Ephemeral and Immortal
January 24, 2014 8:59 AM   Subscribe

Along with its famous World Heritage Site rolls, UNESCO maintains lists of more intangible cultural treasures. In 2013 alone, they recognized the vertical calligraphy of Mongolia, the communal name pools of western Uganda, the 8000-year-old viticulture traditions of Georgia, the skeletal melodies of Vietnam, the forty-fold feast of the Holy Forty Martyrs, the making of kimchi, the use of the abacus, the annual rebinding of the Q’eswachaka bridge, the carol epics of Romania, and the shrimp-fishing horsemen of Belgium. These are only a few of the hundreds inscribed.

-Here's a (not entirely current) Wikipedia compilation of the lists, with intra-Wiki links for each element.
-You can gather some idea of what the 2014 list will look like here.
posted by Iridic (21 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

Nothing in the US or Canada? Okay, I know that those two particular nations are young on a political sense, but what about Native American or First Nations cultural elements?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:15 AM on January 24

...That sounded snarky - I think the fact that this exists is an awesome idea, but upon review of the list I'm REALLY curious to know how they made their selections and what the criteria was, because it seems really oddly distributed.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:16 AM on January 24

From the 'What Is Intangible Cultural Heritage?' page: While fragile, intangible cultural heritage is an important factor in maintaining cultural diversity in the face of growing globalization.

The UNESCO site includes a map of all of of the intangibles. It it extremely light on Western elements, which is logical based on the above, but the complete lack of aboriginal, Maori, First Nations, and American Indian elements is surprising. These traditions are also endangered by encroaching Globalization, just because they're from the countries doing the lion's share of globalizing doesn't mean they don't need protection.
posted by troika at 9:28 AM on January 24 [1 favorite]

Interestingly this is the complete opposite of the Days of Thunder post from four minutes prior.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:34 AM on January 24

It it extremely light on Western elements, which is logical based on the above, but the complete lack of aboriginal, Maori, First Nations, and American Indian elements is surprising.

It also seems really light on elements on the African continent.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:36 AM on January 24

Dedicated to preserving the fragile & dying practice of Frenchly eating a lot of food with your friends
posted by theodolite at 9:40 AM on January 24 [3 favorites]

So it looks like the inscriptions have to be nominated by the country. It's definitely possible that nothing or not much has been nominated by some countries, which would account for their absence. I can't find a list of unsuccessful nominations (I doubt they publish one. It would be cool to see but probably not all that helpful in terms of fostering global togetherness and whatnot).
posted by troika at 9:54 AM on January 24

Ohhhh, okay, troika, that explains a lot.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:06 AM on January 24

So it looks like the inscriptions have to be nominated by the country.

That probably would explain it. When UNESCO extended membership to the Palestinians back in 2011, the US withdrew its funding and, to my knowledge, has yet to reinstate it. In return, UNESCO stripped America of its voting rights last year. We're not likely to see any American/Native American intangibles on the list until the US brings its ball back to the playground.

(Another question is why certain nations are overrepresented. China, sure, I can see how they've got the desire and diplomatic muscle to push for cultural prestige, to the point where they nominated "the technique of leak-proof partitions in Chinese junks" as an immortal folkway of global distinction. But Croatia? Azerbaijan?)
posted by Iridic at 10:33 AM on January 24 [2 favorites]

Another question is why certain nations are overrepresented.

The list of nations on the ICH committee probably explains some of that. Here are the current members.
posted by troika at 10:39 AM on January 24 [1 favorite]

Requiring countries to nominate inscriptions also seems to fly exactly in the face of trying to preserve heritage threatened by globalization. Centralized nation states present many of the same threats to the cultural heritage of citizens of disadvantaged groups that globalization presents to the cultural traditions of people in countries on the periphery. It doesn't really make sense to give the Spanish and French governments control over what elements of Basque culture are inscribed, for instance.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 10:40 AM on January 24 [3 favorites]

Interesting. I am almost positive that the entry for Mongolian Calligraphy is inaccurate.

I was in Ulan Bator a few years ago, and there was a calligraphy school right near the ESL school I visited, and I'm pretty sure it wasn't the only one in the city. Not only that, while Mongolian script is far less common than Cyrillic in Mongolia itself, it's still very popular in the Inner Mongolian parts of China, and I saw a few examples of calligraphy there, too.

