The Chinese sense of heritage: The nature–culture journey

UNESCO’s 1992 introduction of three categories of cultural landscape for World Heritage purposes ‘extended existing emerging concepts and international cultural heritage conservation thinking and practice which embraced associative values rather than a sole focus on tangible, physical fabric’ (Taylor 2017: 7). It was part of the shift away from the 1960s and 1970s Western view of heritage as residing in the physical fabric of famous monuments and sites. Interest in the cultural landscape concept has therefore been an essential part of a broadening critical scholarly discourse on heritage and what it means, leading to what has essentially been a rethink of the process of heritagisation grounded in an understanding of the link between culture and heritage (Taylor 2017: 9). Integral to this is the notion of landscape as process not product, succinctly expressed by Mitchell (1994: 1) as ‘not as object to be seen or a text to be read, but as a process by which identities are formed.’ It is a line of thinking parallel with critical inquiry into the concept of heritage as process, not a product (Harvey 2001; Howard 2003). Covering far more than simply buildings, structures and sites, such processes embrace concepts of living history and living heritage to encompass the full spectrum of people’s sense of place, traditional knowledge and its transmission, cultural production including equity and access, and creativity and innovation (Taylor 2017: 9).

Although, as Taylor (2009) observed, the definition of cultural landscape has been confused within the Southeast and East Asia context, Chinese scholars have extensively discussed and disseminated the international discourse of cultural landscape since the late 2000s (Shan 2009a; Han 2010;Wu 2011).These scholars believe that the concept of cultural landscape has some synergy with the traditional Chinese value of harmony between culture and nature, and provided a tool both theoretically and practically to fill the gap between nature and culture in China (Han 2010). Wu (2011) suggested that the Western concept of cultural landscape provides an opportunity for the Chinese government to enlarge China’s stable of World Heritage sites. Indeed, in the last six years, the Chinese government has successfully nominated three Cultural Landscapesites (including West Lake Cultural Landscape of Hangzhou (inscribed in 2011) Cultural Landscape of Honghe Hani Rice Terraces (inscribed in 2013) and Zuojiang Huashan Rock Art Cultural Landscape (inscribed in 2016) on the World Heritage list.

In 2013 and 2014,1 undertook field research relating to West Lake Cultural Landscape of Hangzhou following its listing as a World Heritage property in 2011. The purpose was to examine how World Heritage listing may be seen to influence the ways West Lake is given meaning by a range of stakeholder groups, including government officials, residents and tourists. Based on research at West Lake, Zhang (2017: 2) identified that both the Chinese national and local governments considered World Heritage listing as a political game. It also suggested that the listing process was made to fit what Smith (2006) calls the AHD. The AHD is claimed to be a dominant discourse based on the hegemony of the notion of universality in the World Heritage Convention (1972) which is determined by adherence to a Western Eurocentric ethic which defines heritage in narrow and specific ways (Harrison 2013).

During the listing process, the Chinese local government personnel and experts who wrote the nomination dossier nicely incorporated through the wording of the text what are regarded as quintessential Chinese feelings and values into UNESCO criteria. As I reviewed the West Lake Nomination Dossier, the Chinese government personnel and experts initially thought to incorporate those Chinese feelings and values into criterion (iii), (iv), (v) and (vi) for the assessment of OUV as specified in Paragraph 77 of the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention (SACH 2011: 19—20). However, the ICOMOS (2011: 146—148) report for the World Heritage Committee suggested that besides criteria (iii) and (iv), the West Lake nomination should also incorporate criterion (ii), but exclude criterion (v) and (vi). The 35th World Heritage Committee eventually accepted the ICOMOS report and nominated West Lake as a cultural landscape site based on criteria (ii), (iii) and (iv). Zhang (2017) illustrates that the Chinese government personnel and experts perceived themselves to be playing a game in which they tried their best to translate Chinese values into OUV yet frame them within international policy and expertise. Despite their best efforts, they still were not fully understood by international experts. Zhang (2017) and Zhang and Taylor (2019) further indicate that the Western advisor from ICOMOS did not make sense of the Chinese values, and this was replicated in ICOMOS’s recommendations particularly not to include the tea plantation which was considered by Chinese officials and experts as a key element representing the Chinese sense of cultural landscape within the listing at West Lake. They also identify that the two key stakeholders, tourists and local people, were marginalised during the listing process. Local people did not participate at any stage in the decision-making process about WH listing, and tourists were considered as a ‘problem’ to be ‘managed’ or ‘educated’ (Zhang 2017; Zhang and Taylor 2019).

Chapters 3 and 4 outline the results of interviews with 133 residents and tourists at West Lake in November 2013 and February 2014. This is the first of two chapters that analyse interviews from West Lake, and it focusses on the meanings ofWorld Heritage as a concept and the essential value ofWest Lake for local people and tourists. It then compares their views with those of international and Chinese experts, while the next chapter considers what tourists do and feel at West Lake, as well as local people’s responses to mass tourists after the World Heritage listing. This chapter argues that the majority of those interviewed, whether tourists or local people, did not passively accept the authorised discourse from national and local heritage authorities that had framed the management and interpretation ofWest Lake. This interpretation stressed a dichotomy between the natural and cultural heritage embedded in the UNESCO/ICOMOS concept of cultural landscape. Interviewees instead expressed an active sense of an aesthetic or poetic idea of the heritage site which is firmly linked to traditional Chinese philosophy of‘harmony with nature,’ as Lin (1935); Zhang (1986);Wang (1990); Xu (1996) and Han (2006) have illustrated.

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