Cultural Heritage of Gujo Dance in Japan

By JIN Ying Crystal

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The History and Status of Gujo Dance

3. The Importance of Education for Gujo Dance

4. Education and Gujo DanceHeritage

5. Risks for the Cultural Heritage of Gujo Dance

6. Conclusion 

7. References

8. About the Author

1. Introduction

Bon Festival is a traditional Buddhist festivalfor the Japanese to commemorate their ancestors. It has been celebrated in Japan for more than 500 years and, as time goes by, it carries forward the traditional culture by not only passing on the traditional customs but also injecting something new into them. By now the Festival has evolved into a family reunion holiday with many activities, one of which isBon Festival dance. Gujo dance is one of the three most famous Bon dancesin Japan, with a long history of around 400 years. This entry intends to introduce the traditional and modern significance of the dance. I will first present the historical background and contemporary situation of Gujo dance in Japan, then move to an analysis of the significance of the dance from traditional and modern perspectives, and the challenges it is facing. After that, some suggestions will be put forward for further work required for maintaining this cultural heritage.

2. The History and Status of Gujo Dance

Bon is the shortened form of Ullambana, which means the great suffering. Bon dance originated from a story: a disciple of Buddha saved his deceased mother who had fallen into the realm of hungry ghosts and suffered a lot. He was happy to dance for his mother’s release and also grateful for his mother’s kindness for sacrificing so much for him. This dance gradually became a custom to commemorate and appreciate the sacrifices of the ancestorsof the Japanese.

During the past few centuries, Bon dance has evolved into different kinds of dances that vary from region to region. Gujo dance is the traditional dance from the Gifu prefecture since the Tokugawa period (around 400 years ago). Gujo dance is famous for its ‘tetsuya’ dance, which means that people gather and dance through the whole night for four nights in mid-August. The number of dancers usually exceeds 30,000 people each night. Gujo dance is also famous for its easy accessibility, and it has become a sightseeing experience for foreigners. Anyone can join the dance, without caring about the clothes or their dancing skills.

3. The Importance of Education for Gujo Dance

Gujo dance originated from religious custom in Gujo, and its original significance is to honor the spirits of ancestors. The Japanese believe that they can use some special objects to help their ancestors come to this world during Bon festival, and then send them back to their world the same way. Thus, Gujo dance is one way for the people in Gujo to celebrate the arrival of their ancestors and spend the day together.

In the modern society, Gujo dance does not only preserve the traditional significance of commemorating ancestors, but adds something new to it. In fact, the religious factor does not play a major part in the cultural heritage of Gujo dance, and some new functions of Gujo dance have come to the fore. They include family reunion, neighborhood association, and a way of spreading the culture.  

During Bon Festivalthe Japanese have 4 to 7 days off which gives them an opportunity to reunite with their family members to chat with each other, participate in activities together, and join others in Gujo dance. As a large number of people return home during this period, causing traffic jams, the Japanese started to refer to this time as the ‘national movement’. 

In Japan, interaction with neighbors is regarded as an important event in daily life. To some extent, Gujo dance contributes to neighborhood association, as it provides an opportunity for everyone in the region to gather together and enjoy dancing and chatting. In contemporary circumstances, it even plays a more important role, given the accelerated pace of life which makes it almost impossible to spend time with neighbours.

The National Survey on Lifestyle Preferences (Cabinet Office, 2010) studied the participation rate in various activities of Bon Festival. As can be seen in Figure 1, the participation rate in the festival events, including Bon dance, is 49.5%. This means that around half of the whole population participated in the festival events. Although festival events have a very small influence on daily life, people still have a high interest in participating in them. 

Figure 1.  Activity participation in the past year (Cabinet Office, 2010).

Figure 1. Activity participation in the past year (Cabinet Office, 2010).

Figure 2 shows motivation for participating in the festival. From this figure, some key words such as ‘neighborhood’ and ‘region’ show the importance of interaction and communication with others. We can draw the conclusion that neighborhood association is onereason for maintaining Gujo dance.