Maybe it would be accurate to say that the traditional method for teaching calligraphy is at risk, but not the use of the calligraphy itself.

I'm also pretty sure that the use of Mongolian script wasn't actively suppressed by the USSR. It's just that there were no type writers or movable type presses for Bichig, and the literacy rate in the country was around 10% when the Soviets popped in during the 1920s, so it was easier to shoehorn Cyrillic into the Mongolian language than it was to build up the infrastructure for type writers and presses for a couple of million people.
posted by KGMoney at 11:02 AM on January 24

Too bad about kimchi. I hear most of it is imported into Korea these days, from China.
posted by stbalbach at 11:16 AM on January 24

No one expects the Spanish Inquisition shrimp-fishing horsemen of Belgium!
posted by Hairy Lobster at 11:25 AM on January 24 [2 favorites]

I think most of the topics covered in the Foxfire books also deserve to be added to this list.

Ditto for naval knot tying traditions.

Oh, and the oyster shucking (and eating) contests of the US Gulf Coast!

Nevermind, let's just say this list is awesome and should be ten times longer.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:05 PM on January 24

Too bad about kimchi. I hear most of it is imported into Korea these days, from China.

Why would anyone need to import it when you can make it by the metric crap-ton at home?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:41 PM on January 24

Nothing in the US or Canada? Okay, I know that those two particular nations are young on a political sense

As political entities, Canada and the United States are quite old. e.g. Central European culture has deep roots, but the idea that Saxony and Bavaria belong together while Austria does not is fifty years younger than the idea that Upper and Lower Canada belong together.

Europe's often not as old as it looks. Quebec City is about a hundred years older than Saint Petersburg, Russia.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:57 PM on January 24

Here's a case proposing the addition of the weekend, the white lie, the passive voice, and the notion of "regular" to the list.
posted by umbú at 1:23 PM on January 24

Here's an important commentary on the phenomenon from anthropologist Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett:

What the heritage protocols do not generally account for is a conscious, reflexive subject. They speak of collective creation. Performers are carriers, transmitters, and bearers of traditions, terms which connote a passive medium, conduit, or vessel, without volition, intention, or subjectivity.

- from her article Intangible Heritage as a Metacultural Production
posted by umbú at 1:31 PM on January 24 [1 favorite]

my Mandarin Chinese teacher was Mongolian, i was surprised, i asked her about Chinese dialects (being actively killed off by the government, in their death throes now - only fluent grammatically correct speakers left are middle aged - and as different as languages) and she said she couldn't help me, she was Mongolian, and although it's very rare (they generally hate the government - it's weird, they're allowed some independence so they just say rude things, the Xinjiang region and Tibet aren't and it's all-out suppressed civil war, i wish the government could take one and see it as possible with the other two, but there you are) she worked for the Chinese government (as a bureaucrat). So i asked her if they use Chinese characters - Korean and Japanese languages do, or did, depending on era, context, and they also use the traditional ones or variations - e.g. Korean newspapers used to use sort of Korean versions of traditional script when someone my age was young (42) but have long switched to Han something Korean alphabet - and she wrote loads of Mongolian on the blackboard and it looks amazing. Serious jealousy.

Lucky occupants of the USA can read the Vietnam lyrics for songs in Copper Canyon Press books of Vietnamese poetry, as they're cheap on I'm too lazy to check which books!

Eastern Europe has (i can't afford to go) probably the last peasant farming culture going - i was reading a book now called What Is She Doing Here? by Kate Clanchy written by a journalist about her immigrant Albanian au pair, who is a very strong character, and fled during the second Yugoslavian war, and the au pair is constantly going on about how amazing it is to just go to the shop and buy clothes, not have to spin the wool, weave the wool - she's entirely happy to leave all the 'culture'/drudgery behind, and it makes you feel you've been so pampered and lazy in the UK.
posted by maiamaia at 8:54 AM on January 26

"Another question is why certain nations are overrepresented."
Some rural countries do it as a tourism strategy. Nominate item, open museum, print pamphlets and send to embassy, set up tourism website etc. It's like an industry here in Wales. If you can find me a non-historic section of this country that isn't a factory or a rich person's second mansion, i'll be very impressed
posted by maiamaia at 8:57 AM on January 26

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