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Heritage Protection
Special> Living Legacies> Heritage Protection
UPDATED: November 9, 2009 NO. 45 NOVEMBER 12, 2009
Preserving Its Roots
China launches a nationwide campaign to safeguard and salvage the country's intangible cultural heritage that exists on the verge of extinction

Tibetan opera

China had 22 additional items of intangible cultural heritage (ICH) recognized by the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) at its fourth session in Abu Dhabi on September 30.

"We made it because of China's cultural diversity, noticeable achievements we attained in government-sponsored ICH protection as well as the wide participation from people of all walks of life," said Zhang Qingshan, Deputy Executive Director of the China Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Center at the Chinese National Academy of Arts.

The center organized this years' paperwork for ICH applications.

Still, while many celebrated the news, thinking it will help beef up public awareness regarding the protection of Chinese heritage, experts and observers are devoted to serious discussions on the most effective means of cultural preservation.

Previous to this year's appraisal, China already had four items on the UNESCO's list, including Kun Qu opera, the Guqin and its music, the Uygur Muqam of Xinjiang, a variety of songs, dances, folk and classical music traditions, and the Urtiin Duu, or "long song," of the Mongols.

In addition, three Chinese elements were identified this year by the UNESCO committee in the List of Intangible Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding. They included the New Year festival of the Qiang ethic group, traditional design and practices for building Chinese covered bridges and traditional textile techniques of the Li ethic group: spinning, dyeing, weaving and embroidering.

Enhanced effort

UNESCO this year approved a total of 76 cultural treasures for the world listing—22 from China, 13 from Japan, 6 from South Korea and some from other countries—in part because the UN body revised its biannual appraisal to an annual one while canceling limitations on the number of each country's application.

A sense of urgency to protect the heritages worldwide that existed on the verge of decay or destruction spurred the UNESCO revision, Zhang said. "I'm afraid that a lot of them might have perished far from sight before they had a chance to be inscribed onto the list if only one item were allowed for each country in the biannual appraisal," he said.


The covered bridge 

The volume and variety of cultural elements have allowed China to reach the top of the list in terms of endorsements by the UN body, which will be difficult for other countries to surpass for quite some time.

Zhang said he was not surprised that China had all 22 applications approved. "Twenty-two is not at all too many for China, a country with abundant and diversified cultural resources," he said.

In terms of the abundance of ICH, a country with a population of several million or a single nationality cannot be easily compared to one with a population of several hundred million that also has a wide array of minority groups. This realization, according to Zhang, is also one reason why UNESCO eliminated the numerical limitations on each country's application.

Included among the 22 items are either crafts that have greatly influenced world culture—such as papermaking, block printing, sericulture and silk craftsmanship, and celadon firing—or art forms that embody the cultural diversity of China and its 56 ethnic groups, such as the King Gesar epic tradition for ethnic Tibetan, Mongolian and Tu communities in west and north China and the Grand song of the Dong ethnic group.

But China still has more than 1,000 items lined up for an application. "Those already on UNESCO's list are not necessarily superior to others in terms of cultural value, but they are in more urgent need of attention and protection," Zhang said.

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