Figure 2.  Motivation of participating in regional activities (Cabinet Office, 2010).

Figure 2. Motivation of participating in regional activities (Cabinet Office, 2010).

In 1996, Gujo dance was designated as an important intangible folk cultural asset. To keep this intangible folk cultural asset alive, we should emphasize its domestic heritage and spread it internationally as a part of the Japanese culture. The minister of the intangible culture asset department of the Independent Administrative Institution National Institutes for Cultural Heritage Tokyo National Research Institute for Cultural Propertiespointed out that Gujo dance is a way of facilitating international cultural communication. In the international performing arts festival that started in 1996, unique dances have been performed over 30 times. Bon dance including Gujo dance has been performed 8 times. At the same time, Gujo dance has gradually developed into an opening activity to invite foreigners to join in. This way it helps enhance cross-cultural communication.

4. Education andGujo DanceHeritage

Gujo dance, as an intangible cultural asset, differs from other kinds of tangible cultural assets, as it cannot be preserved without the participation of human beings. Thus, education as a unique form of inheriting knowledge and culture comes to the fore when we try to develop intangible culture.

Gujo dance is held every year as an informal education which creates an opportunity for the younger generation to hear traditional folk stories retold by the older generation and learn how to dance. The Japan Broadcasting Corporation made a documentary about Gujo dance in a TV program called ‘Seasoning the Seasons’ (NHK, 2012). The program describes Gujo dance as a ‘dancing dance’ rather than a ‘watching dance’. Meanwhile, the Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan has published a document named Protection system of intangible cultural heritage, pointing out some policies and measures to assist the sustainable development of traditional culture, including Gujo dance. 

Although education for inheriting Gujo dance is taking place, it does not seem enough for transmitting and developing this unique culturalheritage in the long-term. One example of education for cultural heritage is the Iemoto system which is applied in learning about two kinds of traditional Japanese culture connected with music and dance, named nogaku and kabuki (Cang, 2008). The Iemoto system is a cross-generational learning led by an authority figure who is considered the master of the art being taught. This system could be usedfor education for inheriting Gujo dance, if careful modification could be made according to the characteristics and context of Gujo dance.

5. Risks for the Cultural Heritage of Gujo Dance

Although Gujo dance has become so popular as to even being performed on the international stage, we cannot overlook the risks of losing the pure and traditional part of Gujo dance. Sometimes, internalization of Gujo dance may lead to ignoring the original motivation and traditional customs, since sacrifices must be made to conformto international standards and trends. 

In Japan, tourism industrialization of Gujo dance brings challenges that may impede the original intention of a traditional culture. Tourism is no doubt a useful way to facilitate regional development (Torigoe, 2014). However, as visitors’ needs have to be met, the activity gets re-organized in a way that serves tourists. For example, in the past, during the overnight Gujo dance, everyone in the region would participate in dancing; thus every restaurant and shop would close for everyone to enjoy dancing. Now the situation seems to have been changed so as to make visitors’ experience with Gujo dancebetter: other services such as meals, costume rental, dance teaching, need to be provided. 

Dancing with visitors using simpler movements gradually leads to a sense of burden, instead of enjoyment of the activity. Under the pressure of providing better services to visitors, which sometimes has already been seen as a mental burden, in turn leads to the disregard of the personal pursuit of happiness for local people during Gujo dance. This transforms local people from participants to servers, andGujo dance from a local activity to an over-commercialised touristicperformance. Although bringing visitors could inject some energy or vitality into the dance to some extent, there can be negative changes too. Adachi (2004) did a study in Gujo and opined that Gujo dance was no longer a local dance. While the tourism industry opens a door for Gujo dance to spread all over the world, it also brings rirks, the overlooking of which may make Gujo dance pay a heavy price. 

