Tourism and the Invented Tradition

Ian Johnson interviews Tian Qing (New York Review of Books Blog, April 6th, 2012), the head of China’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Center, “an institution set up by the government to protect China’s native traditions in the performing arts, cuisine, rituals, festivals, and other forms of culture” in an attempt to figure out whether these cultural forms are “being recovered as living traditions or as objects for urbanized Chinese to enjoy as tourists in their own land?”

In the course of his interview, Johnson asks whether modernization can be reconciled with the imperatives to protect, preserve and promote culture:

Can’t one unite the two? For example, Bach’s sacral music is now more often than not performed in a concert hall. The music has been preserved but has a different function in society.

Tian replies:

It’s possible. But it can lead to horrible things too. In Yunnan Xishuangbanna [a popular tourist area in China’s far south] there’s a Water Splashing Festival of the Dai minority. It’s related to the birthday of Sakyamuni and used to be once a year. But now people splash water on you every day. As long as tourists come, they splash water. It’s lost its religious function. Or after [the director] Zhang Yimou filmed Red Sorghum and showed the bride in a sedan chair. That used to take place in a really small area of Shanxi province. Now across the country at every tourist spot are people with sedan chairs for hire—hey, for 50 yuan you can ride in it. Tourism. It’s terrible.

Here tourism has performed a function similar to mass-manufacture: it has taken an artifact, possibly one crafted and custom-made, available only to a few in particular contexts and settings and suddenly, dramatically, made it available to all, to ‘the masses.’ In doing so tourism has made it more generic; its accessibility has increased, but it has lost a placement that made it possible, for instance, to possess the “religious function” whose loss Tian is concerned about. So, ironically, the ‘preservation’ of the cultural artifact or ritual require its displacement from those ‘privileged’ locations in time and space that granted that ritual its original meaning and raison d’etre. Its displacement from those locations preserves it by granting it popularized longevity at the cost of an acquired ordinariness.

And as Tian notes, now the ritual has a new function, that of ‘tourist-pleaser’, one that in time could acquire new significance;  future generations might view the water splashing followed by 21st century Dai residents of Yunnan Xishuangbanna as one about welcoming tourists;  presumably, this would be an interesting discovery about our times. In the case of the sedan chair ritual a cinematic force brings about the creation of a tradition; once the origins of the ritual are  forgotten, a new creation myth can come about which might ascribe that ritual a more elaborate and elevated provenance.

So tourism and cinema then most broadly can be seen as  bringing about what Hobsbawm termed the ‘invented tradition‘:

[R]esponses to novel situations which take the form of reference to old situations, or which establish their own past by quasi-obligatory repetition.

The interventions of the Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Center are bound, then, to create new cultural forms even as they seek to preserve older ones.

3 thoughts on “Tourism and the Invented Tradition

  1. This is interesting. If you look at the context of religious rituals (speaking entirely off the cuff here and not based on any kind of research), they were/are about pleasing a god or force that’s seen as having a tangible effect on the conditions of the people’s lives. Insofar as tourism is now a HUGE chunk of global economies, and can have an enormous impact on the conditions of people’s lives (even here in the US, without looking abroad – every small town has a “main street” program and a beautification policy, or has some backwater attraction it thinks will draw the masses), the new rituals to please tourists are pretty much fulfilling the same function as the old rituals to please gods… Maybe we forget, in all the hand-wringing on this subject, that rituals are necessarily living things, set on achieving specific results (a successful harvest, a happy marriage, an eager flock of tourists dropping cash) – not performances/reenactments performed for their own ends. Maybe repurposing a ritual to a new end is more respectful than deeming it “culture,” stripping out its purpose and life force, and setting it aside to be venerated…

  2. Melon,

    Welcome back! Spot on. You’ve expressed the point about the creation of a new ritual, with a new meaning much better than my struggles above. Indeed, one might say that the reason some rituals persist for so long is that they have been repurposed, given new meaning and so on, and have not become statically placed in some rigid context. Indeed, as you point out, given tourism as a significant new force in our world, it would be strange if we didn’t have some rituals dedicated to it.

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