Today we're gonna talk about Chengdu's heritage.
About the Author: Victor Paul Borg is from Malta. He has lived in six countries on three continents and spent much of the past 12 years in Asia. He currently spends his time in Europe and China. His travel articles and photographs have been published around the world.
As communications and technology make the world more homogeneous, and cities especially become more similar, we are faced with the loss of cultural diversity. It's the homogeneity of a globalized world that may make travelling, studying and working abroad easier, but the disappearance of traditional crafts, performing arts and obscure culinary dishes - and the fading lexicon associated with such cultural manifestation - represents a loss in human knowledge and ways of seeing that amounts to widespread cultural impoverishment.
These niche, unique, folk cultural manifestations now have a name - collectively called "intangible cultural heritage" - and the last 15 years has seen gathering efforts to protect these manifestations of cultural diversity from being subsumed in larger cultural currents. An international convention was promulgated by UNESCO in 2003, aiming at safeguarding the intangible cultural heritage and raising awareness at the local, national and international levels of the importance of the intangible cultural heritage.
China has been one of the more active state parties to the convention. In fact, China keeps its own lists of Chinese intangible cultural heritage: a national list of cultural practices within China, while different provinces and cities have also established their lists of the regional intangible cultural heritage.
China's eager participation is not surprising given the country's long civilization history and human diversity, as well as rapid transformation of the country's way of life in less than two generations. We probably all know of cases of intangible cultural heritage under threat from development. After all, in its widest definition the instances of intangible cultural heritage can encompass everything that cannot be preserved as a building or an exhibit in a museum. However, the convention on intangible cultural heritage has adopted a more precise definition.
At its simplest, intangible cultural heritage include manifestations such as folk oral stories and recitations, performing arts, social rituals, community festivities, traditional craftsmanship, obscure culinary techniques or dishes, as well as knowledge and practices pertaining to nature and the universe. These practices are usually community-based, passed down through generations.
For example, there are particular cooking skills within the Sichuan cuisine that are identified as intangible cultural heritage - these include Zhong's dumplings (a type of dumplings distinct to Chengdu created by Zhong Shaobai hundreds of years ago), sliced beef and ox tongue in chilli sauce (also created as street food in Chengdu almost a hundred years ago), and wine brewing of Shuijing Fang (the technique of brewing and the spirit itself is unique).
Other examples of practices officially recognized as intangible cultural heritage in Sichuan are Sichuan embroidery, sugar painting, lacquer work, bamboo weaving of Daoming town, silver filament crafts, shadow puppetry, dough figurine, and Sichuan opera. Some of these practices have found new ways to thrive. For example, the exquisitely woven objects of Daoming have recently been popularized by Ding Chunmei, a woman who has organized weavers into loose collectives and now also runs workshops that teach the specialized bamboo weaving to tourists. This is an example of how a regional, community-based artistic manifestation can thrive in a more globalized, commercial environment.
In fact, tourism and intangible cultural heritage is intertwined because manifestations of such community craftsmanship can be a draw to tourists. The good news is that an increasing number of tourists nowadays seek active, learning experiences during their holidays. Tourists also like to buy authentic crafts during their travels, while the urbane who live in cities also increasingly appreciate authentic crafts as home accessories.
On the other hand, folk festivals and orations cannot be packaged for sale: they can only be experienced at specific times of the year. Some of these are obscure and in danger of dying out. Others, such as the Sichuan opera, have become popular to the point of commercialization. In fact, now the challenge for travelers is choosing a venue that puts up an original and sublime manifestation of Sichuan opera.