The emergence of “Muslim heritage” in China. Reflections on the Dynamics of an Unformulated Category. Appendix: “Lists of Muslim Heritage in China at the National Level” (1961-2019)

Pascale Bugnon

1. Introduction

The People’s Republic of China has been involved in the institutional and legal production of cultural heritage since 1961, when it enacted the first legislative text on the protection of historical monuments, accompanied by a list of sites of cultural heritage value. If this first inventory was mainly concerned with sites related to the Communist revolution and archaeology, this model has gradually been expanded to include historical and cultural sites that have a local and “ethnic” [民族] component. This new paradigm has led to a sharp increase in cultural investment, revaluing not only the elements of the various imperial pasts, but also what are officially called “ethnic minorities” [少 数民族]. In this unprecedented context, a number of monuments attract attention: those belonging to the “Muslim heritage” [伊斯兰文化遗产]. Without being institutionally recognised under this name[1], this heritage raises many questions, especially about the underlying political, economic and social issues. In this article, I propose some lines of thought on the establishment of these cultural policies, which have led to the emergence of an unformulated category.

2. The Emergence and Expansion of the Notion of “Heritage”

Heritage is a mobile object of study with fleeting semantic lines (Desvallées, 1995; Andrieux, 1997; Harvey, 2001; Paveau, 2009; Heinich, 2009, among others), a sign of both the complexity of the notion (in its meaning and uses) and its rapid changes. At present, “there are no buildings, monuments, objects, practices or others that have intrinsic qualities (e.g. historical, cultural) such that they should automatically be qualified as heritage. On the contrary, heritage is a social construction: heritage is what a historical society designates as such at a given time. It is then the subject of questions, of struggles for definition” (Söderstrôm, 1992, quoted by Felli, 2005: 276). Indeed, the notion of heritage as it is currently accepted is the product of a long history that is particularly revealing of the relationship maintained with the past. Today, there is a widespread recognition and undeniable consensus regarding the imperative to preserve, maintain, and transmit cultural heritage. While this has led to the preservation of an increasing number of human or natural works and creations, this phenomenon has also had the effect of making the concept more “blurred” (Bondaz et al., 2014: 24).

The great plasticity of the term has since led it to be associated with various qualifiers, as Jean-Yves Andrieux points out: “This beautiful and very old word was originally linked to the family, economic and legal structures of a stable society, rooted in space and time. Requalified by various adjectives (genetic, natural, historical…), which made it a “nomadic” concept, it is today pursuing a different and resounding career” (Andrieux, 1997: 18). The evolution of heritage takes the form of a continuous expansion of its scope (Choay, 1996: 9; Guillaume, 1980: 11), allowing it to include works of all kinds, both material and immaterial, from all periods, and to refer to a constantly renewed symbolism (Heinich, 2009: 17-21): In recent years, this expansion has also been reflected in the academic field, where a variety of studies have flourished, linking the notion of heritage to the development of human rights (Silvermann & Ruggles, 2007), ecology (Brabec & Chilton, 2015), sustainability (UNESCO, 2015), or renewing it analytically through the movement of critical heritage studies (Smith, 2006 Harrison, 2013).

However, this categorical “nomadisation” remains no less controversial and the subject of lively debate: its backward-looking nature, the extension of which is “threatened by obesity” (Guillaume, 2000: 2), raises concerns. As Dominique Poulot notes, “some see in this phenomenon the success of a new attitude towards the past […] that would make the bed for a postmodernism that refocuses social values on the concepts of identity, memory and territory”. Others are concerned about the possible excesses of a “heritage proliferation sanctioned by successive ministries of culture” (Poulot, 1993: 1608). Added to these controversies, which fuel a large literature (e.g. Bromberger, 2014), are the “profane patrimonialisations” (Roberston, 2012), the intrusion of private and non-institutional actors (Bondaz et al., 2014: 9-10 ) and the emergence of new professions (Hottin and Voisenat, 2016), leading to major changes in the understanding of this phenomenon.