6. Conclusion

Gujo dance has a long history of over 400 years and is identified as an intangible cultural folk asset, as well as one of three most important Bon dances in Japan. Although it originated from religious customs to commemorate ancestors, now it is developing by injecting something new into it. This development calls for education that can help transmitGujo dance. First, the Bon vacation can create an opportunity for family reunion, which seems very significant since it could be the only chance for many people to go back to their hometown during the whole year. Second, Gujo dance is so popular that the whole region participates in it, which also creates an opportunity for neighbors to communicate with each other, leading to the development of neighborhood association. Finally, Gujo dance contributes to cultural heritage from a domestic view, and spreads Japanese culture to the whole world. 

Some efforts for improving education for inheriting traditional culture have been seen, but there is still room for caution . The tourism industry can help preserve the dance and develop it by adjusting to the modern times, but it also brings the risk of over-commercialization, and the loss of the traditional core. There is a  need for a balance between globalization and cultural heritage. What can help is prioritizing preservation of the original local dance in a form acceptable by the local population, while placing the development of tourism as a secondary task.

7. References

Adachi, S. (2004). Nosutaruji wo Tsuujita Dento Bunka no Keisyu – Gifuken Gujoshi Hachimantyo no Gujo Odori no Jirei kara. (In Japanese) [The Inheritance of Traditional Culture through Nostalgia: A Case Study of Gujo Odori (Gujo Bon Festival Dance) in the Town of Hachiman, Gifu Prefecture.] Journal of New Developments in Environmental Sociology, (10), 42-58.

Cabinet Office. (2010). National Survey on Lifestyle Preferences. Retrieved from

Cang, V. G. (2008). Preserving Intangible Heritage in Japan: The Role of the Iemoto System. International Journal of Intangible Heritage3, 72-81.

NHK. (2012). Seasoning the Seasons: Gujo Dance. Retrieved from:

Torigoe, H. (2014). Life Environmentalism: A Model Developed under Environmental Degradation. International Journal of Japanese Sociology, (23), 21–31. doi: 10.1111/ijjs.12022

About the Author

JIN Ying Crystal

MEd, The University of Hong Kong


Sustainability of Shaman Culture in Oroqen

By Zhao Wunaji

Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. The Oroqen People and Shamanism

3. Cultural Sustainability of Shaman Among the Oroqen

4. Strategies for Preservation

4.1 Redefining Shamanism in Minority Education

4.2 Applying for World Intangible Cultural Heritage

5. Conclusion

6. References

7. Actual Materials

8. Notes

9. About the Author

1. Introduction

The word shaman originates from the Tungus tribe in Siberia. Anthropologists have used this term to refer to spiritual and ceremonial leaders of indigenous cultures worldwide. Shamanism encompasses ancient healing traditions and spiritual practices of these indigenous cultures that determine their way of life, closely intertwined with nature and all of the world’s creatures. 

Shamanism is also an ancient and mysterious part of the original culture of the Oroqen people in China. These days, however, it is on the verge of extinction as the cultural identity of the Oroqen tribe has been weakened due to a decrease in the number of the population, and sinicization or assimilation into the Chinese culture. This entry discusses the historical background of the Oroqen people and shamanism, the sustainability of shaman culture, and the dilemma it is facing. Finally, it puts forward practical and effective strategies for cultural sustainability and rejuvenation of Oroqen shamanism in the new era.

2. The Oroqen People and Shamanism

The Oroqen, also called Orocen or Orochon (or Elunchun in Chinese), traditionallylive in the south of the Heilongjiang (Amur) River in the forests and the rivers of the Lesser and Greater Khingan Range and Ilkhur Moutains of northern Manchuria. The Oroqen is among the smallest of the 56 ethnic minority groups (registered minority groups) in China. According to the demographic data of The Sixth National Population Censusof thePeople’s Republic of Chinain 2010, there are only 8,659 Oroqens in China. The Oroqen people do not have a written language (Noll and Shi, 2004) and today few of them can speak their own native language. 

