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Visual anthropology revives intangible cultural heritage

HUANG AIWU and DAI CHUANZHI | 2021-01-06
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Audience members document the shadow puppetry, which was recognized by UNESCO as a world intangible cultural heritage item in 2011, in Taishan, North China’s Shandong Province. Photo: FILE


Intangible cultural heritage (ICH) is a distinctive cultural symbol, a unique cultural memory, and a precious national cultural treasure. It plays an extraordinary role in pooling strength nationwide and showcasing China's traditions. However, due to inadequate protection, aging inheritors, and excessive commercialization, many national-level intangible cultural heritage items are endangered, underscoring the urgency to rescue and preserve them. 

In this regard, visual anthropology has an inherent advantage in keeping track of cultural phenomena, exploring cultural connotations, and deciphering cultural codes. Its detailed reproduction of daily life enables people to see disappearing cultural facts beyond time and space, so it is vital to disseminate and safeguard intangible cultural heritage by means of visual anthropology. 
 
Significance to ICH protection
Visual anthropology is a discipline which applies anthropological theories to record and interpret the culture of an ethnic group or tries to further develop comparative cultures through images and films. It is a perfect approach to rescue and record valuable and vanishing intangible cultural heritage. 
 
Modern civilization's erosion of intangible cultural heritage is irreversible, but visual anthropology films can document its past and present over a long time span, capturing evidence of the fading culture. This does not mean that the past and history are better than the present. Rather, there are far-reaching implications to preserving these materials as important information for society to recognize and guide themselves. 
 
Thorough field investigations under the guidance of visual anthropological theories can ensure the objectivity and authenticity of records, while revealing the connotations and cultural meanings of intangible heritage. The films and pictures produced through visual anthropology are not only scientific, but also have unparalleled historical value. They will become China's cultural archives and national memories. 
 
The camera is intrinsically advantageous in replicating reality. It is the best instrument to capture realistic elements like scenes and voices. Visual expression is a primitive and fundamental form of communication. It brings communication back to sensory touch, and to a more reasonable form of human experience. 
 
Visual anthropology pioneers the preservation of intangible cultural heritage. As the outcome of preservation efforts, visual cultural materials can provide profound and lasting guidance and references for other disciplines like art and architecture.
 
Dissemination of cultural symbols
On account of unusual practices, performances, forms of expression, knowledge systems, and skills, intangible cultural heritage boasts a high cultural value. Accompanying it are material carriers like tools, objects, crafts, and cultural places as well as surroundings that nurture heritage. Together they form distinct cultural expressions and symbols with intangible cultural heritage as the subject. It is not easy for the public to truly appreciate the connotations and value of intangible culture. 
 
Visual anthropology has a unique role to play in decoding heritage. Before shooting an anthropological film, long field investigations are essential. Researchers must blend into local life, learning, feeling, and even participating in local political, economic and cultural activities. They need to learn about ideologies and mindsets of local communities and engage in constructive, equality-based interactions with them through participatory observation. The more their attempt complies with anthropological principles and photographic approaches, the more the resultant images and films will be able to reflect intangible cultural heritage and its nurturing environments, and the more they will convey underlying cultural connotations and value to the audience. 
 
On the premise of authenticity, videos which capture a host of scenes and details with the camera and were edited in light of a certain logic are also artistically appealing. The appeal stems from the cultural charm and historical implications of intangible heritage and environments that cultivate it. 
 
Photography can factually record many details and scenes, retaining larger amounts of more important information than other approaches and forms. Images and films can give the audience simultaneous audio and visual stimuli of massive information, thus deepening the audience's impression of intangible culture and traditional villages. 
 
Anthropological documentaries integrate oral history and re-enactments in the narrative process, which can directly deliver the views and feelings of inheritors and locals along with the development of intangible culture. Behind the narrative are destinies and experiences of the characters, which will strike a chord among the audience more easily and facilitate the preservation of intangible cultural heritage across society. 
 
