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Non-written cultural heritage possesses unique value

DENG QIYAO and LIU ZHIWEI | 2022-04-28 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

An artist demonstrates the craft of kite-making. Photo: PROVIDED TO CSST BY DENG QIYAO

Non-written history forms a record of the vast world, encompassing a long span of time before words were invented. Objects and images from the non-written age, such as cave and rock paintings, are of great value to the study of visual representation and the origin of cultural heritage, means of cultural inheritance, and the transmission of cultural knowledge.

Ideographic objects and images
When we say “in history,” we often mean the historical period with written records, while “prehistoric” refers to the period between the emergence of human beings and the creation of written languages. Therefore, the study of history often focuses on written history, which is called xinshi, literally translating to “truthful history.”
Traditional historiography puts an emphasis on classical documents and archaeological evidence, historical anthropology uncovers the value of folk documents through field investigation, and folkloristics studies oral texts and the cultural ecology of the living world, all of which are important basic materials for academic research. 
However, a large number of archaeological and pictorial history studies show that before the emergence of written records, humans already had developed record keeping habits and passed down knowledge via other means. There are also many field reports in anthropology and folkloristics that prove that cultural heritage transmission is a method for recording and telling stories, as well as expressing emotion and meaning, whether among non-writing or writing groups.
Natural objects and images were the first mediums used by human beings. Physical objects included stones, shells, leaves, bones, teeth, horns, and feathers, which could be spatially rearranged to convey meaning (as in Stonehenge or dolmens) or simply giving meaning to natural objects (sacred mountains, sacred lakes, and sacred trees). There were many symbols which could not be preserved and thus disappeared, such as symbology created using plants and animals. When we examine anthropological fieldwork, ethnography, and folklore, we can see living cultural remains, such as worship of sacred wood, records carved on wood, leaf lettering, feather lettering, animal teeth as amulets to ward off evil, and so forth. These objects and images are no longer ordinary natural objects in the realm of human imagination, but are cultural or ideographic symbols imbued with magic, namely, “ideographic objects and images.” Their spatial construction, significance, and symbolism are important material evidence in the study of human cognition and the formation of thinking.
Another, less original, artistic use of natural mediums is to make images out of objects. For example, the natural shape of a rock similar to an animal is used, adding three-dimensional meaning to the two-dimensional space, and forming semi-three-dimensional rock paintings. A typical example of this is the buffalo portrait crafted 14,000 years ago in the Altamira Cave site in northern Spain, which partly takes advantage of the shape of rock protrusions. Also, some rock formations are endowed with mythic significance, such as the popular “Yeti” myth in many parts of the world, linked to footprint shaped marks on rock, and worship of natural stalactites or stone crevasses as fertility deities. There are also stone or wood carvings which are said to be incarnations of human souls, such as the stone man in China’s northwest grassland, carved out of granite to represent hero and ancestor worship. Not to mention paintings and carvings on the cliff, decorating it eternally with vivid imagery.
Humans also share other intangible cultural heritage methods, such as oral traditions and expressions (including music and various oral traditions), performing arts (such as dance, sign language, and body language), social practices or touch inheritance (sign language hidden in the sleeve of both parties during a transaction), and ritual inheritance (such as festivities). They are the research objects of musical anthropology, sensory anthropology, artistic anthropology, and ritual theory respectively, and are also the topics of visual anthropology.
According to field observation, many ethnic minority groups in China, such as the Miao people, share a tradition of using objects such as carved wood, rope knots, and tree leaves to document event and data, convey symbolic meaning, and pass on information. Some of these traditions live on even today. In the regions where ethnic minorities live, if stakes are planted in a wasteland, or even if grass stalks are inserted in cow dung, it means that the object is taken. If a tree in a mountain forest or a temple is tied with rattan strips or red lines, it is a prayer for marriage and well-being. With different kinds of plants, or other objects, one can write a leaf letter with clear meaning. Even in coastal areas with developed economies and high levels of literacy, these representations or symbols are still widely applied in festivals, ceremonies, and other folk customs today. For example, during the Spring Festival in Guangdong, families love to have kumquats, chrysanthemums, lettuce, and other plants whose name sounds similar to “good luck,” “fortune,” and so on in their households, in order to usher in “an auspicious beginning” to the new year.
Cultural heritage and narrative traditions of many non-literate ethnic minorities are very special. They narrate their own culture orally in the form of myths, epics, and ballads. Their stories and culture are passed down through images, shapes, performance, and other intangible methods. However, these are mostly regarded as forms of “national art.” For example, if we only see the practical and aesthetic functions of an ethnic minority garment, our understanding is inadequate. According to ethnic cultural traditions, these garments identify different social roles. Beautiful embroidery is a blessing to ward off evil, and it is also a record of ethnic history.
