Safeguarding living heritage

Tuesday, 27 October 2015 01:27 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Text and pix by Shanika Sriyananda in Beijing, China

Sovanrattana Sin, a cultural officer from Cambodia, played the diabola well after diabola master Li Lianyuan gave a quick demonstration on how to properly use the traditional Chinese toy.

Known as the Chinese yoyo, the diabola is a juggling folk toy made of plastic. However, the original diabola was made out of bamboo and wood. The toy is spun and tossed on a string tied to two sticks which a person controls.

“She plays well. The diabolo is a toy which has been using since ancient times,” said Master Li, who comes from a generation of diabola masters.

On this day he is speaking to a group attending a seminar on ‘The Ratification and the Implementation of the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) for Asian and Pacific Countries’ held in Beijing, China, recently.

Master Li tosses the diabola in the air and then expertly catches it with the string, before proceeding to demonstrate his exquisite skills which turn this simple toy into something truly captivating to behold.


Intangible cultural Heritage is the expression of traditional culture that is closely related to daily life, and passed on from generation to generation. It is the sum total of technique, experience and spirit, and it is vivid, diverse and can be passed on – Duan Zhouwa, Vice President of the Central Academy of Cultural Administration

Intangible Cultural Heritage elements need to be preserved and safeguarded for the next generation as Intangible Cultural Heritage belongs to the nation and the world – Diabola master Li Lianyuan


Duan Zhouwa, the Vice President of the Central Academy of Cultural Administration, addressing the seminar

“This traditional Chinese toy was listed as part of our national intangible cultural heritage by the State Council,” Master Li said, inviting all participants to experience the joy of playing with the diabola within the small courtyard of the Beijing Diabolo Museum, which has three exhibition halls that explain how the diabolo has been developed, manufactured and used since ancient times.

Since traditional diabolas broke easily, plastic ones were later introduced. It takes five to seven days to make one diabola, which makes high- and low-pitch sounds when played. Master Li says that its sound resembles the way people vary the pitch of their voices while singing.

The museum houses the world’s biggest diabola as well as its smallest, which has a diameter of 1 centimetre.


Preserving intangible cultural heritage

Among the various topics highlighted at the seminar was the need to preserve intangible cultural heritage, including oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts in Nepal, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Montenegro.

“The Intangible Cultural Heritage is the expression of traditional culture that is closely related to daily life, and passed on from generation to generation. It is the sum of technique, experience and spirit, and it is vivid, diverse and can be passed on,” said Central Academy of Cultural Administration Vice President Duan Zhouwa.

Addressing the seminar, he said that UNESCO issued the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003 and that it had great influence and value. “China’s Government attached great importance to the protection work. Since 2006, China sets the second Saturday of June as the ‘Culture Heritage Day’ and creates the sign of cultural heritage and a song of cultural heritage protection. It hosts exhibitions of various themes around the country,” he said.

According to Zhouwa, China owns 26 items of intangible cultural heritage, ranking it first in the world.

The Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) 2003 has the following purposes: to safeguard intangible cultural heritage, to ensure respect for the intangible cultural heritage of communities, groups and individuals, to raise awareness at the local, national and international levels of the importance of the intangible cultural heritage and ensure mutual appreciation and also to provide for international cooperation and assistance.

The convention aims to safeguard ICH from within and through communities in a context of sustainable development and mutual respect, fully involving and empowering communities in any action concerning their ICH and enhancing cultural diversity, human creativity, mutual understanding and international cooperation. It is run by an intergovernmental committee and controlled by a general assembly, both assisted by the UNESCO Secretariat.

“Intangible cultural heritage means the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognise as part of their cultural heritage,” said Director of the International Training Centre for the Intangible Cultural Heritage in the Asia-Pacific Region Xu Rong.

According to Rong, ICH is transmitted from generation to generation and is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity.


ICH’s chief domains

ICH has several main domains such as oral traditions and expressions, including language as a vehicle of the ICH; performing arts; social practices, rituals and festive events; knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; and traditional craftsmanship.

Countries that subscribe to the ICH Convention are obliged to safeguard ICH on their territory, ensuring community participation in identifying, defining and managing their ICH, drawing up inventories of the ICH in their territory, contributing to the ICH Fund and reporting to the committee.

Rong said that documentation about ICH elements, carrying out research on ICH and the preservation, promotion and transmission of ICH elements through education were vital for protecting ICH elements.

