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  • World Heritage Craze in China: Universal Discourse, National Culture, and Local Memory by Haiming Yan
  • Magnus Fiskesjö
World Heritage Craze in China: Universal Discourse, National Culture, and Local Memory. Haiming Yan. New York: Berghahn Books, 2018. 242 pp., 20 illustrations, bibliography, index. Hardback US $120.00, ISBN 978-1-78533-804-5; eBook US $35, eISBN 978-1-78533-805-2.

This aptly titled book takes on the Chinese obsession with World Heritage (capitals required!). It is an obsession rooted in a worldview that is not pluralistic, but rather like the spirit of a competitive Olympic game in which there can be only one gold medal winner. The Chinese pursuit of this gold medal is a riveting and sometimes disturbing story, well presented by the author, Haiming Yan, in a book nicely produced by the publisher. This book brings a wealth of information and spirited discussion to a wide readership and could readily be considered for courses on heritage issues in Asia and globally.

Yan traces Chinese struggles to get potential sites onto the official UNESCO World Heritage list in three dimensions, which he calls the universal agenda, national practices, and local responses. This is not a dry book dealing only with government-devised policies and international convention text-making. From time to time, Yan pays attention to the real people involved and notes both the joy, tears, sadness, and frustrations that mark the people actually engaged in these struggles.

In discussing the universal agenda, Yan notes that the pursuit of universality is already thwarted by a tension at the heart of the United Nations' system. The UN sets up the hope of representing the interests and benefits of all humankind, but the UN and UNESCO (in charge of preserving world heritage) are by practical necessity organized through nation-states and thus inevitably get bogged down in nation-state affairs and the scourge of national interests which trump the original idea about the world and humanity as a whole.

Chinese national officialdom persistently promotes an almost revanchist "Olympic" conception of China's place in the world. To be an equal neighbor is not enough, China ought to be first among equals. In Yan's formulation, this "nationalistic sensation" drives officials and other would-be patriots to fight in the World Heritage arena, secure win after win, listing after listing. Yan explains that at the same time, a modernizing China shares the Western anxiety about lost authenticity; under the spell of national authenticity, this further adds to the urge to identify heritage in China.

The theoretical and historical framing is well done in many ways, not least in chapter 1, which paints a good picture of how Chinese Communists came to recast themselves as custodians of a national Chinese essence. However, Yan lost one kind of theoretical opportunity. It would have been productive to integrate the perspective of world systems theory, which can help us grasp how various types of identities, drives, and crises come and go in cycles. It can help us answer questions like, "Why this, now?" In particular, anthropologists such as Jonathan Friedman (1994, 2006) have shown us how the conditions of the production of identities (including the current obsessive moment in China, which forces everyone to integrate into the same national box) are intimately tied in with these cycles. It seems we are helpless prisoners, ever unable to [End Page 401] realize a world community to which a world or universal heritage might instead belong.

If there is one complaint about the historical review, it is that it makes no effort to reach back into Republican China's heritage-making efforts. After the Republicans overthrew the empire, they right away (from 1912 on) got to work on heritage protection and the creation of modern-style heritage in the modern sense, through museumification and legislation and so on. This could be called the "first Chinese modern" and it is an important precursor to the more recent developments, but is absent here (readers could turn to Zhang Liang [2003] for this information, however). At the same time, the book does an excellent job indeed in covering recent decades of heritage policy reformulations in Communist China, traveling "From...


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pp. 401-404
Launched on MUSE
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