Digitization fuels intangible cultural heritage protection

By BAN XIAOYUE / 06-30-2022 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

A virtual tour of the Great Wall is launched on June 11, China’s Cultural and Natural Heritage Day. Photo: NANDU

According to a new guideline published on May 22 by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council, China aims to digitalize and connect its cultural resources.
On June 11, China’s Cultural and Natural Heritage Day, a webinar was convened on Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection and Education Amid Cultural Digitization. China has honored cultural heritage day, on the second Saturday of June, since 2006, which was renamed Cultural and Natural Heritage Day in 2017. 
New development opportunities
As an ancient civilization with a time-honored history, China is rich in intangible cultural heritage resources. According to Wang Chenyang, director of the Department of Intangible Cultural Heritage of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, China’s intangible cultural heritage has a range of forms and mysterious techniques, and it is difficult for ordinary exhibition methods to present its broad and profound cultural connotations. The development and application of digitization provides an ideal approach for displaying and disseminating intangible cultural heritage, and will surely open up a new cultural heritage space, a new method for cultural experiences, and a new cultural communication format. This is a rare development opportunity for the protection of intangible cultural heritage, especially for the vast group of young inheritors.
On May 30, the digitized copies of the engraving called “Immortals Congratulating on Longevity,”  made by the traditional China engraved block printing technique, were sold out immediately after their launch in Yangzhou City, Jiangsu Province. Most of the more than 30,000 rush buyers were young people at home and abroad. Yi Jiezhong, chairman of the culture and tourism working committee of the China Research Society of Urban Development, believes that the post-95s, as digital natives, have diverse interests and are keen on emerging entertainment methods with high emotional immersion and in-depth interactive participation. The use of vivid language, to better communicate with young people, requires deeper contemplation from intangible cultural heritage workers.
With participation from young people, the aging trend among China’s intangible cultural heritage inheritors has been somewhat reversed, but some projects are still losing inheritors. Fan Zhou, a professor from the School of Cultural Industries Management at the Communication University of China, said that inheritance and protection of intangible cultural heritage requires joint participation from multiple subjects, such as the government, enterprises, research institutions, and individuals. 
ICH museums 
In recent years, in response to the need to protect and disseminate intangible cultural heritage, construction of intangible cultural heritage museums has been booming in China. In May 2021, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism announced that China will build 20 national-level intangible cultural heritage museums during the 14th Five-Year Plan period (2021–25). The ministry is also encouraging the construction of local-level intangible cultural heritage museums with unique ethnic, regional, or industrial features. 
The China National Arts and Crafts Museum and China Intangible Cultural Heritage Museum, which opened on Feb. 6, is China’s first national-level intangible cultural heritage museum constructed during the 14th Five-Year Plan period. 
At present, a number of intangible cultural heritage museums have been built in Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Fujian, and other provinces. These intangible cultural heritage museums have also become a window to display local characteristics, where visitors can listen to Suzhou Pingtan [a musical/oral performance art form], watch a Haining shadow play [an ancient form of storytelling that uses flat articulated shadow puppets to create the impression of moving characters and other three-dimensional objects], or watch Quanzhou lanterns.
The audience is guided through intangible cultural heritage through this window, said Chen Anying, a professor from the Academy of Arts and Design at Tsinghua University. “The experience activities offered by intangible cultural heritage museums are a mode of participation in the reproduction of production and lifestyles. This is the core function of intangible cultural heritage museums, which is different from that of other public cultural service institutions.”
“The digital construction of intangible cultural heritage museums can expand the lifetime of intangible cultural heritage,” noted Yeshi Lhamo, a research fellow from the Institute of Ethnic Literature at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. For example, the national intangible cultural heritage project, the Songs of Chuanjiang Haozi [Haozi are the songs barge haulers use to unify their rowing rhythm when towing boats by rope along the river bank], which originated in Chongqing Municipality and eastern Sichuan Province, is a cultural treasure in the history of transportation along the Yangtze River. They are traditional work songs, forged by blood and sweat as laborers fight against fast and dangerous waters. 
The development and inheritance of the Songs of Chuanjiang Haozi mainly depend on barge haulers’ labor, however, with the profession’s disappearance, they are on the verge of extinction. An intangible cultural heritage museum can display the audio data and archives of the Songs of Chuanjiang Haozi, and even use virtual reality technology to restore the labor scenes, allowing the audience to immersively experience them. On this basis, contemporary artists can also create works inspired by the songs according to current aesthetic characteristics, thus giving these songs new vitality.



Edited by JIANG HONG