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Preserving Cultural Traditions is More than Just Arts and Crafts

Maya Woman with Cell Phone
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11 cultural traditions were just added to the UNESCO Intangible Heritage List. This is a collection of arts and other cultural traditions in danger of going extinct which UNESCO feels should be preserved because of the role, message, or meaning they have for the societies where they are practiced. Added to the list this year was Chinese shadow puppetry, Mexican mariachis, a particular type of poetic duel indigenous to Cyprus, Fado singing in Portugal, Jultagi Korean tight rope walking, Hezhen Yimakan Chinese story telling, Lenj Iranian fishing boat construction, Kaskek ceremonial Turkish stew, Japanese rice rituals, the Jaguar Shamans of Colombia, and Indonesian Saman Dance.

These traditions are crucial not just from a historical or aesthetic perspective, but from a very pressing cultural one. They bind communities together, convey a country or people’s outlooks and ideals and can even serve very practical, social purposes. –UNESCO new intangible cultures additions

“Promoting cultural values” was one of the main reasons used by UNESCO to cite why many of these traditions have been included on the list, but this statement was often directed at cultures whose very value systems are in the midst of rapid change. This, in my opinion, is the crux of the problem: these rites, arts, and performances currently promote cultural values that are no longer very strong in the societies where they are practiced, and, therefore, their continued existence is in peril.

Secret society of koredugaw in Mali

If a cultural tradition is no longer practiced, it very often no longer fit within the parameters of the society which once cultivated it, and in some cases is no longer relevant, needed, or wanted as the culture adapts and changes. Preserving a tradition as a stand alone activity is like trying to clean a polluted river at its mouth, rather that the source. The source of cultural shifts which cause various traditions to go extinct is key when discussing the preservation of any aspect of any given society.

Why are the Chinese no longer interested in investing decades of study to become a shadow puppeteer?

Perhaps because they are more interested in Ipads, learning to speak English, Tsingdao beer, television, Blackberries, moving to Beijing or Shanghai, and landing some good paying job with a big company. The times in China, like most of the world, where communities would gather around a central square and listen to the words of a traveling storyteller, watch a martial arts performance or a puppet show are long gone. It does not take an anthropologist to realize that the up and coming generations of this planet — almost regardless of culture — are being tempted by the fruits of global capitalism, getting a good corporate job, working in call centers, offices, factories, department stores, and other places that will earn them the money to buy the “things” and status symbols that people living in this modern mash-up of global capitalism tend to desire.

In this climate, in these times of more diverse lifestyle choices for much of the developing world, the desire to dedicate a lifetime to the tedious study of a traditional art or trade is often not very strong, and these traditions are dying out with the masters who will be the last to practice them. Certain aspects of many cultures have changed — there are too many other recreational, entertainment, employment, lifestyle options to choose from — and no matter how much the UNESCO wails about how we need to protect or preserve this or that cultural tradition it will ultimately be to little avail: the cultures they are trying to preserve are already gone, they have already changed.

Most of the traditions on the UNESCO are those which require decades of study in a master/ apprentice or parent/ child relationship to learn. Worldwide, many youths — the raw supply of prospective practitioners of ancient arts and trades — are looking elsewhere as their culture’s values have shifted. To speak generally, mastery of tedious and difficult ancient arts is no longer highly regarded, or, put another way, no longer practical in the societies where they were cultivated. It is becoming more and more rare for child to follow in the footsteps of their parents, rarely do the young devote their professional and personal lives to drawn out apprenticeships. This may not necessarily be because they don’t want to, but because the social pressures are now different: the time and space for learning the old traditions is often now longer available in a world where fast money is clutch. The younger generations of the world they are now part of the global capitalist menagerie: they have to make money like everyone else.

The shift in values worldwide between this upcoming generation and the one that proceeded it is perhaps the greatest change in culture this world has ever known. There is a reason why so many ancient arts and traditions are dying out: they are outdated.

I published an article on traditional Indian woodcarving a handful of years ago. I met with master carvers in the Rajasthan who had been plying the trade for generation after generation, until now. I watched the last masters of this art work, I interviewed them, and then sat subdued as they explained to me why their art was destined to die with them: the young generation, their children, have no interest in carving sandalwood by hand, they would rather work with computers.

Umesh and his father were living examples of proud craftsman out of a history book; relics of what humans were once capable of. I was in the shear presence of an ancient tradition as I watched these craftsmen perform their ambulations upon little chunks of sandalwood. I truly felt, in those hours of silent carving, that there is nothing in the world more honest than a craftsman’s working hands. My cynicism had completely dissipated, as I learned that a large degree of the traditional artistic spirit has survived the influx of modern triviality in the art of sandalwood carving. But it will probably not endure. In the presence of Umesh and Shayam Singh, I sadly knew that I was witnessing the last residual breaths of this ancient Indian tradition. Umesh’s children will not carry on the family trade, and he knows that the chain of folk knowledge will end with him. His family’s livelihood and tradition will not be linked into the future.

