Background and Latest Development of the UNESCO Proclamation of ‘Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’

May 25, 2006

I. Background

With economic development and social changes, particularly the increasing trend of economic globalization, accelerated urbanization, tremendous expansion of modern communication network and advancement of information technology, as well as the fast growth of tourist industry, a large number of traditional and folk cultures is facing different degrees of damage, some even facing extinction. Compared to tangible heritage, intangible heritage is encountered with even more severe challenges.

In October 1998, the 155th Executive Board Meeting of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization adopted the Regulations Relating to the Proclamation of “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”, which formally put forward the definition of “Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”, whose forms include language, literature, music, dance, games, mythology, rituals, customs, handicrafts, architecture and other arts.

The purpose of this program is to ensure better visibility of the intangible cultural heritage and awareness of its significance among all nations, so as to better facilitate the protection of intangible heritage on a global scale. According to the procedure of the program, proclamations are made every two years (proposal on even years, proclamation on odd years), every country is invited to propose one item each time, but multi-national and joint proposals are free from such limitation.

In 2000, the UNESCO formally launched the project of Proclamation of “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”, mobilizing all nations to prepare for proposals; in 2001, the first group of masterpieces, 19 in total, were proclaimed; in 2003, the second group of 28 masterpieces were proclaimed and on November 25, 2005, 43 masterpieces were proclaimed as the third group. All together there have been 90 items proclaimed as masterpieces.

II. Latest Development

On November 3, 2003, the Convention on the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage was endorsed on the 32nd General Assembly of the UNESCO. The Convention, 9 chapters and 40 articles in total, include: General Provisions, Organs of the Convention, Safeguarding of the intangible cultural heritage at the national level, Safeguarding of the intangible cultural heritage at the international level, International cooperation and assistance, Intangible Cultural Heritage Fund, Reports, Transitional clause, and Final clauses.

According to Article 34 of the Convention, this Convention shall enter into force three months after the date of the deposit of the thirtieth instrument of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession. On January 20, 2006, upon the receipt of the thirtieth instrument by the Director-General of UNESCO, the Convention has entered into force since April 20 of this year. Up to the end of April 2006, 47 countries have formally ratified this Convention.

The effectuation of the Convention also marked the termination of the project of Proclamation of “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”, consequently, the UNESCO will set up two new lists according to the clauses of the Convention, i.e., “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” and “List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding”. The three groups of Items already proclaimed as “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” will automatically be incorporated in the “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”.

From June 27 to 29, 2006, the UNESCO will convene a general assembly of State Parties, which will elect an intergovernmental committee of 18 nations on intangible cultural heritage. The major mandate of the Committee will be the stipulation of criteria and related working regulations on the “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” and “List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding”.

China has been engaged in the entire negotiation process of this Convention. The Convention was reviewed by the 11th Session of the 10th National People’s Congress Standing Committee and ratified on August 28, 2004, making China the sixth nation to join this Convention.

III. China’s Participation in the Proclamation Project

China, with its long-standing history and diversity of ethnic groups, is endowed with an abundance of intangible cultural heritage. Like many other countries in the world, China is also facing the challenge of how to effectively protect intangible cultural heritage while fostering its economy. Since the first group of Masterpieces was proclaimed in 2001, there has been an unprecedented surge of protective efforts for intangible cultural heritage around the world, and China is no exception. For instance, the Kunqu Opera, proclaimed in 2001 by UNESCO on the Masterpieces List, was blessed with wide coverage by the media across the country and heated response from the public, which in turn kindled the enthusiasm of all levels of the government and civil society for the protection of intangible cultural heritage in general.

The Ministry of Culture of China, as the overseeing authority for the cultural sector as well as one of the co-representative agencies of UNESCO National Commission, has always been responsible for China’s communication and cooperation with UNESCO in cultural affairs. As the chief coordinator for the Proclamation Project, the Ministry has headed the proposal work for all the three groups of Masterpieces. During the proposal process, in view of the overall situation of intangible cultural heritage of China, we have used scientific assessment methods and taken a priority-based perspective in selecting the most representative and culturally and historically most valuable items to be the candidate items for the Proclamation.

Thanks to the joint efforts of many sides, China has successfully participated in the Proclamation of “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”. The art of Kunqu Opera, the art of Guqin musical instrument and art of the Xinjiang Uygur Muqam has been proclaimed as Masterpieces respectively in 2001, 2003 and 2005. The Mongolian Long Song folk music, as a joint proposal with Mongolia, was also proclaimed as one of the third group of Masterpieces. As one of the few countries to have items on every Proclamation list, China has now a sum of 4 items among the total 90 Masterpieces from around the world.