Heritage in Asia: Intangible Cultural Heritage in Theory and Practice

Key information

Start date
End date
Term 1
Module code
FHEQ Level
School of Arts & Department of Music

Module overview

Since the proclamation of the UNESCO treaty in 2003, Intangible Cultural Heritage has become big business in Asia and across the globe, fundamentally reframing the discourse around musical traditions, spawning countless government initiatives, NGOs, and international conferences, intersecting with development, tourism, and international relations. From earlier fears of the loss of cultural traditions impelled by globalisation and passionate calls to preserve the world's heritage, the debates have shifted to question the radical changes in cultural practices brought about by the very mechanisms which were intended to preserve them.

What does it mean when we think about heritage not as a noun but as a verb (Harvey 2001)? In this module we adopt a dynamic focus on “heritaging” which allows us to engage with the processes involved when forms of expressive culture, music, theatre, festivals, foodways and crafts, are transformed into items of national heritage, when Jamaican Reggae and Japan's Visiting Deity Rituals assume some form of equivalence as they appear side-by-side on UNESCO's lists.

In this module we review the principles which underpin the UNESCO treaty, the shift from cultural preservation to cultural sustainability, questions of ownership, authenticity, economics, and rights. We take a case study approach to intangible cultural heritage across East and Central Asia, with particular emphasis on musical practice and expressive culture, exploring the gaps between the principles enshrined in the convention, the priorities of the nation states which are signatories to the convention, and the management of heritage on the ground. We ask how heritage initiatives impact on the cultural practices themselves, on local communities, and practitioners, and what alternative approaches to sustainability might be possible.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of this module a student will be able to:

  • Explain and critique the theory and practice of the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) Convention
  • Critically assess a range of literature in the sphere of heritage studies and cultural sustainability.
  • Discuss selected case studies in ICH across East and Central Asia with emphasis on musical cultures.


  • One hour lecture, one hour Seminar

Scope and syllabus

  1. What is Intangible Cultural Heritage? The UNESCO framework and the principle of sustainability
  2. Ritual Practice as Heritage: Placating the spirits and managing “Intangible Asset no. 89” (Korean shamanic drumming)
  3. Heritage as National Essence: nostalgia and national identity in China’s elite musical revival movements (the qin zither and kunqu theatre)
  4. Heritage as National Property: ICH across borders. The case of Mongolian khoomei (overtone singing)
  5. Tourism, spectacle, and local communities: Kam (Dongzu) Grand Songs in southwest China
  6. The Spatial Properties of Heritage: The cultural space of Boysun, Uzbekistan
  7. Sanitising Ritual, Staging Heritage: Hua’er folksong festivals of the Yellow River
  8. National minorities and governmentality: Uyghur meshrep in Xinjiang and Kazakhstan
  9. Heritage Diplomacy: Silk Road Fantasies and Maqam beyond Borders
  10. Cultural Sustainability, Ecosystems, and Climate Justice in Asia, alternative approaches: Listening to garbage trucks in Taiwan

Method of assessment

  • One 750-1,000-word Evaluation of a state submission to UNESCO's lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage (worth 25% of marks)
  • One 3,000-word essay or 30-minute podcast on an issue relating to Intangible Cultural Heritage in Asia (worth 75%)

Suggested reading

  • Adams, Laura L. (2013) ‘Ethnicity and the politics of heritage in Uzbekistan’. Central Asian Survey 32: 115.
  • Bendix, Regina., Aditya Eggert, and Arnika Peselmann. 2013. Heritage Regimes and the State. Gottingen.
  • Cooley, Timothy J. ed. 2019. Cultural Sustainabilities: Music, Media, Language, Advocacy. University of Illinois Press.
  • Charlotte D’Evelyn ed. 2021. Transregional Politics of Throat-Singing as Cultural Heritage in Inner and Central Asia, a special issue of Asian Music, 52, 2,
  • Harris, Rachel. 2020. ‘“A Weekly Mäshräp to Tackle Extremism”: Music-making in Uyghur Communities and Intangible Cultural Heritage in China.’ Ethnomusicology, 64/1.
  • Li, Jing (2013) "The Making of Ethnic Yunnan on the National Mall: Minority Folksong and Dance Performances, Provincial Identity, and 'The Artifying of Politics' (Zhengzhi yishuhua)." Modern China 39, 1: 69-100.
  • Svensson, Marina and Christina Maags. 2018. “Mapping the Chinese Heritage Regime: Ruptures, Governmentality, and Agency.” In Chinese Heritage in the Making: Experiences, negotiations and contestations, Maags & Svensson eds, 11-38. Amsterdam University Press.
  • Rees, Helen. 2016. ‘Environmental Crisis, Culture Loss, and a New Musical Aesthetic: China’s ‘Original Ecology Folksongs’ in Theory and Practice’, Ethnomusicology 60/1: 53–88.
  • You, Ziying, and Patricia Ann Hardwick. 2020. “Introduction: Intangible Cultural Heritage in Asia Traditions in Transition.” Asian Ethnology, 79, 1
  • Yung, Bell. 2009. ‘Historical Legacy and the Contemporary World: UNESCO and China’s Qin Music in the Twenty-first Century’, in Music and Cultural Rights, Weintraub and Yung eds. University of Illinois Press.
  • Barley Norton & Naomi Matsumoto, eds. 2019. Music as Heritage: Historical and Ethnographic Perspectives, New York: Routledge.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules