CULTURE embodies the way of life of a society. From language, knowledge, customs and beliefs to ideas, skills, arts and crafts, culture is the way a society organizes itself. Heritage is an aspect of culture that is passed down from generation to generation. According to the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, “tangible cultural heritage” includes artistic creations, built heritage such as buildings and monuments and other physical or material products of human creativity invested with cultural significance in a society. In addition, “intangible cultural heritage” refers to “the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, know-how – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated with them – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of the heritage”. their cultural heritage” (Unesco, 2003).
At the invitation of the Chinese Consulate General in Kuching, a group of ten participants from the public and private sectors of Sarawak took part in the “Seminar on the Conservation and Development of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Malaysia” from October 25 to November 5, 2021 The seminar also brought together five participants from cultural industries in West Malaysia. The event was hosted and organized by the Central Academy of Culture and Tourism
Administration, an education and training institution directly affiliated with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of China.
The academy provides training for government administrative staff of cultural and tourism departments in China as well as management training for cultural and tourism enterprises and institutions. The academy also extends its exclusive training programs to its foreign counterparts. To date, a total of 2,500 participants from 130 countries, from cultural and tourist backgrounds, have attended these trainings. The program until the Covid-19 pandemic was on-site in China, and since 2021 the training program has adopted the online mode, where virtual visits are carried out to supplement the actual on-site visits, with advice and adequate explanations provided to participants. .
Throughout the two-week seminar, various past and contemporary issues were shared by the Chinese experts. Measures and practices on the preservation of intangible cultural heritage and the preservation of heritage by the Chinese government and local actors were presented. The academy shared the Chinese concept of safeguarding intangible cultural heritage and left a deep impression on the participants. China tops the ranking as the country with the most inscribed intangible cultural heritage on Unesco’s list of intangible cultural heritage, where the country has 42 items of intangible cultural heritage inscribed on the list as of 2020. The country’s principles of safeguarding intangible cultural heritage play a huge role in ensuring that the rich cultural heritage of its multi-ethnic nation receives deserved attention and protection.
China is a multi-ethnic nation with 56 ethnic groups. Although the Han ethnic group accounts for 90% of the country’s population, the intangible cultural heritages of other ethnic groups are also recognized, nominated and successfully inscribed on the Unesco list. For example, the traditional knowledge of the Tibetan Lum medicinal bath, Khoomei or Mongolian “throat singing”, the traditional Uyghur social gathering Meshrep, and the Tibetan, Mongolian and Tu Gesar epic traditions. China has realized the importance of the cultural heritage of each ethnicity and has endeavored to protect and promote it at all levels. China is firmly committed to its main safeguard principle, which is “
people are the masters of intangible cultural heritage”.
A comprehensive system that allows investigation and documentation exists at the county, city, province and national levels. A general survey of intangible cultural heritage in the country was conducted in 2005 and in 2009 a total of 870,000 items of intangible cultural heritage were identified. Identification work is still progressing with detailed investigation and writing to produce appropriate descriptions and documentation. China has focused on raising awareness of the beauty and charm of its rich and diverse heritage. Rigorous efforts have been made to recognize and encourage heirs of cultural heritage to come and share, pass on and pass on knowledge. The communities or ethnic groups that own the heritage are also recognized and training workshops are organized to explore the potential for improving heritage protection. Exchanges on commercial activities and cultural products as well as on cultural services are organized between the administrations, the communities that own the heritage and the industrial players. These initiatives have raised awareness of the importance of heritage and how it can generate income and improve the standard of living of the community.
Malaysia is also a country rich in cultural diversity. However, only five of our cultural heritages are unfortunately inscribed on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage. Each state in the country has its own unique cultural heritage belonging to people of various ethnicities. There is no shortage of songs, ritual chants, epics of legendary beings or traditional healings practiced for generations. Our country should emulate the Chinese principle of “putting the people first” in safeguarding cultural heritage. Each ethnic group in the country should have the opportunity to present and offer the heritage they wish to protect and promote to the current and future generation. Efforts must start with the people, but with strong government encouragement and support. Heritage is the resource and the wealth of our country and we must not let it disappear because of urban development, the advancement of technology and above all the ignorance of its importance. As the Chinese proverb says, “A single flower does not bring spring, while a hundred blooming flowers bring spring to the garden”. “Spring” can also come to Malaysia if we recognize the importance of safeguarding the priceless cultural heritage of our multi-ethnic population.
Dr. Elena Gregoria Chai Chin Fern is a senior lecturer at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak.
The SEARCH Scholar Series is a social accountability program jointly organized by the Southeast Asian Humanities Research Center (SEARCH) and Center for Business and Policy Research, Tunku Abdul Rahman University College (TAR UC), and co-organized by the Association of Belt and Road Malaysia.