Scientific article

Heritage as new social engineering in China : (de)colonial avenues

Published inAmerican anthropologist, no. Heritage and Decoloniality, p. 1-5
First online date2024-02-17

How does the decoloniality debate relate to heritage practice in China? Although postcolonial consciousness has coincided worldwide with persis- tent efforts to pluralize voices and practices in the public sphere and led to a plethora of strategies for initiating a process of decolonization (Lazzari et al., this section), China has remained away from these debates (Li, 2021; Liang, 2022) and maintains an ambivalent and ambiguous relationship with discourses on colonialism. Drawing on examples related to ethnicity and rurality, this essay illustrates the limits of decoloniality in the Chinese context and sheds light on how Chinese cultural heritage practices (re)produce hierarchies and racialized narratives to consolidate the nation. Like the other case studies examined in this special section, China’s position in colonial history allows us to de-center the conversation on decoloniality mainly based on Western history. Yet, China also adopts the hegemonic Western notion of cultural heritage promoted by the UNESCO narratives and imposes its own “authorized heritage discourse” (Smith, 2006) to implement “civilization process” policies (Jacka, 2009) toward marginalized populations, such as ethnic minorities and other subaltern groups of citizens (noneducated, poor, rural, illegal migrants). Consequently, we address this state-led societal transformation through the concept of coloniality, resulting in the celebration of a developed unified Sinicized nation beyond its differences. Cultural heritage is used as a form of social engineering, based on power relations between the state and society, revealing constant tensions between promotion and control. Yet, grassroots forms of appropriation of cultural narratives and alternative heritage practices exist in China that could be likened to decolonial approaches. However, they are more limited forms of resistance and claims for community empowerment, visibility, and rights than reactions induced by decolonial mobilizations worldwide.

Relying on the theory of the postcolonial gaze and how the legacies of colonialism continue to structure modernity even after the collapse of colonial empires (Meinhof et al., 2017, 8), we argue that cultural heritage in China is a powerful tool that reproduces as well as reshapes structural inequalities between ethnic and social groups and entrenches them in the official narratives about producing “high-valued” Sinicized citizens to develop a more “harmonious society” and perform the “China Dream” (Zhu & Maags, 2020).

  • China
  • Cultural heritage
  • Decoloniality
  • Ethnic minorities
  • Rural-urban issues
  • Power
Citation (ISO format)
GRAEZER BIDEAU, Florence, BUGNON, Pascale. Heritage as new social engineering in China : (de)colonial avenues. In: American anthropologist, 2024, p. 1–5. doi: 10.1111/aman.13950
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Article (Published version)
ISSN of the journal0002-7294

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