-by Ian Sinclair ~ TaiChiCentral.com
In March of this year there was a renewal of efforts to include tai chi (taijiquan) in the “UNESCO World Intangible Cultural Heritage List” thanks to a high level presentation by Secretary Fan Fuchun (司富春).
Secretary Fuchun is a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (中国人民政治协商会议) (CPPCC). The CPPCC is China’s top political advisory body.
UNESCO stand for “United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization”. It has existed since 1945. It’s mission is
“to contribute to the building of a culture of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education, the sciences, culture, communication and information. “
UNESCO adopted The Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage in 1972, leading to the establishment of the World Heritage List, which includes 890 outstanding cultural and natural sites (as of April 2010). Some of the sites include Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park (formerly known as Ayer’s Rock), the Walled City of Baku, the Imperial Ming and Qing palaces in Beijing, and the Pyramids fields from Giza to Dahshur. See the UNESCO World Heritage Map here.
UNESCO introduced the title in 2001, proclaiming 19 of the world’s most remarkable examples of oral and intangible heritage. In 2003, UNESCO proclaimed another 28. The Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, adopted in 2003, creates an international platform to safeguard intangible cultural heritage, ensure mutual respect for the living heritage of communities worldwide, and raise awareness of its importance.
The list includes three categories.
- “Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding” such as: Al Sadu, traditional weaving skills in the United Arab Emirates, Hezhen Yimakan storytelling of China, and Folk long song performance technique of Limbe performances which involves circular breathing. Watertight-bulkhead technology of Chinese junks.
- “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” such as Chinese shadow puppetry, Fado, (urban popular song of Portugal), Korean Jultagi (tightrope walking), Tsiattista (poetic duelling), and the traditional Korean martial art called “Taekkyeon”, falconry, flamenco, and the Mediterranean diet.
- “Programmes, projects and activities for the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage considered to best reflect the principles and objectives of the Convention”: Fandango’s Living Museum in Brazil, Revitalization of the traditional craftsmanship of lime-making in Morón de la Frontera, Seville, Andalusia
Taekkyeon is the only martial art on the list. There have been attempts to add others. Over the past few years there has been official and unofficial talk of adding Chen style tai chi, Muay Thai, Wudang Kungfu, Shaolin Kung fu, and others.
The Chinese Ministry of Culture 文化部 put forward its own list of 501 “Intangible Heritage Items” in 2006, and a revised list of 518 items later the same year. The list includes Yang style and Chen style taijiquan (tai chi), Shaolin Kungfu, Daoist Wudang martial arts, Cangzhou wushu, and the Hui style of fencing with double swords, Xingtai Meihua wushu, Mongolian wrestling. Read more about this list at the Chinese Academy of Social Science’s Institute of Ethnic Literature website.
The arguments have been made in the past that the very process of applying the title of “masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage” is an opportunity to promote tai chi. Each time it makes the news, more people come to a more complete understanding of the true nature of the art. So it stands to reason that political officials will occasionally take the opportunity to promote the tai chi industry in China, by applying to UNESCO for a heritage designation.
Two questions we might ask are: 1. Does tai chi stand a chance of getting on the list? and 2. Would it benefit the art or its practitioners to have the heritage designation.
Of course, the second question is moot if the answer to the first is no.
The only martial art on the UNESCO list is Taekkyeon. The first point of note is that most readers will likely never have heard of this Korean art form. I have been treated to a personal demonstration of this 2000-year-old Korean art, and I must say that it is unique among martial arts. It is also ancient, and quite rare. I can see why the nice folks at UNESCO would deem it to be both worthy of preservation and in need of protection.
Tai chi, however, while often misunderstood, is quite well known, and is thriving in many places around the world. There are three major films about it due to be released in the next 18 months. Jet Li has stated his desire to have tai chi tuishou (“pushing hands”) earn a place in the Olympic Games. Tai chi is also considerably younger than Taekkyeon. The oldest extant form developed less than 300 years ago.
The arguments made by officials in China do not seem to be good ones for gaining a heritage designation. Rather, they seem to be publicity stunts to curry favour with the “300 million practitioners of traditional martial art worldwide.”
One official argued that tai chi deserves the same popularity as Shaolin Kungfu “because it is a similar representation of the Chinese unique culture.”
Chinese businesses are marketing tai chi more aggressively in recent years, selling videos, clothing, books, practice weapons. Increasingly these products are being exported to other countries.
Some believe a UNESCO heritage designation would generate more financial support for the development of tai chi, and that it will help promote research and innovation. It is not clear exactly how that would happen.
One should consider that a heritage designation might actually restrict the development of tai chi.
Secretary Fuchun as suggested that a heritage designation would aid in the international standardization of tai chi. And that it would strengthen and increase “foreign propaganda” for developing and improving rules for competition and standardizing international practice. He wants tai chi to enter the Olympic Games as soon as possible. A heritage designation might help establish a comprehensive evaluation of Taijiquan cultural heritage and training mechanisms, increase the motivation to train teachers, and encourage special funds for the “organization of experts” to prepare appropriate training materials and set up special funds to support “Taiji Industry R & D”, organize experts to conduct Tai Chi scientific research and human health.
What would this mean? I suspect that in China it would mean more government control, less freedom, and a stifling of the organic development of the art. We have seen what has happened to modern wushu in recent years. The over regulation by bureaucrats has led to the near death of wushu. Many of the great masters who were once enthusiastic supporters of competitive wushu have, in the past 15 years, essentially washed there hands of the International Wushu Federation.
Regulation can be great for a sport, but it can run the risk of taking the art away from the artist and giving it to accountants an politicians. There might be a way to find a balance between promotion and preservation, but history teaches us to be wary of official statements and photo ops.
Of course, I know very little about Secretary Fuchun or his motivation. Judging only from his C.V., I suspect he means well. My own opinion is informed only by my perceptions and past experiences. I have no reason to question the motivation of those who are striving to promote the very art that I love. I hope for the best.
I have had many discussions about tai chi regulations over the past three decades. And many martial artists have had reason to discuss regulation in the past. In many cases, martial arts developed unique skills and characteristics specifically because they were outlawed. Karate and Capoeira come immediately to mind. Such discussions have brought me to the realization that art will survive, it will change, and it will evolve, either because of or in spite of efforts to preserve it or to destroy it.
Recently there was talk of outlawing martial arts in Ontario. That did not go far, but it led me to decide that I could just convert my school to one of “Post-modern deconstructionist contact improve dance.”
Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (中国人民政治协商会议) The National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (Chinese: 中国人民政治协商会议全国委员会; pinyin:Zhōngguó Rénmín Zhèngzhì Xiéshāng Huìyì Quanguo Weiyuanhui, shortened Chinese: 全国政协; pinyin: Quánguó Zhèngxié; literally “National PCC”
Entry: Secretary Fuchun
Secretary Fuchun, male, born in 1963, Henan Xinzheng. Returned professor, doctoral tutor of Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, MD, South Korea’s Pohang University of Science and Technology postdoctoral, Henan University Innovation Talents, “World Journal of Gastroenterology Editorial Board, members of the CPPCC National Committee. In medical molecular biology laboratory director. Thirteenth members of the Committee of the CPPCC National Committee.
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