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positions: east asia cultures critique 9.1 (2001) 219-243

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World Heritage, National Culture, and the Restoration of Chengde

James L. Hevia


On 4 July 1995 China Daily, the English-language newspaper of the government of the People's Republic of China (PRC), reported that the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) had added four historic sites in greater China to its World Heritage list.1 These included the Potala at Lhasa and the Mountain Resort and Its Outlying Temples at Chengde.2 Located some two hundred miles northeast of Beijing, Chengde (also known as Rehe) contained an eighteenth-century palace and temple complex built under the early Manchu emperors of the Qing dynasty. One of its temples is an almost full-scale reproduction of the Potala.

As if to provide its own commentary on the relations between these various historic sites and transnational cultural organizations, the same issue of China Daily also ran excerpts from an article by Zhang Zhiwei, vice chairman of the Literature and Art Association of the Tibet Autonomous Region. Noting that it was important to preserve Tibet's unique folk culture, Zhang [End Page 219] indicated that it was also imperative to raise the cultural quality of Tibetans,3 who were expected to absorb the “beneficial aspects of the culture of other ethnic groups,” presumably China's Han majority. At the same time, he acknowledged that since Tibetan Buddhism had such a strong influence over modern Tibetan society, “it was imperative to carry forward and develop the traditional religious culture in Tibet.” Such cultural development was, in turn, linked to the need to renovate historical sites. Zhang concluded that the sites in question should be those that “mark the unity of the Han and Tibetan ethnic groups, and places that prove the historical ties between the central government and the local government of Tibet.”

The UNESCO announcement and Zhang's statements on culture occurred against the backdrop of a controversy of international proportions, one that, circulating more or less freely through global news services and on the Internet, would come to include Tibetan incarnate lamas, the State Council of the PRC, the U.S. Senate, the European Parliament,4 Hollywood celebrities,5 and the Splendid China theme park in Orlando, Florida.6 Less than two months before the China Daily articles appeared, the Dalai Lama, speaking from exile in Dharamsala, had announced the discovery in Tibet of the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, an incarnate bodhisattva who had died in 1989. Four days later the PRC government rejected the Dalai Lama's claim, charged him with a political plot to foster Tibetan separatism, and cited historical precedents to question the lama's authority to designate unilaterally the reincarnation. Asserting final authority on the choice of incarnate lamas, the government indicated that with the cooperation of Tibetan monks from the Panchen's home monastery, Tashilhunpo in Shigatse, the search for what it termed the “soul-boy” of the Panchen would continue.7

On the face of it, Zhang's statement and the PRC rebuttal of the Dalai Lama both celebrate and colonize domestic differences within the borders claimed by the PRC. Once we have acknowledged that protecting historical sites is not a politically innocent act, such gestures can be seen as business-as-usual for modern nation-states.8 Externally, nation-states vie with each other for prestige, development resources, and recognition like that provided by UNESCO.9 Internally, they police and discipline diverse populations, often invoking “multiculturalism” and official religious tolerance to depoliticize [End Page 220] any claims for separation or autonomy. In all such efforts, the instituting of a representational order, one that places history, everyday life, nature, and national territory into a museum, is a crucial technology of rule.10 State curatorship of museum representation serves to transform stubborn difference into colorful multiculturalism, idealizing and depoliticizing the collective expressions of “minority” groups. The effect is to make any resistance based on material interests or territorial claims invisible within the terms of a discourse on culture, which, whether...


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