Heritage Politics in China: The Power of the Past

By Yujie Zhu and Christina Maags. 2020. Routledge. 172 pages. ISBN: ISBN 9780429446429 (soft cover).

Reviewed by Regina Bendix, Institute of Cultural Anthropology/European Ethnology, University of Göttingen, Germany

[Review length: 3039 words • Review posted on September 17, 2021]

[Cover ofHeritage Politics in China: The Power of the Past]

With the rich, interdisciplinary activity of the Association of Critical Heritage Studies and ample work on the cultural and sociopolitical dimensions of heritage in folklore, anthropology, history and art history, sociology, and political science, it has become difficult to keep appraised of all the new case studies, book series, handbooks, and journals in the field. This review focuses on two monographs on heritage in China. One very actively publishing scholar in this field is Yujie Zhu, currently teaching at the Australian National University in Canberra, after a PhD in transcultural studies at the University of Heidelberg, which formed the foundation of the monograph reviewed here. In the second work, Zhu teamed up with political scientist Christina Maags. Now teaching Chinese politics at Sheffield University, her German BA and MA focused on East Asian studies which formed the area background for her Oxford PhD and her particular interest in Chinese heritage policy.

Yujie Zhu crafts his monograph, Heritage and Romantic Consumption in China, on the intertwining dynamics of heritage and tourism in the Chinese city of Lijiang as analogous to a theatrical production, building theoretically on Goffman’s conceptualization of social life and MacCannell’s deployment of this vision in tourism economies and experiences. Correspondingly, the chapters bear titles such as “Stage,” “Scripts,” or “Local Actors.” For connecting to the heritage field to which this study richly contributes, it is worthwhile starting with the epilogue. Having done fieldwork in Lijiang intermittently since 2006 and concluding it in 2011, Zhu returned in 2015. He discovered that the Naxi wedding courtyard he had focused a good part of his heritage-making ethnography on, had not been in use for a while. Its owner was about to turn it into a restaurant, as the heritage tourism business was no longer booming, at least not in terms of witnessing an ethnic wedding ceremony. Other key interlocutors, having lost their employ as heritage performers, had taken up new posts, some of them far from the heritage field. Contrary to the semantics of the term “heritage” that emphasizes the lasting value of selected monuments and traditions, Zhu’s return visit points to the volatility of a touristic economy even when its focus is heritage. While Lijiang maintains its status on UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites, which it achieved in 1997, the various productions of ethnic culture staged to enliven and profit from the site undergo shifts in interest both from visitors and from involved locals. This is certainly one of the take-aways from both works under review here, which Zhu and Maags formulate as follows: “Instead of criticising the Western-dominated hierarchy of value on heritage conservation and practices, the analytical framework enables us to retrace how international heritage discourses and practices have been domestically appropriated to suit the Chinese context, and how the Chinese government has used these discourses and best practices to pursue their interests across time and space” (Zhu and Maags 2020, 14).

Zhu’s introduction is a highly condensed, useful overview of the site studied, the Naxi, ethnic tourism in China, the roller-coaster history of heritage in China in the twentieth century, as well as an effort to circumscribe what “romantic consumption” might mean in China. Zhu attributes the importance of this touristic foil to an inward turn, perhaps an increased permission to be concerned with selfhood and happiness (which he describes as having undergone conceptual change in China as well) in viewing, doing, and experiencing in the last decades. A juxtaposition with Marilyn Ivy’s earlier assessment of the Japanese turn to heritage matters might be an interesting comparative endeavor here for the future (Ivy 1995).

