By Enkhrel Enkhtsetseg.
Graduate Student at Yonsei University, Graduate School of International Studies
Researcher member of The Mongolian Institute for Geopolitical Studies.
As the world takes a shape more globalized and homogenous, cultural diversity that exists in it is facing a danger of extinction. Foreseeing this threat, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO hereafter) adopted the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (the Convention hereafter) in 2003 in a bid to expand its efforts which previously was confined only within the scope of “tangible”, and “natural” heritage. Yet controversies surrounding the concept of “intangible cultural heritage” (ICH hereafter) has been subject to critical analysis since the Convention was adopted, mainly because of three central issues: (1) identifying ICH is highly subjective, due to its existence being dependent upon the transmitters, or simply, individuals; (2) transmitters of ICH are not restricted by borders, and can be spread across two or more countries, or an entire region, depending on intersecting political histories; (3) although meant to represent ethnic and cultural diversities, ICH are united under the name of a nation-state in the UNESCO List, blurring the difference among ethnic groups, and portraying a unified image as consistent with the state-centered Westphalian system. While the UNESCO tries to tackle these issues by defining ICH as “the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge … that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage” (emphasis added), the major responsibilities such as nominating, reviewing and listing of ICH still lie at the hands of nation-states. This leads us to the fundamental questions behind this paper: What are the purposes of the convention, as intended by the UNESCO, and as interpreted by States Parties to the Convention? Do the intended purposes of the Convention match the interpretation of these purposes by nation-states? What are the consequences of the possible mismatch between the intended and perceived purpose of the Convention? This paper will argue that the interpretation of the Convention’s primary goal of “safeguarding the ICH” from a state-centric perspective is substantially different from what is intended by the UNESCO, and the difference between these interpretations is offering a chance for nation-states to exploit the Convention, as well as the Representative List of the Intangible Heritage List of Humanity (the ICH List hereafter) as a nation-building tool, which sometimes resulting in a negative sentiments, political tension between, or among neighboring countries, or in an entire region.
Intertwined history of Mongolia and China
Mongolia, although sovereign country, is common to be referred mistakenly as the “Outer Mongolia”, as a way of being contrasted to the “Inner Mongolia” (called “Southern Mongolia” by Mongolians), name of inclusion, which refers to the sense of belonging to China. As a country of nomads neighboring China, Mongolia has a long history of interacting with China, among which two countries saw Mongolia’s conquest of China to establish Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), and the three centuries of both countries colonized by the Qing dynasty, as well as Mongolia’s declaration of independence after the Qing dynasty’s fall, and China’s declared succession of the Qing at the same period, which included the “Inner Mongolia” of today. While it is true that throughout the years of entangled history, both countries have exchanged a substantial amount of culture and traditions, the distinctness of Mongolian “nomadic” culture, and Chinese culture of land settlers still remain. Yet, through the inclusion of Inner Mongolia, and several other regions inhabited by ethnic Mongolians within itself, China’s inscription of the ICH native to Mongolia on the ICH List has been regarded as a classic example of “China as imperialist” policy, and therefore, have been a subject of fierce criticism in Mongolia, while at the same time, fueling the centuries-long held mistrust against China. On the other hand, China argues that registering intangible heritages present to its territory is more about the capability, and the will to protect the traditional art rather than claiming the ownership of them. Is it really “safeguarding” of intangible heritage China gives the utmost priority to as it claims, or does it interpret the Convention in some other way, and exploit the heritage of its ethnic minorities as accordingly? To answer this question, the intended purpose of the Convention, and its interpretation by Chinese government will be analyzed in the next section to later the findings be applied to the case of Khoomei.
The Convention, and its intended purpose
UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of the ICH became operational in 2006 when Romania joined as its 30th States Party. As of May 2017, the Convention has been expanded to include 174 States Parties, and 365 elements of ICH inscribed in its Representative List, and 47 in its Urgent Safeguarding List, reflecting the growing importance placed upon the ICH by nation-states. While scholarly discussions on the Convention have primarily focused on these numbers, the fundamental purposes of the Convention have been overlooked, twisting the perspective of evaluation from which its successes and failures shall be determined. In the first Article of the Convention, its purposes have been clearly set as (1) safeguarding; (2) ensuring respect for; (3) raising awareness, and appreciation of the ICH, and (4) providing international cooperation and assistance. Although these purposes sound simple, and easy to achieve, the intricate nature of the ICH creates various dilemmas for the process itself, and becomes the main source of possible misuse, and exploitation of the Convention by nation-states for their own interests.
