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