Joy and pride in international recognition of national heritages

NDO - As the art of xoan singing is soon to be lifted from the UNESCO list of cultural heritage in need of urgent safeguarding, Dr Le Thi Minh Ly from the National Cultural Heritage Centre expressed her joy at the achievements Vietnam has made over the past year in protecting cultural heritages.


Q: 2016 was a special year with UNESCO honouring the practices related to the Mother Goddess religion which remains something highly talked about even among Vietnamese people. What do you think about this?

A: Last year UNESCO recognised the practices of the Mother Goddess religion as a world cultural heritage, which was a milestone for the Vietnamese people. There was a time when such practices were deemed superstitious and backward but now they have become heritages of humanity. I think many people still do not fully understand these practices and cannot even understand why they were considered as superstitious in the past. I believe that this honour will change many people’s awareness. The government has recognised first the values of the practices of this religion and secondly their very existence. Therefore, the community will have an enhanced awareness of this heritage so they will change their mind and work together for the better.

Q: We have talked quite a lot about how to protect heritages against the rapid changes of modern society. Vietnam has been warned by UNESCO several times. As a culture manager, are you worried about this?

A: Every year UNESCO issues warnings about heritage preservation to its members and like many others, Vietnam has been warned several times for incidents such as the construction on Vong Canh Hill in Hue or renovation and construction work affecting the environment and scenery in Ha Long Bay. I think preserving tangible heritages is much more difficult because it is something concrete with a vast space and is always facing impacts from the elements and human activity.

The difficulty in heritage preservation is how to ensure a balance between preservation and development. If we focus too much on preservation, it will slow economic development but excessive development such as renovation and construction of supporting structures will harm heritage sites. If planning is not sufficient and there is no strategic vision, fragmented development will spoil heritage sites.

It is also difficult to ensure a balance between preservation and development at a number of sites where the people are living inside preservation areas such as Hoi An and Hue. I think maintaining such a balance is a very challenging task to developing countries when vision and awareness about heritage preservation are still limited while financial resources are not sufficient enough to ensure a fine state of preservation to their legacy.

Q: Vietnam has been cautioned by UNESCO in the past, however, we have made concentrated efforts in protecting cultural heritages among the community. Should we be proud of these efforts?

A: Yes, we should be proud of such efforts. Cultural heritages such as quan ho, vi giam, the worship of the Hung Kings and the Giong festivals have been protected via a number of concrete measures implemented by local authorities. The preservation work for xoan singing is a great source of pride. It was included on the list of intangible heritages in need of urgent safeguarding in 2011 but last year Phu Tho province made a new dossier seeking UNESCO recognition of the art as a representative cultural heritage of humanity because of its strong revival and proliferation among local communities over the past four years.

During that time, the number of xoan artisans has increased from 20 to 62 with hundreds of other singers joining xoan troupes. The connection of xoan singing communities via each family has revitalised the art and resulted in continuous generations of singers taking on the art form. Currently Phu Tho has several hundred xoan singing clubs and the art form has been included in the curricula of most schools in the provincial capital city of Viet Tri where the singing style first originated. The number of artisans has risen rapidly, reviving the form of folk music and ensuring a new generation of singers are trained. In the past there was a concern that this art form did not have an audience but now things have changed and xoan singing is also performed for tourists visiting the province of Phu Tho.

Thanks to prompt actions of preservation and the sustainable development of xoan singing, UNESCO accepted Phu Tho province’s report in 2015 and plans to change its status in December 2017. This year UNESCO will also consider the art of bai choi singing as a nomination for the list of representative cultural heritages of humanity.

Q: In response to the sense of joy and pride, what should we do to keep such heritages alive among ourselves and preserve their values as representatives of cultural heritage of humanity?

A: I have always underlined the important role of communities in protecting heritages. The first and most important thing is to increase the public’s awareness so that they clearly understand and take substantive action to preserve the heritage honoured by UNESCO. Cultural researchers and managers must help raise the awareness of communities by sharing their scientific knowledge not administrative orders while offering advice to the government on how to manage them properly.

To create the next generation of bearers of intangible heritage such as ca tru, hat xoan and vi giam, it is necessary for the government to introduce policies to help old artists to pass on their skills to younger generations and encourage young people to learn and continue practising the heritages.

It is also necessary to create opportunities to introduce the heritage to a wider audience both at home and abroad. Only when the public know and understand can the heritage be loved and prosper in modern society. I think there must be a policy on culture to encourage the performance of traditional arts.

Over the time ahead, we will nominate then singing and xoe thai dance to UNESCO. We are also working on a multinational dossier on lacquer painting. I think Vietnam should also pay attention to some traditional crafts such as the making of fish sauce similar to the art of making Kimchi in the Republic of Korea.

Thank you very much.