Far from being alleviated, these questions have been exacerbated by the internationalisation of the concept through the body of UNESCO. Since its promulgation, the 1972 Convention has been perceived as ethnocentric (Winter, 2014), mainly sensitive to the material aspects of heritage and concerned with distinguishing works of “outstanding universal value” (UNESCO, 1972) and “authentic” (ICOMOS, 1964) by their intrinsic quality and their impact. This narrow conception of heritage, and the many criticisms it has provoked, led to a series of reflections and programmes aimed at taking better account of the different notions of “cultural diversity”, particularly those related to the nebulous notion of “authenticity”. The “Nara Document” (UNESCO, 1994) partially responded to these criticisms by recognising the plurality of cultural traditions and calling for more flexible criteria for the use of the term “authenticity”. However, it was not until the Intangible Cultural Heritage Convention (2003) that these problematic values were replaced by “representative” cultural examples (Hafstein, 2009: 101-102), a supposedly more egalitarian approach that would recognise the value of all cultural practices. Despite this terminological resemantization (or shift in meaning), the problems of a conceptual approach to the implementation of “heritage” persists in a protean “ambiguity” (Bromberger, 2014).

However, if these questions conceal an undeniable interest, it is to place them in a process of interpretation, with meanings generated by those who are able to claim a heritage: “Any human achievement of the past, whatever it may be, remains only a vestige without value, even without weight, as long as a process of collective and institutional recognition of heritage has not taken place” (Cousseau, 2015: 19). Indeed, heritage involves a legal framework and is not isolated from the political field: its recognition and management remain marked by the action of public authorities, in particular by its inclusion in heritage lists. Its valorisation then « mobilises institutions, laws and decrees(a whole legal apparatus), discourses (in particular a proliferating rhetoric of political power), knowledge and practices” (Guillaume, 1980: 13), linked to the construction of the modern state.This choice of analysing the role of cultural policies is only one facet and does not exhaust the ways in which heritage can be studied (Bendix et al. 2012, for example).

2.1 Beyond consensus: Accommodation and negotiation

While it is important to pay attention to the sources of the “authorised discourse” (Smith, 2006) applied to heritage, this should not make us lose sight of the fact that it is not the only way to understand this concept. Although popular discussion and many studies insist on the hegemonic character of heritage discourses (Bendix et al., 2013), special attention must be paid to the analysis proposed in order to go beyond this dualistic reading of heritage-making, with subjugated populations on the one hand and oppressive institutional actors on the other. This restrictive attitude does not allow us to take into account the dynamics of appropriation, in which constant negotiations take place (Bayart, 1985): “It is because the requalification of heritage meets a space for living, working, transmitting values, a daily environment for individuals of different social status, that it arouses new resources for the expression of identity, economic or political expectations, and generates institutional dynamics” (Bondaz et al., 2012: 14). Moreover, there can be agreements and strategies between these two poles that need to be taken into account in order to better understand the specific logics of the different actors involved in this mechanism. Indeed, the creation of heritage creates new social spaces for negotiation, conflict, accommodation and collective expression between groups in constant redefinition (Adell & Pourcher, 2011: 10; Bondaz et al., 2012: 14). As Daniel Fabre points out, it is a matter of “dealing concretely, on the ground, with the relationship between the different versions and the different levels of monumentalisation” (Fabre, 2000: 28). The confrontation between these different protagonists will make it possible to understand how history and alternative processes of explaining and practising heritage can be activated today.

3. The Logic of Heritage-making in China

For a hundred years, there has been no shortage of laws, regulations, institutions and best practice to protect China’s cultural heritage. Under the Republic of China (1912-1949), the Chinese Nationalist government (or Kuomintang) promulgated the first regulations on cultural artefacts and the conservation of historical and tourist sites[2]. From then on, recommendations for heritage protection multiplied, accompanied by inventories and systematic surveys of the entire territory (Fresnais, 2001: 80). However, this process fluctuated greatly according to the events that marked the 20th century in China, between the iconoclastic destruction associated with the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and the preservation of historical monuments.

