World Heritage in China: Universal Discourse and National Culture

Yan, Haiming, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia
Olick, Jeffrey, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia
Kumar, Krishan, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia
Corse, Sarah, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia
Shepherd, John, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia

Whereas the UNESCO World Heritage program holds the universalistic claim that World Heritage sites belong to all mankind, China is obsessed with the program for nationalistic purposes, such as the cohesion of national identity and the integration of ethnic diversity. How can we understand the paradox? What is the deep structure of the relationship between the universal discourse and the national culture? Above all, how can we understand World Heritage? This study examines the interactions between the World Heritage program and China's domestic heritage preservation system. It is organized into two parts. Part I explores the organizational and discursive interactions between UNESCO and China, by the close reading and analysis of both UNESCO's and China's heritage-related policies, documents, laws, regulations, etc. Part II illustrates three empirical cases of heritage nomination and management in Fujian Tulou, the Historic Monuments of Mount Songshan, and the Great Wall. Nomination files, local politics, tourist guidebooks, and media studies are analyzed. Also, interview and participant observation are conducted. Based on the collected data, I argue that World Heritage as a universal discourse has two main impacts in China. First, it has reshaped the organizational structures of China's heritage preservation. Second, it has introduced a well theorized discursive framework for China's heritage preservation, with a series of concepts, categories and protection principles. In contrast to the post-colonial premise that World Heritage acts as a hegemonic tool with which western ideological and aesthetical values are superimposed on non-western societies, I argue that the influences are to a large extent voluntarily and actively pursued by the state. A number of agents are involved in the process, including ii transnational organizations, state authorities, NGOs, active preservationists, as well as local inhabitants, none of which has acquired a sole control of discursive construction and dissemination. Rather, the relationship between World Heritage and China is dialectically and dynamically shaped and reshaped, dependent on particular political, cultural, and economic contexts at both local and national levels. The study is framed with and contributory to two sociological literatures, collective memory and neo-institutionalism. At a broader level, it offers insights into the relationship between universalism and particularism, between the West and the non-West, and between knowledge and power.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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