESCOs 1972 Con-vention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heri-tage embodied a set of Euro-American ideas of tangible cultural heritage on which it was assumed universal practices of conservation and preservation would be established, creating a consensus in public life within varying local

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  • Reconceptualizing Heritage in China 273

    and national frameworks. Conceptual crises in both the ideas of universal-ity and the defi nition of heritage value emerged with globalization in the late twentieth century and with the recognition of alternative indigenous and non-Western concepts of heritage. These critiques of offi cial heritage discourses embodied in the 1972 convention became loosely enshrined in the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, yet in turn this duality has also been criticized for continuing to maintain a Western bias toward the binarisms of modernity and tradition, nature and culture and mind and matter (Byrne 1991; Cleere 2001; Hall 1999; Karl-strom 2009).

    To counter such biases, critical debates have focused on indigeneity and the rights of minorities, recognizing heritage value in cultural forms that escape the dominant values of white settler classes in postcolonial contexts (Condori 1989; Kirstenblatt-Gimblett 2004; Smith 2004). The creation of a more academic and critical study of cultural heritage has also led to a move away from defi ning heritage value in things per se to emphasizing knowledge, performance and skilled practices consistent with the claims made by indigenous minorities for recognition of intangible heritage rather than monuments and sites as the basis for cultural rights (Holtorf 2001; Karlstrom 2009). While UNESCO has struggled to retain the principle of universality, it has only done so by extending the category to include a greater diversity of potential heritage values. Extending the Euro-American model developed from nineteenth-century nationalisms globally to coun-tries and minorities with radically different concepts of heritage and ideas about development has stretched the principle of universality to a breaking point (Eriksen 2001).Yet it is interesting that, as far as we can tell, the point of breakage has not yet arrived. UNESCO retains considerable infl uence in maintaining ideas of universal heritage value while steering an increasingly fl uid and negotiable understanding of how this might be interpreted at any local level.

    In the case of China, we can explore the reasons for this in a context that is radically different from the conditions that stretched the Euro-American model in Australia or America, for example, where recognition of the cul-tural rights of minorities emphasizes the relation of heritage value to cul-tural diversity (Harrison 2013: 156165, 207213; Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 2006; Meskell 2010; UNESCO 2002). Ever since ratifying UNESCOs World Heritage Convention in 1985, China has enthusiastically subscribed to UNESCOs claims to universality as a positive contribution to legitimiz-ing Chinas burgeoning global role and status, but uses such claims in ways that are beyond UNESCOs control (Oakes 2012; Su and Teo 2009). Chinas signing of the World Heritage Convention manifests an ambiguity between a universalistic conceptualization of heritage that derives from a European epistemology and another idea of heritage rooted in the Chinese states self-representation as the inheritor of a civilizational legacy of four thousand years. Far from being incompatible with state interests, China incorporates

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  • 274 Harriet Evans and Michael Rowlands

    UNESCOs universalism within its developmental interests of national mod-ernization and to legitimize its own claims to a millennial legacy of civiliza-tion. The two universalisms are, therefore, joined not as a matter of scale in which the local stands in contestation of the national, but in which the oper-ations of the Chinese state in its heritage policy and practice play out with different effects at different levels. While Chinas economic clout in the global political economy sustains its appropriation of UNESCO universal-ism in ways that a country like Mali cannot aspire to (Joy 2012; Rowlands 2002a, 2002b), the history and actuality of the Chinese states penetration of locality sees the same ambiguity at work in local heritage projects expres-sive of civilizational diversity. This suggests not a contestation of UNESCOs universalistic ethos but an encouragement and extension of it in the service of different aims rooted in earlier perceptions of an imperial cosmology, in the early twentieth-century quest to establish the modern nation-state and its continuation during the Mao era and in contemporary strategies of eco-nomic development.

    A similar ambiguity can be seen in Chinas collaboration on heritage with the World Bank. Since 1993, when China began to approach the World Bank for assistance in incorporating cultural heritage into development projects, the ChinaWorld Bank Partnership for Conservation has supported twelve projects, with loans totaling US $1.323 billion, including US $260 million of direct support for heritage projects. According to a 2011 World Bank report, Conserving the Past as a Foundation for the Future (Ebbe, Licciardi and Baeumler 2011: xii), the Chinese governments recognition of the chal-lenge that rapid urban growth poses for cultural heritage conservation has led to World Bank support in three main areas: the strengthening of urban planning skills, upgrading basic infrastructure and improving traditional housing. 1 Such collaboration suggests that China is a willing partner to World Bank interests and is in a position to obtain signifi cant loans under the name of heritage conservation. Far from contesting the World Banks conditions, the raw fi gures of Chinas relationship with the World Bank would indicate that China goes along with them, but in practices that sug-gest a fi ltering out of requirements or obligations that do not correspond with Chinas national interests of self-legitimation.

    By 2011 China had forty-one World Heritage sites, twenty-nine of which are cultural heritage sites, including monuments and old towns, eight natu-ral heritage sites and four cultural and natural (mixed) sites, ranking third in the world. The most recent addition in 2011 was Hangzhous West Lake cultural landscape. China ratifi ed UNESCOs Convention on the Safeguard-ing of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2004 to protect oral, performative and handicraft cultural practices described as masterpieces of mankind and including cultural expressions in need of urgent safeguarding. 2 In 2006 work began on preparing a new law on the protection of intangible cultural heritage. This was fi nally passed by the National Peoples Congress in early 2011 and took effect in June of the same year. According to the law, the

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  • Reconceptualizing Heritage in China 275

    country would give particular assistance to intangible heritage-protection efforts in ethnic minority, remote and poverty-stricken areas. It also stipu-lated that cultural authorities must provide necessary places and funds for representative heirs to pass on related skills and knowledge and encour-age participation in non-profi t social activities (China Adopts First Law 2011). UN statistics show that by 2011, China had 1,028 state-level intan-gible cultural heritage items and 1,488 state-level representative heirs or transmitters ( chuanchengren ). 3

    The scale of the Chinese governments enthusiastic adopti


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