Shamanism is the earliest religious belief of the Oroqen people. The Oroqens were mainly nomadic hunters who lived by fishing, hunting, and gathering. The shaman ceremonies were often held before hunters went into the forest. They prayed to god to ask for the hunters’ safety and good prey. Shamanceremonies included the presentation of a variety of cultural forms such as folk dance and music, national musical instrument, ballads, handicraft, painting, mythology, literature, and language. All of them represented spiritual, art, and ecological values of this minority eco-culture.

In 1953, the Oroqen people were forced to settle down in ‚’Ethnic Villages’ constructed by the local government at the foot of the mountains. At that time shamanism was still popular among the Oroqen. After the settlement, the influence of Shaman culture started weakening (Noll and Shi, 2004). Due to the implementation of the ban on hunting in 1996, the Oroqenclans could not engage in the traditional forest hunting life, and the associated shamanistic culture started to gradually disappear. Nevertheless, as a nation's traditional culture, it still has a deep influence on the older generation of Oroqens.

After the death of shaman Meng Jinfu, Guan Kouni became the only surviving shamana (Kister, 1999). She was born in the Huma river basin in 1935. When she was 17 years old, she once was badly ill and modern medicinedid not work. Then she practiced the traditional dance to the shaman divine tune and made an amazing recovery. Currently, Guan Kouni lives alone in Baiyinna township. She wanted her daughter to step into her shoes to become a shamana, but ‘the god’s will’ did not seem to agree - her daughter passed away soon after the inheritance ceremony. She has not found a suitable Oroqen as an inheritor, which means that that there will likely be no shaman to save cultural memory, and Oroqen shamanism will belost.

A new generation of Oroqen has no faith in shamanism, as they are either influenced by mainstream religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, and others, or have been sinicized and have become atheists. The primary reason for this is for the Oroqens to join the communist party. Another reason is that the younger generation of Oroqens has hardly seen a shaman and has little knowledge of shamanistic cultures; few have heard about the legends of shamans. Now they only have a surface understanding of shamanism as part of culture, not faith. The days of shamanism as religion belief have passed, and the primitive spiritual sustenance of gods has become history. The language, religion, and culture of this minority is under threat of disappearing; therefore preservation of elements of the cultural group is a pressing issue.

3. Cultural Sustainability of Shamanism among the Oroqen

Culture is included as an important aspect of education for sustainable development. From global perspectives, UNESCO has done a lot of work to prevent the loss of civilizations and cultures, especially of small ethnic minority groups. These actions could protect the diversity of the world to help deal with the current situation of national assimilation. The WCCD ReportOur Creative Diversity (Wilson, 1997), Convention of Protection and Promotion Diversity of Cultural Expressions (UNESCO, 2005) and some other relevant documents have reflected the urgency of protecting cultural diversity.

The Oroqen is a small ethnic minority group in China with hundreds of years of history. Its unique culture helps complete China's national identity, comprised of 56 different ethnicities. For China, protecting shamanismis an important means to maintain cultural sustainability of a small group. In addition, protecting their cultural sustainability is an important means to raise the minority groups’spirituality, identity, language, and self-esteem. There are, however, some challenges for the preservation of the vitality of the shaman culture of the Oroqen. It is urgent for Oroqen clans and people to work to preserve shamanism. The next section discusses some strategies.

4. Strategies for Preservation

4.1. Redefining Shamanism in Minority Education 

Sustainability as a common goal for development requires actors to find ways to improve quality of life without damaging the environment or passing problems to people in other parts of the world or to future generations. To confront challenges for the sustainable future of humanity, education of the younger generations holds a pivotal position amidst other strategies (Kwo, 2011). Modern Oroqen minority education plays an invaluable role in the sustainable development of shaman culture. The Chinese Government has issued a series of education policies at different levels for grooming exceptional Oroqens to preserve and revitalize the vibrant culture of Oroqen. However, there are still some sensitive issues of Oroqen minority education that should not be ignored. 

When the Oroqen clan encountered modern civilization, the younger Oroqen generation accepted modern education. From the perspective of science, demands for eradicating shamanism have become more and more strident. In the context of cultural assimilation, the concept of shamanism as a faith has been question and relegated to the realm of superstition.  To develop shaman cultures in minority education, we need to redefine shamanism in minority education.