“There is not enough money in wood carving,” Umesh told me sadly, as he explained why his children have no interest in working sandalwood. –Woodcarvers in India, the last of a tradition

I discovered the same in 2004 when I was researching traditional Japanese tattooing in Kyoto. The old masters explained how the newer artists coming up are not learning the traditional style of tattooing — which takes decades of being an apprentice to learn — and are not using the traditional methods. I was talking with some of the last people in this world who apply tattoos by hand without electrical machines, and who learned how to do this in the old style. But these artists also seemed to maintain a sense of understanding: they knew the times have changed, they realized that the old Japanese master/ apprentice relationship is impractical in the modern world. Their art has transitioned into new styles, taking on new methods of application, new designs, but the ancient tradition will die pretty much in full the last masters who are getting older by the day.

In these modern times of glitter and flash, ancient crafts are as impermanent as the old masters who practice them. The traditional art of horimono is dying and, like Tsukasa, it does not look as if it will be saved. Cultures change, people die, and traditions fade away. With the death of each Horimono master, the world comes a little closer to the death of the ancient art of Japanese tattooing. –A Dying Art, Japanese Tattooing

“Nobody wants to learn.”

I’ve listened to these words being spoken to me endless times as I’ve traveled the world, often as I somewhat unwittingly document arts and traditions that are destined to die with my interview subjects. Outside of outright and complete genocide cultures are difficult things to kill. Persecution, suppression, and violence for hundreds or even thousands of years could not wipe out Jewish culture, or that of the Gypsies,* the Maya, and other historically oppressed groups. Cultures die when their members walk away, traditions go extinct when there is nobody left who wants to practice them.

I spent three months working in the rain forests of Guatemala last year. The people there were mostly Maya. Where most of the older men and women (35+ years of age) worked at local, more traditional, rain forest based occupations. They were mostly poor, some impoverished. The young who grew up into this world would almost invariably leave their communities for bouts of work in the larger sized cities of the country when they came of age. They would typically work in mestizo professions (i.e manual labor, service jobs). Often, these kids would set up homes and start new urban lives, essentially leaving large aspects of their cultures behind. Sometimes they would move back and forth between their village and various cities depending on what employment opportunities arose. The generation gap between the kids who returned from the cities and their parents was obvious: one generation was made up of jungle people, the other made up of kids very much cued into the ebbs and flows of the culture of globalization.

They young Maya were leaving their communities for what seemed to them to be better opportunities on the other side of the fence. There was even a severe deficiency of young people in some of the indigenous villages there — so much so that many felt there was not enough local workers or that their very culture and way of life was going extinct. The young people were walking away, and this is how cultures die.

“Nobody wants to learn anymore.”

Many of the traditions on the UNESCO list are dead streams running: no new life is being pumped into them because their cultural aquifers have dried up long ago. The cultural chair has been pulled out from beneath many of these traditions, few are in line to learn them, and they are set to fall flat on their arses. The societies from which many of these traditions arose have changed, and their new value systems and living structures are no longer able to support them.

Slick cars, sunglasses, Western clothes, smart phones, computers, jobs with companies, paychecks, apartments in cities, university educations are the desires of much of the world now which did not have access to these things and opportunities just one generation ago. What 18 year old would want to stay back in his hovel spending 10 hours a day learning the art of shadow puppetry? Or wood carving? Or another trade which is difficult and time consuming to learn and comes with the promise of a lifetime of low status and poverty when he can move to a city and try to land some computer job with a big company?

While the UNESCO Intangible Heritage List takes into account the fact that a cultural act needs to present some sort of value to the culture itself to be of much value, it is not clear how they intend to preserve these traditions. In this fast changing world where the building blocks of cultures from the Amazon to the Himalaya are being restructured, I fear that the times may have already passed for many of the traditions on UNESCO’s list.

Culture is a way of seeing the world and your place in it, a method of interpreting and reacting to the signs and symbols of your environment, a system of differentiating Us from Them, a collection of living strategies inherent to certain groups at certain places in time. When these elements change, the culture adapts or dies. Cultures are never fixed, they are always changing — a stagnant culture is a dead culture — and their arts and traditions need to change with the times as well or face the graveyard that is the UNESCO Intangible Heritage List.

This article is part one in a series on globalization and the world wide cultural revolution it is creating. All this week on vagabondjourney.com there will articles documenting the rapidly changing culture-scapes that have quickly redressed planet Earth.

*The term Gypsy is used here rather than Roma intentionally because this is how the people of this culture who I’ve known personally referred to themselves.

Series Navigation<< The Meaning of the Cultural ZooConvergent and Divergent Theories of Cultural Evolution >>
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Filed under: Changing Cultures, Culture and Society, Disappearing Traditions, Economics, Globalization, Indigenous People

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3053 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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