Cultural heritage or brand protection?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 May, 2009, 12:00am

China has long been enthusiastic about having important national sites included on Unesco's world heritage list. Now it is branching out to preserve intangible heritage. Ahead of yesterday's Tuen Ng festival, the state-run Xinhua news service announced an application had been made to the United Nations body to declare the festival intangible cultural heritage. Five years ago, South Korea secured Unesco endorsement of its Gangneung Danoje Festival, which falls on the same day on the Lunar calendar as the Dragon Boat Festival. Now, China wants its share of global recognition for the ancient festival. The two nations' efforts look more like attempts at 'brand protection' than genuine heritage preservation.

The idea of safeguarding intangible cultural heritage is a good one, but it is often tricky to apply in a fair and meaningful way. The heritage value of buildings, monuments, historic places and artefacts is relatively easy to determine. It is much more difficult when it comes to traditional practices and activities which help keep the past alive but do not have clear-cut tangible or physical assets. It is those that are indisputably repositories of cultural or historical value, yet are in need of safeguarding, that the Unesco convention seeks to protect and preserve. Examples include traditional styles of music and dance such as Chinese Kunqu opera and the Korean Pansori epic chant, an age-old genre of musical storytelling.

But the two festivals celebrated yesterday in China and Korea are not at risk by any measure. Indeed, they are among the most vibrant activities celebrated every year by people and promoted by officials in the two countries. Besides being public holidays, they are also major commercial and tourist attractions.

Putting such activities and traditions on Unesco's intangible heritage list undoubtedly enhances their 'brand recognition' around the world and is, therefore, good for promotion purposes. If so, the moves are about advertising rather than protecting intangible heritage.

Such efforts risk undermining the purpose of the Convention for Safeguarding the Intangible Cultural Heritage, which has been ratified by more than 60 countries, including China. Nations need to show restraint lest the whole idea of protecting intangible heritage becomes an excuse for commercial exploitation and xenophobic competition.