Zhu writes engagingly, allowing us in the course of three chapters to witness, through the words and agency of particular, closely accompanied interlocutors, how a state narrative of Lijiang as a town of romance is scripted, and an attendant cultural theme park is built. The lines between the ethnically authorized entrepreneurs and other old town residents emerge, with some of the latter successively moving out. On the one hand, they do so to rent out their properties, which satisfy heritage standards, and get to enjoy the financial benefits; on the other, they seek distance from the commodified variants of their own cultural practices. A further chapter reports on Zhu’s experiences with “guests,” placed in quotation marks here because the nature of being a guest is quite varied. The Naxi wedding courtyard is the focal point here where, at the end of the chapter, we see an American couple in their sixties agree to participate actively in the performance of this ethnic wedding-staging, and profess to have experienced it deeply. But the chapter also presents the case of a non-Naxi couple initially arriving as tourists but choosing to stay, opening their own guest house, and feeling themselves to be new Lijiang residents. This is a dynamic familiar in tourist economies around the world, but here there is evidence of how the romantic heritage foil apparently offered a palatable combination with economic livelihood. The veil over who remains Naxi and who is a guest appears to be situated in the difference of what Naxi themselves know or remember to be their wedding customs, and how the wedding courtyard chooses to stage it.

Heritage Politics in China, the study coauthored by Zhu and Maags, broadens the types of heritage sites examined, although Lijiang is one of the cases brought into the picture here as well, and the work opens with more romance, namely a mass wedding ceremony performed at the Great City Wall of Xi’an. But here, the authors orient themselves along the overarching question of how international heritage concepts were nationalized in the process of making heritage a significant endeavor in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). They observe processes of value appropriation that then can illustrate how heritage-molds serve to wield power in the Chinese case. Their description of how this process works bundles the intertwining of interests from the vernacular to the institutional, and from the ideational to the commercial, as steps of the appropriation unfold:

“The notion of value appropriation assists in clarifying the consequences of official discourses and policy implementation on the ground, as well as how this process is used to legitimise state and non-state actor interests. For instance, communal or familial cultural sites and practices have value to local communities as they are deemed sacred or linked to a local identity. Once they are authenticated and recognised by official authorities, they become a public good for the sake of public education. However, the new value that the cultural site or practice receives as a public good can subsequently be appropriated for commercial gains. The commodification and commercialisation of heritage ultimately transforms heritage into a product that can be sold privately on the market. As a result of value appropriation, cultural sites and practices are thus imbued with both intrinsic (for instance historic or scientific value) and commercial value for the sake of present interests” (5-6).

This process is rarely smooth, as there are invariably configurations in conflict with emerging heritage policies and management, and Zhu and Maags hence argue that resistance and conflict are part of value-appropriation sequences. One might add that this premise offers a good comparative possibility for future work: how open are the socio-political configurations to allow for the expression and negotiation of differences?

Chapters 2 and 3 offer a detailed and useful assessment of the cultural history of the heritage concept and its implementation in the PRC, with chapter 3 giving insight into legislative and administrative discourses and institutions in successive governments. Zhu and Maags identify nationalism, modernization, and development as key components of emerging heritage policies that were implemented not simply in heritage sites but also in education and more broadly in civic activity. Having insight into these layers of discourse through several administrations is an asset of this study. It undergirds the aim of foregrounding the national specificity of value appropriation and offers to international readers a further example of how heritage regimes and the specificity of a state lead to numerous emphases that on an international level—where heritage programs have been engendered and dominated by the Global North—would likely not have been envisioned in this way.