There are 364 ICH elements in the representative list or urgent list while only 12 elements are listed as best safeguarding practices. Since 2009 to 2014, the intergovernmental Committee on ICH has listed 38 elements as ICH elements which require urgent measures to keep them alive.

“Community participation is a vital precondition for safeguarding ICH for each country,” Rong said. “The Convention requests State parties to get involved and assist communities in managing and safeguarding their ICH. Under the Convention, communities, groups and individuals refer to those who keep the ICH element alive and consider it to be part of their cultural heritage,” he explained.

Ministry of Culture Bureau for External Cultural Relations Deputy Director General Yang Zhi explained that 83% of 1995 UNESCO member states were signatories to the Convention and obliged to safeguard ICH elements.

“Most of the countries that have signed the Convention are developing countries and 33 countries in the Asia- Pacific region have signed the Convention,” he said.

According to Zhi, the issues that countries face in effectively safeguarding ICH elements are low awareness, the failure to understand the true value of ICH and the importance of safeguarding it and the lack of a proper understanding of the key concepts and different mechanisms under the Convention.

“The Convention is not understood and implemented in a consistent way throughout the world. Focusing on nominations to the Representative List, ignoring the Urgent List, best practices and safeguards, the lack of the human resources or technical know-how necessary to implement the Convention effectively and less experience in inventorying and nomination preparation are the other problems,” said Zhi, who was involved in drafting the Convention.


Role of culture

He suggested protecting and conserving cultural and natural heritage through the effective implementation of the 1972 Convention, enhancing the protection of cultural property and fighting against its illicit traffic through the effective implementation of the 1954, 1970 and 2001 Conventions, safeguarding intangible cultural heritage through the effective implementation of the 2003 Convention and sustaining and promoting the diversity of cultural expressions through the effective implementation of the 2005 Convention as effective measures in implementing the Convention.

“The Convention can also be implemented successfully by promoting the role of culture in development at the global, regional and national level and promoting intercultural dialogue, social cohesion and a culture of peace and non-violence,” he explained.

When asked about Sri Lanka, Zhi said that although Sri Lanka had ratified the Convention in 2008 it was still preparing the ICH elements for the inventory list, which is a prerequisite for applying to the Representative List.

Apart from gaining a brief understanding of Chinese culture, heritage, Confucianism and its impact on ancient and modern Chinese culture, the participants had the opportunity to try their hand at Chinese calligraphy with the guidance of CACA President Zhang Xu.

“In calligraphy, emotions play a vital role. The art of calligraphy is one of the most significant aspects of the Chinese civilisation,” said Xu, speaking about its 3000-year-old history.


Calligraphy has 85,000 characters but only 1,000 are commonly used.

“It was an art practised among intellectuals during ancient times but later it became a simple tool of communication,” he said.

Since the art of Chinese calligraphy is recognised by its practitioners as a symbol of their identity and is passed on from generation to generation, it was listed as an ICH element that needs to be safeguarded in China.

The participants had the opportunity of visiting the Carved Lacquer Workshop in Beijing where Wen Qiangang, the master of Chinese arts and crafts, was present. He is one of the representative inheritors of Beijing Carved Lacquer Artistry which belongs to the National Intangible Cultural Heritage. Lacquer carving is a traditional Chinese fork art with more than a thousand years of history.

China has the highest number of ICH elements in the ICH list and among them are the Kunqu Opera and the social practices, rituals and festive events of the Mazu belief and its customs, which are deeply integrated into the lives of coastal Chinese and their descendants, who believe in and commemorate Mazu as an important cultural bond that promotes family harmony, social concord and social identity.

Chinese traditional design and practices for building wooden arch bridges are listed as ICH which need urgent safeguarding.

As master Li of the Diabola Museum said, the ICH elements need to be preserved and safeguarded for the next generation as ICH belongs to the nation and the world.

At the same time masters like Li needs the support of the Government to pass down the art to the next generation.  “My grandfather and my father played the diabola and now me. My children and my grandchildren are also mastering how to play the diabola. I have over 20 students learning the art. The Government supports us very much,” Master Li said.

According to Master Li, three conditions need to be completed to protect the ICH element. He said that there should be a history for the particular ICH element, it should come from a generation of inheritors and there should be methods to protect the ICH elements.