"Who are we? Where are we from?" Humans have been pondering these questions since the day they first came into being. One of the ways we preserve memories of the past is through our cultural heritage that has been passed on from generation to generation. Intangible cultural heritage, as well as tangible cultural heritage, is essential to the continuity of human civilization.
Since the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) unveiled the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001, China has had Kunqu opera, Guqin and its music, the art of Uygur Muqam of Xinjiang and the traditional Mongolian folk song Long Song added to UNESCO's protection list. It is now one of the countries with the largest number of such inclusions in the world.
Those listed by UNESCO represent only a small fraction of China's numerous forms of folk art. An ancient civilization with a history of over 5,000 years enjoying cultural diversity created by its 56 ethnic groups, China boasts a wide variety of intangible cultural heritage. It released its first national intangible cultural heritage list in May 2006, incorporating 518 entries. To date, 3,832 kinds of intangible cultural heritage have been included on lists compiled by its provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the Central Government. The second national list is being formulated.
Intangible cultural heritage mainly refers to broadly representative historical folk cultural heritage that is passed down by word of mouth or by demonstration. Known as the "living fossil of historical culture" and the "representation of the national memory," it includes folklores, customs, languages, music, dance, etiquette, rituals, cuisine and traditional medicine.
China's intangible cultural heritage exemplifies the values, thinking patterns, imagination and cultural awareness of the Chinese nation. Deemed as the crystallization of the wisdom of all ethnic groups in China, it is crucial to the country's cultural identity and cultural sovereignty.
China faces a daunting task to protect its intangible cultural heritage at a time when globalization is gathering momentum with rapid economic and social transition. Fewer people today choose to take part in traditional entertainment activities given the flourishing options with modern appeal. Many traditional crafts are on the verge of extinction. Some master craftsmen are getting old with few successors, resulting in the loss of some cultural heritage passed on by example. Many old residential complexes disappeared under the wheels of roaring bulldozers, along with traditional customs and lifestyles. It is believed that China suffers the loss of a senior craftsman, a craft or a folk song every minute and an old residence every second.
Thanks to the concerted efforts of the government and civil society, "intangible cultural heritage," a once strange concept, has gained increasing currency in China in recent years. However, we have to seize the moment to prevent its extinction. We also need to balance its protection against the growing trends of urbanization and globalization.