The authors then exemplify the nature of Chinese heritage value-appropriation in three cases, in each of which the dynamic of the heritage product becomes evident. Chapter 4 is devoted to urban heritage with the case of the city Xi’an, chapter 5 looks at living heritage—particularly crafts—in Nanjing, and chapter 6 recaps ethnic heritage as featured in Lijiang. Xi’an is part of a collective UNESCO world heritage nomination of City Walls of the Ming and Qing Dynasties since 2008. But the wall is but a backdrop of a great deal more heritage engineering, as Xi’an was chosen as a place of urban renewal on a grand scale, following the aims Zhu and Maags found to be pronounced in Chinese heritage policies. As an official from the provincial planning department stated, the urban renewal had very explicit, forward-looking goals: “To promote and differentiate Xi’an as an economic and administrative centre in the northwest region; to develop the city into a new commercial centre by capitalising on tourism, cultural industry, and real estate; and to highlight the city’s heritage with its rich historical traditions.” To bring about an atmosphere that would evoke sixth-century imperial urban space, buildings and boulevards were recreated and/or imagined and “after local authorities relocated residents, they replaced the old neighbourhoods with orderly arranged monumental structures, parks, and beautiful public spaces. The city’s physical environment was recreated in an image that would appeal to tourists, investors, and the modern aesthetics of the past” (66-70). Much as in Lijiang, Xi’an features a theme park with heritage components, but its raison d’être is intended less to instill reverence for the past, as a Western heritage ethos might emphasize. Rather, the imperial past is to imbue newly built real estate with an atmosphere of living also in a kind of elevated leisure setting. Some of the dislocated original inhabitants have, however, also created new leisure sites, such as an antique market, near the ancient wall, thus demonstrating the possibility of counter-practices, as long as they fit with the modernized economic orientation. The chapter holds further examples of this intermeshing of overall transforming concepts and smaller interventions finding some room next to them.

Chinese intangible cultural heritage (ICH) policy is exemplified in chapter 5, where the authors examine the opportunities afforded to officially recognized Nanjing ICH inheritors and craftspeople working without such status (marked by a specific label), the role of actual squares designated for craft demonstrations and sales versus internet markets in selling craft products. Here, there is considerable discussion of the problems encountered by “fake ICH” products that in their identical nature betray factory production. While the authors admit that the abundance of craft imitations is typical for touristic settings around the world, economically one might think further here: will the official designation of “ICH inheritor” and the niche market of higher prices for products ultimately offer a better livelihood, especially given the ample online markets? While the two authors focus here on how the PCR’s heritage programs selectively appropriate aspects of heritage values for their own country, crafts have been circulating across borders for a long time, with imitations taking up a big part of the market. Not all imitations are factory produced, indeed there are cases where imitations prove to be based on great skill. Furthermore, globally speaking, there are very familiar cases of Chinese craftsmanship offering imitations of non-Chinese crafts, such as the Swedish Dalarna horse or wood carvings from the Erzgebirge in Germany, both of which have prompted attempts at international legal action. Yet policing and legal measures are hard to enforce not just in Nanjing, which the authors attest to, but globally as well, as clearly circumscribed sites lose their hold in a world of circulating arts and crafts goods; claiming ownership of the tradition and exclusive rights is a hard, international battle, as Michael Brown showed regarding, e.g., Australian Aboriginal art (2003).

Chapter 6 then offers a condensed presentation of the case of Lijiang, now fully from the perspective of this jointly authored book’s major focus: how has the state-driven heritage policy shaped ethnic tourism? The case material here is expanded from the romantic consumption matrix, and the authors reach the conclusion that Lijiang—compared to Xi’an—offers little opportunity for young members of an ethnic community to develop alternatives to the state-driven matrix.

The authors then turn, in the seventh chapter, to extrapolate from their case studies the steps of value appropriation which they see unfolding along five components: institutionalization, authentication, recognition, museumification, and commercialization. They argue that the process of heritage legislation and implementations brings these out in five successive phases—which may indeed hold for the cases presented here, but obviously there is entanglement between all of them, and the sequence may hold better for the PRC than for cases familiar from other sites. Thus one is familiar with cases where the heritage regime emerges only on top of authentication and museumification and where occasionally there are efforts to reign in commercialization through heritage measures. But for the presentation offered here for the PRC’s determined efforts to establish its own variant of a heritage regime, the stages are well documented both in terms of the legislative action and ensuing policies and the unfolding of the further phases.

The final chapter argues for the relevance of approaching heritage processes along the parameters exemplified in this work. They highlight the experience of colonialism as one element guiding the state-level heritage value appropriation alongside nation building or other more socially fortifying goals. The economic component—long sidelined by UNESCO—is prominently part of Zhu’s and Maags’ observations on heritage value appropriation. This has, of course, been demonstrated in many studies of the “heritage on the ground” nature, but it is valuable to have this firmly shown to be part and parcel of heritage making. The authors conclude by stating that “more work is necessary on how the appropriation of values from different scales clashes with and impacts on existing value systems. We have shown how value appropriation is essentially an official process, which may sideline local value systems and meaning-making processes” (151).