With the development of visual anthropology, many scholars have begun to flexibly employ fiction, wield their imagination, and blur the line between documentaries and films to represent traits of rare cultures and the spiritual world of locals. The practice is somewhat controversial, but the cultural value and artistic spirit as displayed are undeniable. The quality of field research, textual narratives, filming and editing determines the artistic appeal of scholarly works. 
 
French visual anthropologist Jean Rouch put forward the concept of "shared anthropology," expressing the hope that characters featured in films are encouraged to provide feedback after watching anthropological films, thereby perceiving multiple layers of cultural meaning and the artistic spirit contained in the works. As such, the artistic spirit can flow to the audience, including producers of intangible cultural heritage, and encourage them to create anthropological documentaries and interpret their own cultures and behaviors from their own perspectives, thus avoiding many ethical dilemmas in the filmmaking process. 
 
In the upcoming 5G era as videos and live-streaming have begun to thrive, more people will be inspired to engage in artistic creation. Villagers and audiences with an interest in filmmaking can all pick up the equipment to create video materials for intangible cultural heritage, advertise and disseminate local cultural symbols, and enrich the filmmaking experience of visual anthropology. 
 
Local records on ICH
Compiling local chronicles is a time-honored tradition in China. Now the media has assumed the role of keeping track of regional conditions by camera. The state media outlet China Central Television (CCTV) planned to produce a large-scale documentary titled The Local Records of China, which consists of 2,300 episodes. Currently, 715 episodes have been completed. The Local Records of China is a masterwork documenting regional cultures. 
 
However, anthropological videos dedicated to intangible cultural heritage are few and far between. Taking anthropological records is the most direct and fundamental work for safeguarding intangible heritage from the perspective of visual anthropology. 
 
First, a top-down importance should be attached to the collection of video materials and to shooting anthropological documentaries on intangible cultural heritage. The works not only have high documentary and research value, but can also serve as a carrier to make local beauty and the unique local cultural spirit better known to the public. 
 
The undertaking requires more than the existing national and government support. More efforts are needed to pool the public's wisdom and encourage more organizations and individuals to join documentary filmmaking teams. Documentary filmmaking competitions themed on intangible cultural heritage can be staged regularly, welcoming professionals, university students, ordinary people, and local villagers interested in filmmaking to participate. Valuable works should be preserved and exhibited. It is important to leverage modern network media tools and invite internet celebrities to promote them. Carrying positive energy, such works can be aired as promotional videos to attract tourists and increase economic benefits.
 
While safeguarding intangible cultural heritage by means of visual anthropology, it is necessary to draw upon international models of heritage preservation. For example, Italy's famous Museum of Violin in Cremona, which specializes in violin making, held seminars to craft the most effective measures for intangible cultural heritage protection. 
 
While serving as a pioneer in safeguarding intangible culture, visual anthropology should not neglect the important roles of other disciplines. Instead, it should embrace cultural studies, sociology, architecture and planning, and artistic research to explore the best schemes for the preservation of intangible heritage and traditional villages. 
 
With the rapid development of modern society, mass media is upgrading to a faster and faster pace. While popular cultures emerge in an endless stream, many intangible cultural heritage projects have been left in oblivion, marooned in history at a staggering speed. For its special functions, visual anthropology has an intrinsic edge in documenting, analyzing, disseminating, and preserving these precious cultures. Surely there will be many difficulties in the process, such as how to film in a way that emphasizes realities and restores history, whether to pursue utmost authenticity or allow artistic interpretations, levels of historical and research value contained in the works, whether visual anthropology films can be artistically attractive, and how to draw social attention in the process of promoting cultural heritage. All these issues require continued thinking. 
 
Huang Aiwu is from the School of Arts and Communication at China University of Geoscience; Dai Chuanzhi is from the Television School at Communication University of China. 
 
Edited by CHEN MIRONG