Important supplement
The difficulty we often encounter is in processing and translating unwritten material into written documents. The answer lies in cooperation between historians, anthropologists, and folklorists. Cultural heritage has unique value and significance. Symbols on clothing can be continuously superimposed across historical periods and concepts, so can words. However, the superimposition of words is often controlled by those with power, whereas the superimposition of symbols often concentrates the memories of people throughout different times. It is important for the study of history that we contextualize time in this superposition, searching for cultural histories that have been forgotten by words.
For example, inscriptions and local chronicles from the Pearl River Delta in south China are mostly written based on conceptual structures solidified by previous written records, so history in this region appears to be a structured expression. South China has been going through a process where local indigenous people and cultures are incorporated into the national system. This process, in writing, presents a very strong, constant, and consistent social and historical memory. 
In the face of such a unique historical memory, historians need to learn from the experiences of anthropologists to introduce non-written materials uncovered in the countryside and even in the wilderness. In fact, from tangible and intangible cultural heritages, all kinds of information surviving through non-written processes could reshape our understandings—beyond the memory of historical text. For example, widespread sacrificial symbols in the form of stones, altars, and temples in mountain settlements and waterside communities can clearly show the historical logic of sacrificial ceremonies.
A few years ago, we came across a large rock on the side of a mountain in a village on Shangchuan Island in Guangdong Province. In front of the rock was the frame of a house door. On the front of the door frame were four oversized Chinese characters reading “X Ancestral Hall” and a pair of couplets on both sides. Villagers claimed this is their ancestral temple. Later, when we returned, the door frame in front of the rock was removed and a standardized ancestral temple was built on the ground under the mountain. The “X Ancestral Hall” frame was moved to the new building as the door. Here, we see the historical and cultural expression of written symbols, but also the historical significance of non-written symbols. We do not often see this kind of experience described in traditional history books, but we can definitely obtain more historical information by combining the written and non-written symbols.
Cultural diversity
Historical research needs reflection. There are plenty of concealed or minimized traces of more nuanced histories in seemingly well-written history books. Therefore, it can be said that history is constructed, and many real historical memories have been forgotten. History should be examined from more perspectives and with more possibilities. We can’t risk generalizing; rather, we should be as skeptical of written history as we are of oral materials and images.
As a cultural community, the Chinese share the symbols of our common cultural life. For example, since the Ming and Qing dynasties, ethnic minorities in China have demonstrated diversity and cultural integration in clothing, music, and other aspects. What we need to reflect upon, is how to uncover forgotten history, or modified memories, from different disciplines and perspectives. In the past, renowned Chinese scholar Wang Guowei put forward the “Double Evidence Method” and added archaeology in the research methodologies for cultural history. Archaeology has made an important supplement to the restoration of history. Later, other scholars advanced deeper evidence, such as images and oral accounts.
With the development of historical anthropology, many texts from unofficial sources show great value. Historical anthropologists scour the field for lost folk documents, such as contracts, inscriptions on stone tablets, and letters for family members, from which they reconstruct vivid chapters of the economic, cultural, customary, and religious history of the Chinese people. 
Texts from unofficial sources are not only worthy of attention from historical anthropology, but also that of visual anthropology. For visual anthropology, its task is to study visual expressions and cultural transmission from different cultures. Its field investigation materials include non-written, or intangible, information such as spatial significance, object representation, and image narration, and visual anthropologists focus on folk art or ethnic art. We can learn to understand the patterns on ethnic garments under the guidance of the Miao and Jingpo elders. Comparing stories narrated by costume patterns with the epics handed down from generation to generation, and even adding context from ancient historical materials and traditional customs, we find that these areas of study have strong intertextuality and can prove one another.
In the history of human civilization, and academic history, written narratives have always been dominant. For centuries, people’s understanding of history has been based on written documents, but “truthful history” cannot be fully trusted. It is often only a small corner of the many facets that make up human civilization. Such a history is not a complete history, and certainly does not fully reflect the complexities of human history.
Deng Qiyao is from the Center for Visual Art Studies at Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts and Liu Zhiwei is from the Department of History at Sun Yat-Sen University.
Edited by YANG XUE