Formally, it was not until the 1960s that the young People’s Republic of China (PRC) issued the first “Provisional Regulations on the Administration of Historical Monuments” [文物保护管理暂行条例], accompanied by a list of 180 heritage sites called “national safeguard units” [重点文物保护单位]. Initially, this first list mainly included sites associated with the Communist revolution and archaeology – especially ancient and dynastic China – to support the mobilisation of nationalist sentiment: “Works of art and old buildings are […] materials of the greatest importance for teaching patriotism to our great people”[3]. This political dimension of heritage promotion partly explains its uneven distribution among the various provinces, where the regions with national minorities seem to be less represented in the first decades of Chinese heritage (see table above). These considerations were redefined by the legislative institutionalisation of heritage with the promulgation of the first Cultural Heritage Law in 1982[4], following the administrative redefinitions that were part of the country’s liberalisation movement at the end of the 1970s.

Distribution of National Tangible Cultural Heritage by Province and Municipality (1961-2013)

In fact, the accession of Deng Xiaoping 邓小平 (1904-1997) to the post of Prime Minister in July 1977 permanently changed the place given to cultural heritage, where revolutionary ideology and class struggle were gradually replaced by a nationalist perspective (Shepherd & Yu, 2013: 25; Svensson, 2016: 35; Svensson & Maags, 2018: 18), and significant socio-economic changes emerge.

3.1 Expansion of the heritage area

The beginning of the Reform and Opening-up period (1978), promoted by Deng Xiaoping, brought about a significant change in the way the party and the state viewed the past. The supremacy of the pragmatic current (Fresnais, 2001: 115; Billeter, 2007: 356) consecrates the emergence of cultural nationalism, which has led to a sharp increase in cultural investment, revaluing not only the elements of the various imperial pasts, but also what is officially called the “traditional cultures of ethnic minorities” [少数民族传统文化]. Indeed, on the threshold of the 1980s, the state recognised the existence of so-called “national” (i.e. ethnic) particularisms and the influential place of religion. Thus, at the Third Plenum of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1978, the Central Committee endorsed the conclusions concerning the decline of the class struggle, which led to a progressive acceptance of a greater diversity of social and economic practices, including in the religious sphere. From a pejorative appreciation to a constitutive element of “Chinese culture”[5], the status of religion then underwent an important paradigmatic shift, embodied in two major texts: “Document 19” (1982), which reconsidered the mistakes made during the Cultural Revolution, held that the elimination of religion was no longer the ultimate goal of the religious policy of the CCP (Qu, 2011: 436). On the contrary, the text stipulated respect for the protection of religious freedom and provided the main guidelines for the interaction between the state and religion. In the same year, the principle of freedom of belief was again amended in the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China[6], recognising that cultural and religious diversity is not incompatible with political loyalty to the Party. This recognition of the religious fact was accentuated under the presidency of Jiang Zemin, who, from the early 1990s, issued directives and made several notable interventions regarding the “positive” place of religion in China, considering it as a stabilising force of society, mobilised for national development. This orientation was further consolidated under the presidency of Hu Jintao (2003-2013), during which the national legislative stance identified religion as a constitutive element of the public interest (Laliberté, 2015; 2017), making it possible to create a “harmonious society” [和谐社会] (Boutonnet, 2009; Qu, 2011: 436-37).

