UNESCO’s Quest to Save the World’s Intangible Heritage

New Yorker 2024

March 2, 2024 | The New Yorker

An even more vexing issue is the intangible heritage of national minorities. China, which boasts more inscriptions than any other country, has controversially registered practices associated with its Mongolian, Korean, Kyrgyz, Tibetan, and Uyghur populations, whose cultural expressions it strictly controls. One of them is muqam, a Uyghur musical tradition closely tied to Sufi Islam. It was one of the first elements of intangible heritage recognized by unesco. But, in the past decade, China has reportedly suppressed traditional muqam while promoting secular alternatives that appeal to tourists and glorify the state. (China has denied cultural destruction against Uyghurs.) Official commemoration masks ongoing erasure; on a recent visit to Xinjiang, Xi Jinping posed for pictures with Uyghur musicians in traditional garb, a cruel irony when so many Uyghur musicians and scholars have been imprisoned. (Some have emerged from re-education camps as champions of state-sponsored ethnic harmony, providing China with a fig leaf of community consent.) The Uyghur Human Rights Project has called on the world’s governments to challenge China’s inscription of muqam and other Uyghur traditions on the I.C.H. lists.

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