First, we should put emphasis on the definition that shamanism is a natural theology that builds a close relationship between science and religion. In addition to this, shaman culture should be emphasized as a folk art, which is in need of recording in national course construction in relevant colleges and universities. This field should be explored further, and more research should be done to facilitate future studies. Thus far, the cultures of small ethnic minority groups have not drawn enough attentions from academia. The number of majors related to minority cultures at Chinese universities is very small. Only Central University for Nationalities, Hebei Normal University, Nanjing University, Southeast University, Zhongshan University, and a few others have any courses related to folk art (Shanshan, 2014). Furthermore a focus on shaman culture study is absent. 

4.2. Applying for World Intangible Cultural Heritage

Stefano, Davis, and Corsane (2012) point out that intangible cultural heritage can represent nearly everything to some extent, including the immaterial elements that influence and surround all human activity. At present, the Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage Directory has included Oroqen shamanism to some extent, but for further preservation, it is not enough. The Oroqen clan is sparsely populated and their ancient shaman culture is in need of protection from international perspectives. If the Oroqen shaman culture can gain WorldIntangible Cultural Heritage status, this can fuel relevant academic research, government investment, cultural protection, promotion in mass media, and the construction of ethnic eco- tourism villages which can be conducive to the continuation of Oroqen shaman culture. At local, national, and global levels, the pressures for change should be centered around issues of equity in respect for cultural heritage, which is far beyond sector concerns for environmental protection and economic growth (Kwo, 2011).

There are a few mentions of the urgency to include shaman culture in the 429 World Intangible Cultural Heritage list. There are eight cultures that are on the list that are influenced by shamanistic cultures, threeoin China.For example, the Pansori originated in south-west Korea in the 17th century, probably as a new expression of the narrative songs of shamans. The annual Gangneung Danoje Festival in South Korea includes a shamanistic ritual on the Daegwallyeong Ridge. Mak Yong, an ancient theatre form created by Malaysia’s Malay communities, is also associated with rituals in which shamans attempt to heal through songs, trance-dance, and spirit possession. Ancient practices in the Boysun District located in south-eastern Uzbekistan are still often used to conduct shamanistic rituals to cure the sick. Nha Nhac in Vietnam provide a means of communication with and paying tribute to the gods and kings as well as transmitting knowledge about nature and the universe (UNESCO, 2008). In China, Yimakan storytelling in the Hezhen ethnic minority group of north-east China preserves traditional knowledge of shamanic rituals, fishing, and hunting (UNESCO, 2008). The Humai ethnic minority group in Mongolia has as part of its culturesinging usually done by shamanas. Manas in the Kirgiz ethnic minority group showe various shaman customs before they formed a new belief in Islam. 

5. Conclusion 

This entry has observed the disappearance of shamanism and its relevance, in relation to the potential extinction of a cultural group. Understanding the importance of preservation of this culture has a potentially far-reaching effect as it would lay down a platform for cultural preservation of dozens of other small ethnic minorities which are integral to the cultural makeup of world civilization. 

6. References

Kwo, O. (2011). Strategic Dialectic Action for Teacher Education in ESD: A Framework for a UNESCO-led Leadership Force. Hong Kong, The University of Hong Kong.

Kister, D. (1999). Present-day Shamanism in Northern China and the Amur Region. Shaman,7.77-95.

Noll, R., & Shi, K. (2004). Chuonnasuan (Meng Jin Fu) - The Last Shaman of the Oroqen of Northeast China. Journal of Korean Religions6. 135-162.

Shanshan, W. (2014). Research on Protection of Intangible Cultural Heritage in China.Jinan, China: Qilu University of Technology. 

Stefano, M., Davis, P., & Corsane, G. (2012). Touching the Intangible: An introduction. Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage, 1-8.

