China unveiled its premier Encyclopedia of Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage (中国非物质文化遗产, 史诗卷) on June 12, reports China Daily (Released). This is the first of three volumes, and is dedicated to three great oral epics of the Tibetans, Mongols and Kyrgyz, respectively: King Gesar, Jangar and Manas.
The cover is in Chinese and English, but I do not know if the content itself is bilingual. For a fuller press release in Chinese, see 首发式.
Compiled by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles, the volumes will document China’s vast treasure house of ancient culture in the fields of folklore, traditional music, dance, opera and even herbal medicine. I have not seen the book, and it is not clear from the article whether the 1,219 items to be cited will be ones that have been registered with UNESCO, or simply ones that China has unilaterally categorized as its “intangible cultural heritage.”
China has been very pro-active in winning international recognition of its intangible cultural heritage, particularly traditions of its non-Han ethnic minorities, and some of its neighbors are less than pleased about it. For instance, China initially registered the Epic of Manas as an Intangible Cultural Heritage with UNESCO back in 2009. This has since been vigorously contested by Kyrgyzstan officials — who maintain they were not informed about China’s application for recognition — since they consider it “an artifact of Kyrgyz nationhood.” See UN Recognition.
The larger issue here, of course, is whether this flurry of registrations and publications represents China’s desire to embrace and celebrate its multi-ethnic society, or whether it intends to possess and monopolize — “appropriate,” if you like — the outstanding cultural achievements of peoples such as the Mongols, Tibetans or Kyrgyz, some of whom do not perceive of themselves as “Chinese” no matter which side of the border they live on, and who fear, rightly or wrongly, colonization or a less obvious form of cultural genocide.
I am interested in this issue, and in particular, how the authorities package the cultural artifacts of its minorities for consumption by Chinese society at large. Take the Kyrgyz epic, Manas, for instance. During the Cultural Revolution, one manaschi — revered China-born Kyrgyz storyteller Jusup Mamay — was labeled as a “rightist” and sentenced to hard labor. The records of this voluminous epic, over 200,000 lines of Kyrgyz verse chanted by Mamay from memory, were almost all “lost.”
Just a few years ago, however, details of Mamay’s life and his amazing contribution to the Manas storytelling tradition were painstakingly documented in a Chinese-language book that borders on a hagiography, 居素普·玛玛依评传 , by CASS scholar Adili Jumaturdi and his wife Tohan Shayik. I have just finished reading it, and hope to review it soon. If you’d like to be informed when my review goes online, write me here.