The most basic issue among them is the political nature of cultures, which constructs the identity of individuals, groups, and communities. Therefore, the evident tension between national unity, and self-identity of diverse ethnic groups have become the foremost dilemma to the Convention, although the UNESCO’s proclamation of being exclusively non-political organization. The solution attempted by the Convention is balancing the importance placed upon the sovereignty of nation-states, and the ICH transmitters (owners, in other words), in a way it ensures the best available participation by nation-states. To secure the best rate of implementation, the Convention chooses nation-states as its main parties (Article 2.4) responsible for safeguarding intangible heritages at both the national (Article 11-13), and the international level (Article 16-19), as its main contributors to the Intangible Heritage Fund (Fund hereafter), as well as designing the executive, and deliberative organs of the Convention out of nation-states (Article 4-8).
On the other hand, the importance of transmitter communities, groups, and individuals is emphasized in the definition of “ICH” itself (Article 2) at the same time directly addressing the issue of ownership with the statement that ICH is “part of their cultural heritage” (emphasis added) as recognized by themselves, not of the nation-states where they currently reside. The ownership of the ICH is further reinforced by the emphasis of the Convention that the inscription on the ICH lists simply means the presence of ICH in the territories of States Parties they are registered under, and therefore shall by no means be comprehended as international recognition of ownership of those heritages by nation-states. The Article 2 also links the ICH to a sense of identity, whereby it aims to establish protection mechanism for cultural diversity, and mutual respect without escalating the heated debate over to which nation-state the ICH spanning over borders of two or more countries belongs to. In addition, the Convention attempts to ensure the active participation of the transmitter communities, groups, and individuals themselves in the identifying, listing, and safeguarding, and management mechanisms by making it responsibility of States Parties (Article 15). While the article serves for mainly a symbolic purpose, it also invites for evaluation opportunities of identification, listing, and safeguarding processes from the perspectives of the transmitters themselves, whereby making the community participation more attractive choice for nation-states when possible, in order to convince the international community of the effectiveness of their policies.
According to the analysis above, the main purpose of the Convention is to create governments’ policy-driven mechanism of implementation to ensure effective safeguarding of the ICH, while emphasizing the ownership of the ICH is not of nation-states (although these heritage are listed under their names), but of communities, groups, and individuals as recognized by themselves, to avoid the possible tension between the sovereignty of nation-states, and the cultural identity of ethnic communities. Through this policy-driven system, the UNESCO attempts to promote diversity and help indigenous peoples, and ethnic minorities protect their heritage. In the next part, the paper will analyze the Chinese legislation based on the Convention to identify how the interpretation of the Convention is made, and compare the intended, and interpreted versions of the Convention.
The Chinese interpretation of the Convention
China ratified the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of ICH in 2004, becoming the sixth States Party to the Convention. As of 2016, the country holds the largest number of elements on the Lists of the Convention (39 out of 429), among which the majority are indeed an embodiment of Chinese culture, but also a few that represents various ethnic minorities within the country such as Khoomei, Urtiin duu (Inner Mongolia), Tibetan opera (Tibet Autonomous Region), Farmers’ dance (Korean ethnic group in China), and Muqam (Xinjiang Uyghur). Although some scholars deem the comparatively superior number of elements inscribed on the Lists under the nomination of China as an expression of its cultural “Soft Power” grab, and some others regard this as a manifestation of its imperialist intentions under the pretense of peacefully encouraging cultural diversity, these analysis do not address how the purposes of the Convention are interpreted through Chinese national ideology, whereby the nature, and objectives of the implementations can be analyzed more accurately.
Since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Chinese scholars started conducting various fieldwork studies on minority languages, and practices in order to create a “new unified nation” under the socialist ideologies. While these studies were largely abandoned, and their importance rejected under the Cultural Revolution, new era for identifying, and documenting the cultural heritage began in 1980s. After the “Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore” was adopted in 1989, China reacted quickly, and started building its legal, and executive framework for the ICH. Subsequently, integrating the Chinese interpretation of the Convention, and the importance, and value of ICH from Chinese perspective, the Law of the People’s Republic of China on ICH (Chinese ICH Law, hereafter) came into force in 2011. Therefore, examining the Chinese ICH Law in relation with the national ideologies held by its Communist party is an effective way through which we can generate the reflective image of Chinese interpretation of the Convention.