This growing legitimisation of religion was completed in 2003, when UNESCO extended its heritage agenda to intangible cultural forms and expressions, encouraging the listing and protection of “living traditions”, in the name of which religious practices and various aspects of “ethnic identity” figure (Saxer, 2014: 188). Indeed, based on the categorical increase of “cultural heritage” by UNESCO and through the contagion effect, a greater variety of “heritage” has been recognised, expanding the scope of national cultural preservation (Yan, 2018 Zhu & Maags, 2020: 12). The broad dimension of heritage also coincides with the rise of a specific economic sector, that of so-called “cultural” tourism (Oakes & Sutton, 2010). During the period 1978-1996, local authorities became aware of the financial gains that could be made from developing sites and the economic impact of tourism development (Sofield & Li Fung Mei, 1998; Fresnais, 2001: 154). However, tourism is also seen as a tool to “modernise” peripheral Chinese areas in order to lift them out of poverty (Oakes, 2013). Indeed, the consideration of heritage as a tourism lever has led to significant growth by attracting domestic and foreign tourists to these sites (Nyiri, 2006).

This new paradigm has therefore been accompanied by a spectacular boom in cultural heritage, which is fully manifested in the promulgation of seven other lists of cultural heritage – in 1982, 1988, 1996, 2001, 2006, 2013 and 2019[7] – where we see that the heritage issue is becoming an element heavily invested in by the government, with a total of 5,053 sites listed at the national level today (2019) and the creation of new heritage categories in China (“Picturesque Sites”, “Historical and Cultural Cities”, “National Parks”, “Tourist Attractive Zones”, etc.).

Tangible Cultural Heritage Sites Registered at the National Level (1961-2019)

If the selection criteria follow the various texts promulgated on national cultural heritage, the nomination of one site to the detriment of another is not made visible by any public procedure (Svensson, 2011; 2016: 39; Bodolec, 2013: 260). This opaque management, sponsored by the “National Bureau of Cultural Heritage” (State Administration of Cultural Heritage – SACH; 国家文物局), is based on censuses carried out by local administrations and committees of various experts, whose decisions have fluctuated over time according to ideological, institutional and legislative changes (Svensson, 2011; Silvermann & Blumenfield, 2013).

Indeed, while the early days of national heritage were marked by an almost exclusive focus on the country’s revolutionary past, attention gradually shifted in the 1980s to China’s imperial and nationalist past, giving way in the 1990s to the celebration of an “ethnic” and vernacular heritage. But above all, and perhaps more significantly, the official discourse on heritage has evolved as a result of international cooperation and contacts since the 1980s. Following China’s accession to UNESCO in 1985, to the ICOMOS[8] Charter in 2000, and finally, as already mentioned, to the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003, many collaborations took place between these international bodies and the various Chinese heritage offices (China ICOMOS, 2000, for example).This not only demonstrates the adoption of these international management criteria in China (Svensson, 2016: 37), but also occupies an increasingly dominant position within the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.

Over the years, China has expanded its influence by submitting an increasing number of nominations, by intensifying its heritage diplomacy efforts (numerous delegations to UNESCO meetings, organisation of an intangible heritage festival, etc. ) (Svensson & Maags, 2018: 16-17) or by multiplying its cooperation with other BRICS countries[9] (Meskell et al., 2015). However, this process of heritage expansion takes place within a strict framework, where the distinctive character of ethnic and/or religious “minorities” must not undermine national unity or these modernisation goals (Silvermann & Blumenfield, 2013 : 8; Shepherd & Yu, 2013: 28).

