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The Meaning of the Cultural Zoo

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There is a value to the cultural zoo, which is essentially what cultural preservation movements aim to create.

A cultural zoo is essentially what happens when a tradition or art is reenacted in modern times in a way that is removed from the social sphere in which it was originally created. Exhibits in the cultural zoo are generally actions which once had deep meanings for a particular culture that are now performed in an expediently learned manner by revivalists — often under the banner of preserving the tradition. In this way, the “tradition” being reenacted is to the contemporary culture what an animal in a zoo is to its native wild environment: both are still there, living, existing, but it’s just not the same.

Though there are still elements of personal and societal meaning in the “cultural zoo,” but they are now different in modern times than they once were.

An example of this is Ukrainian folk dancing as it has been revived in Boston. To the people practicing it, the “meaning” of the art now seems to revolve around a general sense of “being Ukrainian,” or of basking in their perception of “Ukrainian heritage.” It is a way of proclaiming “I’m Ukrainian and this is how we dance,” whereas where the dance was organically practiced in the Ukraine it had more particular meanings and social roles. So while the “act” has been preserved, its meaning has been stripped down by being taken out of its historic, cultural, and geographic context.

“It makes me feel good to sing Jewish songs,” my wife spoke, “it feels different to sing my daughter a Jewish song than it does Barnie.” In the same sense, my Jewish wife, who was 100% integrated into the dominant US culture, celebrates a feeling of “Jewishness.” In the context in which she sings these songs there are still elements of their more traditional meanings, but mostly they now are mechanisms to practice a heritage in and of itself.

I watched a cultural revitalization movement in practice in 2005 in Qinghai province of China. This area is part of cultural and historic Tibet, though laying outside of the modern autonomous zone. When the Chinese rolled in, many of the Tibetans were subjected to re-acculturation programs which, basically, aimed to stomp the “Tibetan-ness” out of them. It worked to various degrees, but many this generation’s children reacted against this process, and though they received a Chinese education, they sought to revitalize their Tibetan heritage. Many went back to wearing Tibetan clothes and boots, and tried to rediscover and recreate elements of their culture that waned in the intervening generation. The biggest result of this initiative was a more vibrantly expressed pride in being Tibetan.

The Cultural Zoo is perhaps the last stop before the museum

Movements like this are occurring all through China, especially as newfound economic opportunities have arisen for many of the country’s minority groups who wish to revitalize some of the more visual elements of their culture for the ever growing tourism industry. In China, the cultural zoo has also taken on a more literal meaning, as some minority villages around the country have been turned into real zoos. An admissions gate is put up on the road leading into the village, the paths are paved, fences erected, and crowds of Chinese now walk through on tours, gawking at the minority people going about their “traditional” ways. In point, the visual elements of “culture” are being practiced for much different reasons in the modern age.

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The examples above show individuals basking in a feeling of “lost culture” reenacting the arts of their antecedents, or even a grasping at some sort of self-definition in a modern world that is becoming ever more whitewashed, politically correct, and less diversified. The dominant, global capitalist culture is swallowing up and assimilating everyone into some sort of cultural whole — which is nowhere near the sum of its parts. This is evident, and traditions are being revitalized to show cultural pride in the face of this movement — or to make a living “selling” manifestations of various cultural traditions to benefit from it.

Cultural white-washing seems to go against some element of the collective human psychology. People search for self-definition through the groups they associate with — we like this feeling of distinction, of uniqueness, of brotherhood within a tribe. The world divides apart as it is coming together. In conjunction with massive cultural assimilation movements worldwide there are growing backlashes against it.

Many Americans who had an Irish grandfather now try to call themselves Irish, some Americans with an Italian ancestor now try to identify as being Italian, and the same goes for many other people clawing at some sort of cultural identity separate from the dominant mass. Sometimes they seem to find a sense of pride in singing the songs or doing the dances or eating the food of their reconstructed identities. The more race is not an issue in countries like the United States the more minority groups will flaunt their racial pride and boast of their cultural distinction.

The “we are all one people” argument never holds up for very long. If everyone lived as one big, lump sum culture there would be no such thing as diversity — such as we are seeing happen worldwide as myriad cultural traditions are disappearing en masse across the globe in exchange for the entertainment, music, and lifestyle of the grotesque worldwide Frankenstein culture of globalization. The new American tribalism is global, and there are mass reactions against it.

Few people of the modern world want to feel like cultural blank slates — permeable in the dominant culture of a given society — once they’ve experienced what this means. Perhaps this is why the sub-culture, the niche group, offshoots of niche groups, and what amounts to social clubs are roaring with popularity in societies with permeable dominant cultures. The cultural zoo — diversity, even if it amounts to little more than a label — is very much craved, perhaps now more than ever.

The show of identity, as manifested in the practice of visual elements of a culture’s arts and traditions have always held a deeper level of meaning within a given society. This is just as true now than at any other time in history. Showing “us” from “them” is often an important part of any individual’s identity, as well as that of any culture. This is perhaps why it’s important for old traditions to be revived and practiced in the modern context. Although stripped of various specific meanings due to the changes in the cultures that practiced these traditions, the impacts that these acts have on the identity formations of their practitioners cannot be underestimated. Cultures, recent and ancient, often go to extreme lengths to formulate and visually display their distinct identities — and many people in the world today are now grasping for such cultural handhold.

Ukrainian folk dance in the USA is part of the identity formulation of its practitioners, the same goes for my wife passing on old Jewish songs, the same goes for Tibetan youths stripping off their grey khakis for leather pants and fur coats. Today, these acts may lack some of the deeper elements of meaning than they once did, but the identity building elements still exist and are very strong. Perhaps this is the value of attempting to revive arts like Chinese shadow puppetry, Korean tight rope walking, Cypriot poetry duels, and various antiquated dances and music. Perhaps this fact alone is why it is worth keeping various dying cultural traditions of the world on life support.

Tomorrow, this globalization, One World System fiasco may kick the bucket, cultures may again separate and re-diversify — resupplying old traditions with new and ever changing meanings. All cultures have always been changing, and their rites, traditions, arts, and practices have likewise been evolving with the tides of time. A culture that does not adapt to changing circumstances is a dead culture; a tradition which cannot adapt to the evolving culture in which it is practiced is a dead tradition. Reviving a tradition, even if removed from the source of meaning from which it sprung, is still a valuable part of preserving it. Part of the cultural preservation mission needs to be transforming traditional practices into modern ones, or else all efforts are moot.

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

Series NavigationPreserving Cultural Traditions is More than Just Arts and Crafts >>
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Filed under: Changing Cultures, Culture and Society, Disappearing Traditions, Globalization

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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