Two fundamental interpretations of the Convention are made in the Article 1, and 4 of the Chinese ICH Law. Firstly, while the ownership of the ICH is regarded as of communities, groups, and individuals rather than nation-states according to the Convention, the Chinese interpretation of the Convention appears entirely different. The Article 1 of the Chinese ICH Law states that the traditional culture present in its territory is the property of the nation itself, and one of the purposes of the Law itself is set as “promoting the building of the socialist spiritual civilization”.
Article 1. This Law is formulated for the purposes of inheriting and promoting the distinguished traditional culture of the Chinese nation, promoting the building of the socialist spiritual civilization and strengthening the protection and preservation of ICH. (emphasis added)
In the report of the 16th General Meeting of the Chinese Communist Party in 2007, the ICH is seen as a way towards the construction of “Spiritual Home of Chinese Nation”. The Article 4 of the 2011 Chinese ICH Law also clearly reflects this view, and further serves as another evidence that China regards the implementation of the Convention as a nation-building tool.
Article 4. When protecting ICH, focus shall be laid on its authenticity, integrity and inheritance and such protection shall be conducive to strengthening the recognition of the culture of the Chinese nation, maintaining the unification of the country and the unity of the nation and promoting social harmony and sustainable development. (emphasis added)
This article incorporates various nation-building ideologies set forward by Chinese leaders, such as “social harmony”, from the concept of “harmonious society” developed by its former President Hu Jintao. It also serves as another evidence that the purposes of safeguarding the ICH is interpreted differently from what is intended by the UNESCO. While the Convention’s core emphasis is on the ICH safeguarding policies and activities implemented by its States Parties, and the cultural diversity resulting from them, in China’s case, these policies and activities are further used in the interest of the Chinese government, namely, for the sake of nation-building rather than promoting cultural diversity. In the next part, the paper will explore the implication of the difference between the intended, and interpreted purposes of the Convention on the case of Khoomei, and the UNESCO’s attempt at smoothing out this difference through various means.
The case of Khoomei
Khoomei (alternatively Throat singing, also spelled as Khöömei, Khoomii) is one of the oldest form of singing where the performer imitates the sounds of the nature such as “the flow of water, the breath of wind, the echo of the mountains, the rumbling of thunder” using a unique practice of emitting two distinct vocal sounds simultaneously. This art is generally accepted to be originated in, native to, and is widely practiced in western Mongolia, namely in the Altai mountains. In addition, Khoomei has also been spread through various regions, several of which are currently under the control of its two giant neighbors: China (Inner Mongolia), and Russia (Tuva).
Khoomei was inscribed on the Representative List of the ICH of Humanity in 2009 for the first time under the nomination of China. As the report of the inscription began circulating in Mongolia, outrage among its citizens ensued, mainly because the decision was interpreted not as a recognition of Khoomei’s presence in Chinese territory as intended by the Convention, but rather as a recognition of the “Chineseness” in Khoomei, and as granting of the property rights of Khoomei to China, and ultimately, as a successful implementation of Chinese nation-building strategy. Thus, the decision was followed by a petition protesting the awarding of Khoomei to China, and several Mongolian news outlets were calling for signatures under the same headline: “Sorry, brother China, Khoomei is not yours”. Although the government of Mongolia regarded this issue from a less heated perspective, mainly in order to protect its economic and diplomatic interest, both of which are highly dependent on China, the commotion led Mongolia to send an application for the same artifact to the UNESCO, through which it was also awarded the rights in 2010, but under a slightly different version of spelling: “Khöömei”, while the art practiced in two countries is exactly the same.[13
Chinese side offered a very different explanation from what was perceived by Mongolians for its inscription of Khoomei, by claiming that China’s intention lies not in declaring Khoomei “Chinese”, but simply in offering the best possible protection for Khoomei as it is also ICH of ethnic Mongolians in China. According to the director of Inner Mongolia’s Song and Dance Academy, Li Qiang, China is “strong and capable enough” to safeguard Khoomei. Central to these arguments, Inner Mongolia is a home of almost 25 million people, 17 percent (4.25 million) of which is ethnic Mongolians. If we consider this fact, it is rather rational for China to nominate Inner Mongolian ICH to get them inscribed on the ICH to protect, and ensure the legacy of these heritage. Yet, the intended purposes of the Convention is interpreted quite differently by China as illustrated in the previous part. This interpretation also seeps through another part of Li Qiang’s statement that “Throat singing is part of China’s splendid general culture because Mongolians are one of China’s ethnic groups” (emphasis added). What can be inferred from here is there is no guarantee that China is not using the cultures of its ethnic minorities as a nation building tool, and therefore, Mongolians regarding China’s covert intention with doubts, and mistrust can be considered only natural.
