Heritage and Memory in Copenhagen: 8th International ADI conference

What makes certain practices and sites cultural heritage? This week I took part in a very interesting panel on ‘Heritagizing Asia: The politics of time and space in Asian cities’, part of this year’s Asian Dynamics Initiative international conference in Copenhagen.

salamanca_-_patrimonio_de_la_humanidad_-_world_heritageVietnam scholar and Professor of anthropology, Oscar Salemink came up with the idea of using the verb form of the word heritage – heritagization as a process rather than something which is merely there to be recognised and preserved. As it came out in our discussions, heritagization seems to be quite a complex process of simultaneous construction and selective erasure, taking place from the present cultural political context, directed towards the past, for preservation into the future.

Several interesting and thought-provoking examples of ambiguous and problematic issues of heritage came out during the ten presentations. Anthropologists Bente Wolff and Caroline Lillelund, who talked about the local reactions to the restoration of Danish colonial buildings in India, touched upon an interesting if unintentional effect of heritage preservation: The preservation of the empty space surrounding a heritage building, which seemed to be even more treasured by the local populace. If certain practices can be recognized as intangible cultural heritage that needs to be preserved, can empty space as room for such practices also be included?

12304183263_c248552c90_bUrban geographer, Rishika Mukhopadhyay described how the idol makers of Kumartuli became the victims of their own heritagization, when their workshops were demolished in order to create a more suitable site for their heritage craft. Apart from the plight of the craftsmen now having lived in ‘temporary’ exile from their homes for more than six years, this understanding of heritage as something that can be contained and detached from its spatio-temporal context, acutely problematizes the distinction between material and intangible heritage.

Professor of Modern China Studies, Marina Svensson’s paper about the development of Nanluoguxiang 南锣鼓巷 and the creation as well as commercialization of heritage neighbourhoods in Beijing reminded us to transgress the visual bias and include more senses when engaging in cultural research.

taipei_101_from_afarMy own presentation dealt with the relation between memory and heritage. I read Zhu Tianxin’s 朱天心 novella ‘Old Capital’ 古都 from this perspective, discovering that in the instance of this fictional investigation of Taipei, the notion of heritage preservation detached from lived experience could be as problematic as heritage destruction. In this work, preservation as a nostalgic project that excludes complicated or painful memories risk removing urban heritage from the citizens, producing alienation rather than a sense of belonging.

Saint-Exupéry: The wormhole of memory

I am currently working on a PhD-proposal about memory and place in Sinophone urban fiction from the last decades of the 21st century. Therefore I tend to focus on philosophical conceptualisations and poetical representations of remembering in my reading at the moment.

On a train through Northern Greece a few days ago, I was reading Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s brilliant and breathtaking flying lesson in life Terres des Hommes (Translated as Wind, Sand and Stars by William Rees, Penguin Classics: 2000). He writes of memories as friends, coming to him in his loneliest hour, lost as he is in the naked and inhospitable landscape of the desert:

“They came to me soundlessly like the waters of a spring, and at first I did not understand the gentle joy that was flowing into me. There was neither voice nor image, but the awareness of a presence, a friendship that was very close and already half known by intuition. Then I understood, closed my eyes, and surrendered myself to the enchantment of my memory.”

With death and the distant stars as his sole companions, the crashed pilot’s memories are his last link to life. His loved ones are separated from him by insurmountable distances in time and space, yet through the faculty of remembering they are with him in an instant. Memories are indeed the wormholes of human spacetime.

Forced to remember: The Power of Language in Han Shaogong

Han Shaogong‘s 韩少功 short story ‘Homecoming?’ from 1985 takes up many of the themes of his famous later novel A Dictionary of Maqiao from 1996. Like Dictionary it is about history and language, and their mutual distortion of one another.

In ‘Homecoming?’ a young man comes (back?) to a village he almost remembers and which definitely remembers him, though under a different name than the one he carries now: “All this looked so familiar and yet so strange. It was like looking at a written character: the harder you look at it, the more it looks like a character you know, and yet it doesn’t look like the character you know. Damn! Had I been here before?” (pp. 2)

Through the story the people of the village succeed in making the protagonist recall the violent and suppressed happenings of his past life in the village where he lived as an ‘educated youth’ and maybe killed a man. Indeed it is an act of re-membering of bringing something back into the mind, for before they start calling him by his old name ‘Glasses Ma’, he is completely unaware that he has not always been Huang Zhixian.

In the previous quote Han compares memory and written language: Both are second hand representations of happenings, open to mistake and distortion and thus not to be trusted or equaled with the events themselves.

While the power of language and naming/categorizing (Glassed Ma or Huang Zhixian) over history is taken up on the scene of personal trauma (the killing of a man) in this short story, the same relationship, now on a collective scale, is one of the themes of A Dictionary of Maqiao.

In Dictionary the official historical narrative is distorted and the constructedness of its raw linguistic framework exposed by the local dialect and its (mis-)appropriations of official discourse.

Lastly ‘Homecoming?’ also hints at the distorting yet enlightening power of dialect, as this dialogue between the protagonist and the villager Ai Ba shows: “Do you know me (Does he mean ‘recognize’? Or ‘remember’?) […] I went to chase meat with you once, do you still know? (‘to chase meat’, does it mean ‘hunting’?)” (pp. 6-7)

Is to know to remember (that is to know again)? and is remembering (recalling to a mind that is no longer exactly the same mind) knowledge producing? Certainly the power of language and remembering is so strong that the protagonist has a new (old) identity forced upon himself before he quickly leaves the village again calling for his mother, the only certain historical point of origin, in other words: home.

All quotes from Han, Shaogong (trans. Martha Cheung): Homecoming? and Other Stories. Hong Kong: Renditions Paperbacks, 1992.