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Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP) is a small grassroots, legally-registered NGO working to protect cultural heritage across China.

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Minority Cultures: Conserved by ‘experts’ for tourists, or by their own communities for themselves?

Beginning this year, the government has begun researching the status of the protection of the cultures belong to the ethnic minorities with comparatively small populations* – the 22 out of 55 Chinese ethnic minorities whose current population size is less than 100,000, according to population census figures. The cultures of these comparatively small minorities are most at risk due to rapid industrialization and urbanization.

Official media has reported that due to extensive development projects aimed at alleviating poverty, much traditional culture, especially architecture, has been lost. Items that were once essential to the daily lives of these people have disappeared and very few have been preserved in museums. Local governments are not particularly dedicated to protecting minority culture and are satisfied with preserving “fake customs” staged to appeal to tourists. There is also a serious lack of ethnic minority cultural experts and cultural preservation funding, which leads to ineffective protection efforts. CHP agrees with this official assessment and applauds the government’s research that has increased awareness of the severity of the situation.

There are several factors contributing to the current endangered state of minority culture preservation. We believe that the most important ones are related to the official concepts of “ethnic equality and respect.” Oversimplification and poor planning bog down many of the cultural preservation projects currently underway.

The majority of local officials are not aware that the protection of culture is a basic right and should be entrusted to the local people themselves. They also fail to recognize that cultural heritage protection programs must satisfy the minorities’ needs as well as bring them some economic benefits. Projects that ignore these principles will not only fail, but may also result in further cultural losses.

The government investigation into cultural heritage protection of ethnic minorities with small populations shows that there will be an increase in funding and personnel to address these issues.

We expect the increased aid and staff to take into consideration local minorities wishes and difficulties, as well as express respect and understanding of their cultural heritage.

We have launched several projects involving cultural heritage protection of ethnic minorities, including the Mengma Archive Project, which raised the cultural self-awareness of the villagers of Mengmajai, Yunnan, a traditional Dai minority region.

We are currently working on the Congjiang Archive (Guizhou) Project, which not only helps strengthen the sense of pride of the local ethnic groups but also will help them discover ways of developing their own cultural traditions.

Also, our current project, A’er Village Qiang Minority Cultural Revitalization Project not only will help the A’er Qiang people recover a sense of home after the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake, but also help them to become leading examples in Qiang Minority cultural heritage protection.

We are currently working hard with the local governments to build trust and open up channels of communication because we believe that in order to strengthen cultural heritage protection, both the local governments and peoples whose cultures are threatened need outside help.

*These smaller minority groups are as follows: The Dulong, De’ang, Jinuo, Nu, Pumi, A’chang, Blang, Tatar, Uzbek, Russian, Tajik, Baoan, Salar, Yugur, Gaoshan, Elunchun, Ewenke, Hezhen, Vietnamese, Maonan, Menba, Lhoba. These groups are predominantly living in Yunnan, Guangxi, Guizhou, Tibet, Gansu, Qinghai, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Heilongjiang and Fujian.

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