Call for Papers: Authenticating China. Governance and Valuation through Intangible Cultural Heritage

New Call for Papers for a Special Feature of China Perspectives

Authenticating China: Governance and Valuation through Intangible Cultural Heritage

Guest-editors: Guillaume Dutournier (EFEO, Beijing) and Florence Padovani (CFC, Beijing)

Since the Chinese authorities adopted the UNESCO Convention on “Intangible Cultural Heritage” (ICH) in 2004, the People’s Republic of China has seen the rise of a passion for heritage. In addition to the conservation measures implemented since 1950 in historical sites, an ever-increasing number of projects and initiatives have been relying on the concept of “feiyi” (acronym for ICH in Chinese) in an attempt to obtain recognition for practices perceived as traditional and to safeguard their lines of transmission (Bodolec 2012, 2014; Gao 2014; Maags 2018). Now added to the government’s agenda through a plurality of agencies, this feiyi valuation is essentially formulated in terms of “culture” and “space of the people” (minjian), but is not homogeneous throughout the country, and presents itself as a competitive phenomenon, bringing together different types of actors over varied accreditation procedures (Smith 2006; Madsen 2014; Shepherd & Yu 2013). Beyond its impact at the national level, this new discourse reinforces the image of the country by imposing post-Maoist China on the world heritage scene. Nowadays, with 40 ICH items listed by UNESCO, the Chinese State confirms its involvement in the “typological extension” of the concept of heritage, as well as its ability to expand thecommon repertoire (Choay 2007; Bodolec 2014; Maags 2019; Bortolotto & Demgenski 2020).

The phenomenon of feiyihas been the subject of abundant research in social sciences for the past ten years. Diverse in objects and perspectives, these studies can be divided into two groups according to the positioning they adopt with respect to the protagonists. In the type of research that could be labelled as “embedded,” often conducted by Chinese researchers, the academic expertise meets in the field with local interests (for dances and music, traditional craftsmanship and artistic know-how, ritual celebrations etc.) thatit seeks to guide by sometimes getting involved in the development of local projects (Gao 2006, 2014; Cui 2006; Shen 2010; Li 2014). In the second approach, often but not exclusively conducted by foreign scholars, researchers question the role of Chinese ICH in strengthening the legitimacy of power, or, on the contrary, in empowering the groups involved (Graezer 2003; Oakes 2013; Kuah & Liu 2017). Other works echo the increasingly frequent criticism in China against the commodification of culture (Bendix 2009; Taylor 2014; Pal 2009; Yan 2017). On both sides, a more or less explicit issue at stake is the normative project driven by UNESCO and its potential acclimatisation in China. Although some take the Chinese case to validate the UNESCO’s universalist orientation, others relativize the UNESCO’s influence and put forward a specifically Chinese vision of the relationship to the past, precisely because of the paramount place the “intangible” allegedly occupies in it (Yan 2015, 2016; You 2015; Li 2020; Su 2020).

By proposing an internal but non-exceptionalist approach on the manufacturing of ICH in China, this special issue can offer an alternative path. Rather than opposing China to the rest of the world, or the government to “civil society,” it intends to follow the actors and administrators of feiyi on the long run – and in their plural affiliations –, in order to highlight the system of hybrid and shifting values ​expressed by their actions. In China, as elsewhere, the reclassification of practices and artefacts in terms of “heritage” appears to be a critical moment invalue ascription, which mobilises evaluative frameworks and agencies with stabilization purposes. These frameworks and agencies extend the institutions and modes of reflexivity already present in society, while providing new support to justify reassessments of artefacts, sites or practices. The kind of approach recently developed in the “sociology of valuation” sheds valuable light on these processes of heritage building and on the way in which they are articulated in specific devices or faced with criticism (Heinich 2009, 2017; Boltanski & Esquerre 2017).

By making the values in Chinese ICH explicit, this approach ​​can do justice to an aspect largely underestimated so far: the basis of the currentprocess, the very notion of feiyi, is an imported concept meant to extend international normativity, but with a relatively vague definition which gives room for many elaborations and appropriations in the field. Chinese “feiyi” operates through the involvement of actors constantly defining its scope and the issues at stake according to their own scale of action and based on their type of engagement(Ashworth 2011; Su 2019). Therefore, in this constantly reinterpreted framework, the issue of authenticity, which has been excluded from the UNESCO definition of ICH (last defined in Yamato in 2004) and solely applies to tangible cultural heritage in China so far, often appears in feiyi discourse to justify the search of a balance between continuity and creativity (Zhu 2017; Su 2019; Maags 2020). This interpretative vitality must be examined in itself, as a part of the inherent dynamics of Chinese ICH, but also of its fundamental hybridity – particularly obvious inlong sequences. By offering extended studies of the various actors of feiyi, the investigations in this special issue will illustrate their back and forth at different levels: between ICH management bodies (sometimes at the intersection of different types of heritage) and their plural motives for acting; between their desire to authenticate practices and their efforts to identify “transmitters;” between the sources of heritage value, either empirical or quantifiable, and the various formulations of this value through criteria and lists. By this diachronic approach to feiyi-based heritagization processes, focusing on justifications and narratives, we intend to promote a sharper vision of the logics of action and social dynamics at work in the current effervescence – as well as a renewed approach to its political potential.

Please send abstracts of 200-300 words by July 30th, 2020 to the guest editors at [email protected] and [email protected].

Authors of selected abstracts will be invited to submit a full paper by the 30th September of 2020 to the guest editors of the special issue.

More information on the format of articles can be found here.

The special issue is scheduled to be published in 2021.


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