Heritagising the everyday, the case of muyuge

Wen Cuiyan

Ever since the commencement of the new millennium, intangible cultural heritage, the cultural concept and campaign promoted by the UNESCO has quickly spread the world. In China, thousands of traditional cultures and everyday practices across the country have been absorbed into the intangible heritage system over the past decade, which is reshaping people’s perception and engagement with everyday life and traditions. Intangible cultural heritage as an ‘imported’ concept has been highly localised and resituated in the contemporary Chinese context. This project seeks to examine how intangible cultural heritage, as a prevalent cultural phenomenon, incorporate everyday practices into regional and national identities in China in light of the marketization of traditional culture and the political and cultural agenda of ‘great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’. Furthermore, it attempts to historicise the concept of heritage in China’s history of modernisation especially since around 1949 the establishment of the PRC. Through the historicised approach, this project aims to demystify the imaginary of heritage and interrogates how cultural heritage turns from something to be reformed in the revolutionary era to something to be ‘protected’ and ‘preserved’ in the consumer society.

Under such scope, this project examines in detail the changes of muyuge ( 木魚歌 ), a former popular everyday practice in the Pearl River Delta area, as it successively becomes an intangible heritage of the provincial and national levels. Despite its prevalence, muyuge is peripheral, marginalised in the both the cultural and geographical senses. It contextualises muyuge in the economic restructuring of the Pearl River Delta area and analyse the process of an everyday practice being reconstructed as an intangible heritage. Based on fieldwork interviews, policy analysis and media analysis, the project particularly examines the reconstruction of muyuge’s performing forms, reshaping of muyuge practitioners and its connection with the restructuring of an industrial town.  It argues that intangible cultural heritage is gradually replacing previous values and understanding of folk culture with ideas of capital, markets and nationalistic identities, and that the autonomy of everyday life has been dissolved and re-incorporated into the dominant discourse.

Aunt Zhen sings her favourite muyuge Chanyuan Zhuiluan (Chasing Phoenix in a Zen Temple) in August 2015

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