4. The Case of “Muslim Heritage”

As part of this expansion of the Chinese heritage sector, there has also been an evolution in relation to religious buildings. The state officially recognises religious activity in duly registered places of worship, including those classified as cultural heritage (Fresnais, 2001: 240), but this recognition is only possible if they are registered in an “ordinary”, i.e. institutional, religious practice. However, if religion can be seen as a positive factor and a moral force supporting the state’s development strategy, it still remains a potentially subversive support for the mobilisation of civil society under the banner of religion (Potter, 2003; Chen, 2003). Any activities seen as undermining the state by supporting bases of sedition and divisive tendencies, or seen as promoting the interests of other countries, are viewed with suspicion. Since the events of 11 September 2001, the issue of “terrorism” has been an official factor, justifying a wide range of military and police operations aimed at combating what are referred to as the “three forces” [三股势力] of “separatism”, “terrorism” and “religious extremism” (Dillon, 2001; Castets, 2006). The CCP has therefore firmly taken the process of “reinventing heritage” into its own hands, by sanctioning what are considered to be “feudal superstitions” [封建迷信] or “illegal religious activities” [非法宗教活动] and by promoting “traditions” [传统] and local “folk customs” [民俗]. This process, underpinned by a play of political loyalties, generates a continuous adaptation of ritual practices and a constant (re)definition of orthopraxy, circumscribed in a distinctive rhetorical mode, that of an “Islamic culture with Chinese characteristics” [中国 特色的伊斯兰教文化] (Huang, 1999). As a result, some mausoleums become tourist attractions, allowing the government to illustrate its discourse on the richness of “national traditions”, while others, such as the mausoleum of Ordam Padishah in Xinjiang (Zarcone, 2001), are simply closed. If the boundaries between these two poles are difficult to define, the control and distribution of symbolic and/or material resources is more than ever aimed at making them “civilised” practices, suitable for integration into the “new image of the nation” (Billeter, 2007: 394).

Consequently, Islam is approached as a “cultural trait” of national minorities rather than as a universal religion (Doyon, 2014: 183), which partly explains the late consideration of “Muslim heritage”. Although the Qingjing Mosque [清净寺] in the city of Quanzhou was included in the first list of national heritage sites in 1961, it was not until the third list in 1988 that new sites (seven in all) appeared.

Evolution of Muslim Sites Listed as National Heritage (1961-2019)

This heritage really began to take on importance in the 2000s, with six sites inscribed in 2001, thirteen in 2006, twenty-four in 2013 and three in 2019, making a total of 55 for the period 1961-2019.

Distribution of Muslim Heritage by Province and Municipality

Slowly, and following the geographical distribution of “Muslim minorities” in China, “Muslim heritage” began to be perceived by the government as part of China’s “culture” and “national identity”. This recent consideration by the political authorities testifies to the evolution of the role of heritage, its interpretation in a society under construction (Choay, 1996) and its economic avatar. It also highlights the role of monuments in maintaining and constructing the identity of peoples or social groups. However, it would be wrong to consider the recognition of this heritage as coming exclusively from the state and centralised authorities.

The “heritage turn in China” (Ludwig, Walton & Wang, 2020) paved the way for new actors to be involved in heritage processes (Svensson & Maags, 2018: 21; Ludwig et al., 2020).Thus, some worship practices were recognised as beneficial by many scholars, who favoured their inscription as “national cultural heritage”, while taking care to separate the wheat from the chaff. That is, they promoted only those “traditions” that had a beneficial social impact (Xiao, 2012: 193; Gao, 2014). These scholars were gradually supported by officials and some Muslims themselves, who began to take an interest in this heritage process and ask for its protection, rebelling against “arbitrary” demolitions that destroyed irreplaceable historical data (Zhang & Ma, 2015; Anonymous, 2018). The importance of the “Muslim heritage” in China thus makes it possible, according to these scholars, to “show the intrinsic diversity of Chinese culture” and to recognise the specificity of Chinese Islam, which is subject to a continuous process of sinicisation. In this context, local Islam is not seen as a simple derivative of Arab Islam, but as a sophisticated combination of cultural exchanges with the “traditional Confucian culture”, capable of absorbing and integrating the customs and cultures of each ethnic group. For scholars such as Zhang and Ma (2015), this exchange is particularly evident in the construction of pagoda-shaped mosques, which combine traditional Chinese architecture with Muslim architecture and must be preserved for future generations. Instead of destroying these old mosques to build new ones in the Arab style, it is essential – always according to these scholars – to protect them in order to build an ‘advanced socialist culture’ based on ‘traditional Chinese culture’, thus contributing to the realisation of the ‘Chinese Dream’ [中国梦] (Zhang & Ma, 2015). Thus, in place of secularisation or desacralisation, the communist government seeks to change the sacred content, to modify its object through a process of sacred secularisation (Demerath, 2007: 66; Meyer and De Witte, 2015: 277). To do this, the leaders do not so much seek to eradicate cults as to adapt them to exploit their social function in a process of “social engineering” (Yan & Gao, 2017).