UNESCO. (2005). Convention of Protection and Promotion Diversity of Cultural Expressions. Paris: The Author.

The Population Census Office of the State Council. (2010). The Sixth National Population Census of the People’s Republic of China in 2010.Retrieved from

Wilson, R. A. (1997). World Commission on Culture and Development (1995). Our Creative Diversity. Paris: UNESCO.

Xiaoyun, G., & Honggang, W. (1998). Elunchun zu saman jiao diaocha [A Study of Oroqen Shamanism]. Shenyang, China: Liaoning People’s Publishing House.

About the Author

Zhao Wunaji

MEd, The University of Hong Kong


Preservation of China’s Intangible Cultural Heritage

By Xie Fan

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Definition of Intangible Cultural Heritage

3. The Significance of Preserving Intangible Cultural Heritage

4. Preservation of Intangible Cultural Heritage: Global Perspective

5. Intangible Cultural Heritage Preservation in China

6. Intangible Cultural Heritage and Cultural Sustainability

7. Conclusion

8. References

9. Key Terms and Definitions

10. Notes

11. About the Author

1. Introduction

Over its history, China has created a great treasure of intangible cultural heritage. However, while some countries have done an extraordinary job to preserve intangible cultural heritage, the accelerated pace of industrialization and urbanization in China has had some negative effects on the country’s heritage. Chinese citizens are aware that their cultural heritage is in danger, as it faces a difficult future if not properly preserved. Thus it is important to understand how to preserve China’s intangible cultural heritage. This entry explains the process of preservation of intangible cultural heritage in China. It details effective ways to draw attention to the issue by government and other organizations, encourage participation of the public, and further develop cultural sustainability in China.

Key Terms: Chinese culture, cultural sustainability, intangible cultural heritage, preservation

2. Definition of Intangible Cultural Heritage

Cultural heritage is composed of the products and processes that belong to a particular culture/society that are preserved and passed on from one generation to another. Cultural heritage can be tangible (historical relics, historical buildings, and human cultural relics) and intangible (practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills, instruments, objects, artifacts, and cultural spaces) that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage (UNESCO, 2003). Stefano, Davis and Corsane (2012) point out that intangible cultural heritage can represent nearly everything to some extent, including the immaterial elements that influence and surround all human activity.

3. The Significance of Preserving Intangible Cultural Heritage

Many are familiar with the understanding of heritage as being something material, monumental, and aesthetic. Some struggle, however, with the new paradigm of cultural heritage established by the UNESCO Convention for the safeguarding of the intangible cultural heritage in 2003 as, in some cases, people do not realize the importance of its safeguarding (Srinivas, 2008).

Preservation of intangible cultural heritage, in contrast to what some may believe, has many important benefits. First, intangible cultural heritage has a cultural value. Recording and showing the lifestyle and the historical and cultural track of different nations, intangible cultural heritage can effectively help people understand the social and cultural fabric of a particular time (Smith & Akagawa, 2008). Second, it has an economic value , which is often related to tourism. If a region makes full use of the intangible cultural heritage resources to develop tourism, it can derive a number of social and economic benefits from it (Deng & Ma, 2014). Third, cultural heritage has an aesthetic value (Ahmad, 2006). Such kinds of non-material cultural heritage as embroidery or traditional opera have both aesthetic and artistic value and are a great treasure for human beings.

4. Preservion of Intangible Cultural Heritage: A Global Perspective

Prior to the UNESCO Convention, a number of states had made efforts to safeguard their intangible heritage (Deacon, Dondolo, Mrubata, & Prosalendis, 2004). After the Second World War, cultural heritage in a large number of countries around the world was destroyed. This prompted many societies to pay more attention to the protection of their cultural heritage.