The heritage research field has grown immensely, and works such as those under review here make it evident how difficult it has become to grasp it in full and to stay up to date. For some, heritage thinking burst forth with brilliance in Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s work, first presented at the joint conference of the American Folklore Society and the Society for Ethnomusicology meetings in Milwaukee in 1993. A great deal of subsequent work is built on her ideas, and this is reflected particularly in American and European folklore and ethnology work on heritage as well as reconfigured tourism, museum, and memory research. Others took inspiration from Laurajane Smith’s work growing out of archeology and critical preservation work, and yet others, such as the authors whose work has been reviewed here, find themselves more indebted to the tourism and heritage matrix crafted between Nelson Graburn’s and Michael Herzfeld’s publications—including of course a thick web of preceding and parallel scholarship; in the present volumes that would be, e.g., Lowenthal, MacCannell, or Urry. There would be opportunity for one or more diligent scholars to bring together the various tentacles that manifest on the heritage research field both to bundle where we have arrived at theoretically, and also to grasp better regional-area expertise. In the case of the latter, one’s own knowledge is obviously severely limited depending on language competencies. That in many fields it is somehow the Anglo-American scholars and journals that dominate has been pointed out forcefully by David Berliner recently (2021), though in the heritage field it is also Australians and select scholars who publish in English. That it is perhaps also more the male scholars whom one finds cited, may be added here as an aside.

In reading Zhu’s monograph as well as aspects of Zhu’s and Maags’ joint study, I remembered Jing Li’s dissertation in folklore, completed in 2004 at the University of Pennsylvania. In it, she addressed cultural tourism phenomena staged by the Dai in Xishuang Banna, including a water splashing festival that also tends toward romantic coupling for tourists under the guise of slipping into ethnic cultural roles. Sadly free of Chinese area expertise myself, my curiosity and interest in deeper analysis is stirred by the prominence of “romance,” weddings, as well as Zhu’s observation “that many young Chinese tourists (both men and women) visiting Lijiang were interested in having sexual affairs with local ethnic people” (2018:53). How come a post-Maoist re-discovery of ethnic groups, regulated within specific heritage modalities, is popularly enlivened with theme parks offering a mixture of ethnically suffused romance and sex tourism? As a Westerner familiar with the simplicity of the Mao suit, the reimagining of ethnic dress as part of recovering the past is comparable to many other socio-political settings. But how is one to understand the role of sexuality and (non-)binding relationships within this heritage economy? Or, asked more broadly, can we generally, beyond these Chinese cases, find a romantic-erotic/erotic-romantic layer in the touristic celebration of ethnically dressed performance settings, and what does the heritage marker add to or subtract from it? Does heritage carry any relevance, or is it, as Eric Cohen (1988) observed for authenticity in tourism, of relevance just for the very few, particularly ambitious visitors?

The two studies dovetail well with one another, with the more recent comparative study deepening particularly our understanding of how China’s (re)turn to valuing heritage also brought forth a very specific path of heritage policy and implementation.

Works Cited

Berliner, David. 2021. “Anglo-American Hegemony in Contemporary Anthropology: Some Personal Dilemmas,” AllegraLab.com. Accessed April 25, 2021.

Brown, Michael F. 2003. Who Owns Native Culture? Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Cohen, Eric. 1988. “Authenticity and Commoditization in Tourism,” Annals of Tourism Research 15:373-386.

Ivy, Marilyn. 1995. Discourses of the Vanishing: Modernity, Phantasm, Japan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Li, Jing. 2004. “Molding Dai-ness on China’s Periphery: Ethnic Tourism and the Politics of Identity Construction in Contemporary Xishuang Banna.” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania.

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