Thus, heritage is used as a tool to promote the image of a renewed and glorious Chinese past in an ongoing process of nation-building, an image reflected in the presidential slogan of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” [中华民族伟大 复兴] (Svensson & Maags, 2018: 19; Zhu & Maags, 2020: 12). In this context, religious heritage, especially “Muslim heritage”, is smugly used for political and economic purposes without being formally categorised under this term (Bugnon, 2022). However, this unformulated category is not the hegemonic prerogative of Chinese officials: it is also promoted by religious leaders and certain scholars in order to preserve their institutions. These scholars, officials and/or religious leaders are certainly limited in what they can publicly defend. However, the labelling and protection of “Muslim heritage” responds to the contingency of two forces, state and civil, meeting at the right time and place. As we have seen in these few pages, the heritagisation of Muslim sites is a recent process with different temporal regimes, responding to the contingencies of particular local politics. As a result, this process is part of a dialogue that becomes a tool for both sides, promoting the interests of a wide range of social actors.

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[1] Although present in some documents such as the article Anonyme, 2018; Zhang & Ma, 2015 and on the website of the Islamic Association of China, 2015.

[2] Between 1928 and 1939, several laws were enacted before the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war, including for instance the “Law on the Preservation of Ancient Object” (1930): see Murphy, 1994.

[3] « Qieshi zuohao wenwu baohu guanli gongzuo » (Heritage administration and protection work is well underway), RMRB, April 2, 1961, p. 2, quoted by Fresnais, 2001: 75.

[4] The “Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Cultural Relics” (1982) [Zhonghua renmin gongheguo wenwu baohu fa 中华人民共和国文物保护法], which has been revised several times since then. In addition to this law, there are numerous legal instruments, including implementing regulations, sometimes developed in cooperation with foreign institutions, such as the “Principles for the Conservation of Heritage Sites in China”, formulated in cooperation with the Getty Conservation Institute and the former Australian Heritage Commission.

[5] “In the course of the country’s long history, the various religions in China have become part of the traditional Chinese thinking and culture. It is traditional for Chinese religious believers to love their country and religions. The Chinese government supports and encourages the religious circles to unite the religious believers to actively participate in the construction of the country” (Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, 1997 : 3).

[6] “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. The state protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state. Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination” (Article 36 of the Constitution): see University of Southern California, 1984,https://china.usc.edu/constitution-peoples-republic-china-1982.  

[7] The various lists can be consulted on the website of the State Council of the PRC : http://www.gov.cn/guoqing/2014-07/21/content_2721152.htm (1961); http://www.gov.cn/guoqing/2014-07/21/content_2721159.htm (1982); http://www.gov.cn/guoqing/2014-07/21/content_2721163.htm (1988); http://www.gov.cn/guoqing/2014-07/21/content_2721166.htm (1996); http://www.gov.cn/guoqing/2014-07/21/content_2721168.htm (2001); http://www.gov.cn/guoqing/2014-07/21/content_2721173.htm (2006); http://www.gov.cn/guoqing/2014-07/21/content_2721176.htm (2013); http://www.gov.cn/zhengce/content/2019-10/16/content_5440577.htm (2019).

[8] The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) isa non-governmental international organisation dedicated to the conservation of the world’s monuments and sites.

[9] Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.


This contribution has been reviewed by Florence Graezer Bideau

Pascale Bugnon « The emergence of “Muslim heritage” in China. Reflections on the Dynamics of an Unformulated Category. Appendix: “Lists of Muslim Heritage in China at the National Level” (1961-2019) ». In Blog Scientifique de l’Institut Confucius, Université de Genève. Lien permanent: https://ic.unige.ch/?p=1474, consulté le 05/25/2024.