Four countries have done an extraordinary job in this area. They are Japan, South Korea, France and Italy. Japan, with its 1950 Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties, was the first to introduce legislation to preserve and promote intangible ands tangible culture. Important Intangible Cultural Properties were designated, and “holders” recognized these craft and performance traditions, that were earlier known as Living National Treasures (Kurin, 2004). South Korea’s protection of cultural heritage and intangible cultural heritage began to develop towards commercialization and tourism. Both North Korea and South Korea recognize the intangible values of cultural heritage, and use heritage tourism as an effective means to re-imagine Korea as one national entity (Park, 2011). From the French Revolution to the present day, France has used cultural heritage as a means of nation-building (Vecco, 2010). Italy has not only well-preserved historical and cultural heritage but also developed intangible heritage protection via such projects as rural eco-tourism and food cultural tours (Maggi, 2012).

5. Intangible Cultural Heritage Preservation in China

In the early 1950s, the Chinese government set up departments and prepared experts to investigate minority cultural heritage in China. It then took measures to protect a large number of traditional arts and crafts and named 200 people as national arts and crafts masters (Wen-zhang, 2008). This was the beginning of heritage protection in China.

On one hand, China has made some remarkable achievements in cultural heritage preservation. China has issued a series of laws in order to protect intangible cultural heritage that include The ICH Law[i], acts of Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs)[ii] and Contract Law[iii]. In 1982 the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Cultural Relics was passed by the twenty-fifth meeting of the Standing Committee of the Fifth National People’s Congress. This law plays an important role in protecting cultural heritage. Additionally, China has set up intangible cultural heritage protection institutions that operate at all levels, from the state to the local, and related corresponding agencies. The expert committee of national intangible cultural heritage protection was officially established in 2006 in Beijing. Furthermore, China has done a large-scale census of the intangible cultural heritage. In 2013, the national non-material cultural heritage census work achieved initial results. According to the statistics of the Ministry of Culture, they collected 29 million precious objects and data (Benling, 2013). Finally, China has applied various components of intangible cultural heritage for the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists. China’s Kunqu Opera was listed as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2001 (Zhongguo Kun qu yi shu, 2004).

However, there are still many problems with protection of intangible cultural heritage in China. First, a profit-driven society and rapid changes in public life issue formidable challenges to the survival, protection, and inheritance of intangible cultural heritage. Tourism is a typical example. In order to gain higher economic profits, intangible heritage is traded as a commodity, which eventually can erode local cultures (Rodzi, Zaki, & Subli, 2013). Next, a relatively sound legal system has not yet been formed to protect cultural heritage in China. To optimize intangible cultural heritage legislation, China can study and borrow definitions of key terms, procedures of law enforcement, effective supporting systems, and explicit legal liabilities from other countries. Furthermore, lack of professional educational institutions and professionals in relevant areas also hinder the development of Chinese intangible cultural heritage. The number of majors related to non-material cultural heritage at Chinese universities that is very small. Only Central University for Nationalities, Hebei Normal University, Nanjing University, Southeast University, Zhongshan University, and a few others have any courses related to folk art (Shanshan, 2014). Another issue is that the government has paid little attention to promotion of folk art and support of folk artists. In this context, preservation of ethnic cultures cannot be guaranteed as there are few professionals in this field. Finally, the economy is another essential factor. China is a developing country. Yet protection of intangible cultural heritage requires a large amount of funding.

6. Preservation of China’s Intangible Cultural Heritage for Cultural Sustainability

The concept of sustainable development was introduced in 1987 by the Brundtland Commission, formally known as the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), as part of the report Our Common Future. In the report, sustainable development was specified as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (Brundtland, 1987). Culture was mentioned as an aspect of social sustainability and occasionally as an aspect or dimension on its own. During the UNESCO Decade of Culture and Development (1988–1997), the inter-relationship between culture and development was discussed, resulting in the WCCD Report Our Creative Diversity (Wilson, 1997). Since that time, the connection between sustainable development and culture has been discussed in some international policy documents and conventions, such as In From the Margins (COUNCIL, 1997) and Convention on the Protection and Promotion of Diversity of Cultural Expressions (UNESCO, 2005).

