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SU, Junjie. 2023. Intangible Cultural Heritage and Tourism in China: A Critical Approach. Bristol and Jackson: Channel View Publications.

Florence Padovani
p. 91-92

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1This book by Junjie Su – currently Associate Professor at Yunnan University – is based on the author’s PhD research conducted between 2012 to 2017, as well as on additional fieldwork carried out just after Covid-19 travel restrictions ended. His manuscript studies the complex relationships between intangible cultural heritage (ICH) and tourism in Yunnan, a province whose natural landscapes and rich ethnic cultural heritage attract both Chinese and foreign tourists. Lijiang has been chosen by the author as his case study as it constitutes an interesting example of an early touristic area in China, inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997, and followed by other places in Yunnan later on.

2Tourism has indeed played an important role in Yunnan’s economy since the 1980s, when Chinese people started to engage in internal leisure travel. The integration of the ICH framework two decades ago reinforced that trend, and strongly participated in the promotion of local traditional cultures in Yunnan. Building on the copious literature that has been flourishing in China and abroad regarding tourism and its impact on both material and immaterial heritage, the author engages more specifically with critical tourism and critical heritage studies. This new school of research, which emerged in the US in the early 2000s, aims at diversifying research objects, sources, fields, methods, and practices in order to de-Westernise, or even de-Europeanise, approaches to heritage.

3Due to its early tourism development, Yunnan Province has been extensively studied. But the originality of Su’s analysis lies less in the object of his research than in the way he examines ICH at the grassroots level. As such, he analyses the ways in which world heritage designation has profoundly transformed the lives, livelihoods, and cultural fabric of Lijiang and its inhabitants.

4The analysis progresses through nine chapters. The first three review the theoretical aspects of heritage discourse, mobilising international and Chinese references alike. Chapters Four and Five adopt anthropological methods to introduce specific cases in Lijiang that the author analyses in depth at a grassroots level. These chapters focus on four local Naxi cultural heritage items: Dongba culture (namely the traditional Naxi religious culture), traditional music (specifically what is called ancient music), handicrafts (mainly wood-carving and copperware), and culinary skills (with delicacies such as 粑粑 baba – a type of bread – and 雞豆涼粉 jidou liangfen – a type of bean jelly). In Chapters Six, Seven, and Eight, the author gives voice to experts, officials, and people recognised as masters in their practice. The last chapter, finally, engages a critical discussion about sustainable development and tourism. Heritage protection on the one hand and its commodification on the other hand are closely related for better or worse. Tensions that erupt from these antagonist forces are well described in this book. Members of the communities themselves are divided between those who want to play the game and those trying to resist. These antagonistic forces are obvious in the four sets of items chosen by the author. Chapters Six to Eight are each subdivided into three sections: the official, the expert, and the practitioners’ perspectives, each discussing issues of authenticity, commodification, and transmission. These chapters highlight the deep differences between actors in their understanding of these processes.

5Several levels of interactions and understandings are explored through the book: international, through the UNESCO definition of ICH; national, through governmental plans; local, through experts and officials in charge of implementing the policy; and at the grassroots level, through community members. The author precisely describes ICH management in China and shows that understandings and uses of ICH slightly differ between UNESCO and the national level in China. At the grassroots level, the approved heritage discourse used by officials and experts is also at odds with the one used by practitioners and communities. Gaps even open up between practitioners themselves, especially when the question of authenticity is raised.

6Lijiang being the base of Naxi culture, the ICH items presented to tourists are essentially adapted from Naxi local culture. The author, however, chooses to focus on the analysis of four specific items that prove very useful in providing the reader with different aspects of heritage safeguarding and their impact. Dongba religious activities, for example, have been deeply affected by touristic promotion: even in Yushuizhai, usually presented as a successful example, “traditional Dongba practices are re-authenticated” (p. 73), including through the implementation of a Dongba degree evaluation programme to authenticate official religious practitioners. As for traditional music, it was mainly used for ritual ceremonies, but when tourism developed, it was transformed and commodified into short shows specifically addressed to visitors. Moreover, while Lijiang has been famous since the Ming dynasty for its wood-carving, leather-making, silver and copperware, these handicrafts were initially made by and for local people, which is not the case anymore. The same happens with Lijiang delicacies such as baba and jidou liangfen: not only has their taste been adapted for tourists, but their production is also increasingly undertaken by nonlocal people. Su studies these cases in detail and discusses each heritage item in terms of value, authenticity, commodification, integrity, continuity, and transmission. He analyses the impact of these changes, showing both their positive and negative consequences for the safeguarding of these items as well as for communities themselves.

7This book makes an exciting contribution to the study of intangible cultural heritage in China. However, the qualities of Su’s book also have their own limits: while the book does provide a stimulating and complete picture of ICH issues in Lijiang, it does not adequately pinpoint the exceptionality of Lijiang’s case. Indeed, many less famous touristic areas in China find it difficult to promote their cultural heritage and to insure their transmission even in the short term. In Lijiang, bearing the World Heritage label has profoundly transformed people’s life, their livelihoods, and the local cultural fabric, but that hasn’t been the case everywhere. To be fair, the author does sketch out a short international comparison with similar cases elsewhere in the world, in order to get away from the exceptionality of Lijiang’s case. These comparisons, however, are only made on an international level, and could have been discussed further.

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Bibliographical reference

Florence Padovani, SU, Junjie. 2023. Intangible Cultural Heritage and Tourism in China: A Critical Approach. Bristol and Jackson: Channel View Publications.”China Perspectives, 136 | 2024, 91-92.

Electronic reference

Florence Padovani, SU, Junjie. 2023. Intangible Cultural Heritage and Tourism in China: A Critical Approach. Bristol and Jackson: Channel View Publications.”China Perspectives [Online], 136 | 2024, Online since 01 March 2024, connection on 14 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Florence Padovani

Florence Padovani is Associate Professor at Paris 1 - Sorbonne University, Laboratoire PRODIG, Campus Condorcet, Bâtiment Recherche Sud, 5 cours des Humanités, 93322 Aubervilliers, France (

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The text and other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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