The ultimate objectives of inscribing Khoomei under China’s name have been understood differently not only by two sides, but also by scholars in the field as well. For instance, Stokes argues that the inscription of Khoomei “increases the prestige of Chinese history”, which in turn, offered the increased opportunity to “manage” its ethnic minorities. Higgins supports this claim by stating that “A listing by UNESCO doesn’t bring any money or copyright privileges, but it does confer bragging rights — and it helps China reinforce cultural claims viewed as essential to holding together a vast territory populated on the fringes by ethnic minorities of often uncertain loyalties”. Gardner, on the other hand, while not rushing to make a strong statement as such, does acknowledge the Khoomei dispute as a sensitive issue, which can be regarded as “a rallying point for anti-Chinese sentiment” in Mongolia. Some others point to the rather diplomatic approach of Mongolian Government in regards to the cultural relations of two countries by drawing the Mongolian-Chinese joint awarding of Urtiin Duu as evidence. As also was expressed by the Minister of Culture at the time, Oyungerel, the government of Mongolia indeed has been endeavoring not to exacerbate cultural tension between two countries for the sake of salvaging their joint interests in other sectors.
Although the views, and explanations offered by scholars above vary from part to part, they mainly agree that some damage was done in the Sino-Mongolian relations after China’s inscription of Khoomei on the UNESCO List. No matter how China, or the UNESCO explained the purpose of the inscription of Mongolian traditional art under Chinese name, the end result was more hostility, and mistrust among the general public of Mongolia against China. While it is important to promote, and safeguard the ICH, doing so not through the inheritors, and transmitters of the heritage, but rather through the nation-centric Westphalian system makes the primary objective of the Convention to lose its spirit, and get replaced by ambitious national, and international interests. And there is no denying that Chinese national interest, one of which is “the unity of the nation” made of various ethnic groups, may have been served partly by the inscription of Khoomei on the UNESCO List under its name.
As the nature of the concept “ICH” is highly political in itself, the UNESCO was aware of the possible side-effects of establishing the safeguarding mechanism of the ICH on the nation-state based Westphalian system. While the UNESCO attempts to prevent the possible exploitation of the ICH safeguarding mechanism by putting the utmost emphasis of the Convention on the safeguarding, rather than the ownership of the ICH, as well as explicitly stating the right to ownership of the ICH rests in the hands of the inheritor communities, groups, and individuals rather than to nation-states, the system is still being used for the sake of realizing the interests of nation-states, despite what was originally intended.
This can be further evidenced by various types of interpretations of the single text of the Convention through the lenses of national ideologies, and interests, as with the case of China. One of the most active participator of the ICH regime, China boasts itself as putting enormous efforts in order to protect the heritage of its various ethnic groups by nominating, and inscribing those heritages on the List under its name. But its ICH Law, on the other hand, portrays a totally different interpretation of the Convention, through which one can see that China is exploiting the Convention, and its ICH Lists as a nation-building tool.
While some scholars argue that the inscription on the IHL do not offer the property rights to nation-states, as a way of defense mechanism against the possible exploitations of the Convention, what the inscription on the List are generally regarded as is still “the recognition of ownership”, as was seen from the Khoomei dispute. This is mainly because ICH that are meant to represent ethnic and cultural diversity are united under the name of a nation-state in the UNESCO List, blurring the difference among ethnic groups, and portraying a unified image as consistent with the state-centered Westphalian system. While China explains its inscription of Khoomei on the List as an endeavor to protect the heritage of its ethnic minority, Mongolians see it as an imperialist motive to claim the ownership of its tradition, and reacts accordingly. Although it is a common misunderstanding of the Convention, if believed by the majority of the people, and nation-states, this misunderstanding can play an important role in manipulating public opinions, perspectives, and even their ideas on “identity” in a way favorable to national, and international interests.
Most importantly, the clashing two or more inscriptions of the same ICH can lead to the increase in negative sentiments between, or among nation-states, and furthermore, may result in regional tensions, and possible conflicts, as witnessed in the Khoomei dispute. This shows the typical dilemma of the Westphalian model present in the UNESCO’s the ICH Convention, which is being unable to attach more than symbolic importance to the owners of the heritage, namely, communities, groups, and individuals, and ensure their active participation for the fear of greater costs that may arise from the opposition from nation-states.
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