The meaning of cultural sustainability is associated with and organized around a story line of cultural heritage. The basic assumption is that cultural heritage comprises a stock of cultural capital that has been inherited from previous generations and can be handed onto future generations (Throsby, 2008). Thus, the discussion of preservation of China’s intangible cultural heritage can be tied to the discourse on cultural sustainability. In order to develop China’s intangible cultural heritage sustainably, three main methods can help.

First, a better environment for strengthening public awareness about sustainability can be created through public campaigns. People in Japan, South Korea, France, and Italy have strong awareness of the need to protect their intangible cultural heritage. They devote a lot of attention to the protection and development of traditional cultures. They are eager to join efforts because they believe their national cultures enhance public pride. By contrast, when it comes to intangible cultural heritage in China, many Chinese citizens know little about it, which makes it difficult to call upon them to contribute. The Chinese government can use the internet and spread the message by conducting public activities, such as celebrations. Education is an effective and meaningful way to improve the overall awareness of students and the whole society. More courses related to intangible culture heritage should be arranged in universities and other educational institutions.

The experience of protection of historical and cultural heritage Japan, South Korea, Italy, and France shows that laws on cultural heritage protection could also be developed and implemented in an efficient way. The common methods of these countries include legislative protection, legal protection system, and legal supervision. Therefore, as a second step for China, the legal system can be improved and strengthened. China can establish a legislative model based on Chinese characteristics while using best practices of the international legislative system. Since China has national minority autonomous areas, it can make a breakthrough in these areas. Some initial law can be tried in those areas and then be applied in other areas, if the law is feasible. In addition, China should take legal protection system and legal supervision into consideration.

Third, there are ways to develop protection work. The first way is training and supporting successors, by providing them with favorable development conditions. If China wants to pass its cultural heritage from one generation to the next, it should focus on successors who play a vital role. South Korea is a great example of a society that effectively cultivates and protects successors. In 1964, the country started the Living National Treasure project for individuals and groups who have high levels of mastery in certain skills. They were subsequently designated as preservers of cultural heritage by the government in order to ensure continuity (Yang & Yang, 2003). By implementing these methods, Chinese protection of intangible cultural heritage has potential to make great progress.

In addition, the implementation of such projects should be systematically evaluated by educational and research communities. As briefly mentioned, courses related to intangible cultural heritage should be arranged. When teaching such courses it is necessary to promote the concept of cultural sustainability. An ideal model would have a special organization in schools that is responsible for these issues. To better understand the challenges and feasibility of this approach, further research is needed. Further research can explore such questions as: How can courses be arranged to effectively transmit awareness of preservation of China’s intangible cultural heritage? Who should be in charge of these courses? Where should funding come from?

7. Conclusion

This entry provided background information on intangible cultural heritage and the significance of preserving it, the status of preservation of intangible cultural heritage in China, and lessons China can learn from other countries. With the development of the society, the protection of intangible cultural heritage in China has made many achievements. However, there are still a number of problems related to cultural protection in China. These problems can impede further development of Chinese civilization. Increasing the effectiveness of preservation of intangible cultural heritage is not only a requirement for sustainable development, but also for the development of the country, international society, and world civilization.


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Key Terms and Definitions

Chinese Culture: the culture that reflects customs and traditions of China.

Cultural Sustainability: a concept that human beings should maintain their cultures and carry on various forms of the cultures from one generation to another.

Intangible Cultural Heritage: a form of cultural heritage that is made up of all immaterial manifestations of culture.

Preservation: the belief that people should preserve something for its value.


[i] ICH Law. Intangible Cultural Heritage Law of the People’s Republic of China. Adopted at the 19th Session of the Standing Committee of the 11th National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China on February 25, 2011.

 [ii] Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) have been acknowledged and protected in the People's Republic of China since 1979. After the reshuffle of the State Council in March 1998, the Patent Office became part of the State Intellectual Property Office.

[iii] Contract Law. Promulgated by the 9th NPC on 13th March 1999, came into force on 1st October, 1999.

About the Author

Xie Fan

MEd Student, The University of Hong Kong