Digital technology empowers ICH innovation

Author:SHI XUAN Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2023-06-08

In recent years, with the help of digital tools, the protection and innovative exhibition of intangible cultural heritage (ICH) has yielded fruitful results supporting production, communication, and commerce. However, while digital technology brings convenience, new challenges emerge. Therefore, it is urgent to make rational and efficient use of technological means — such as digitization — to develop ICH by increasing professional planning and policy guidance, accelerating the expansion of official platforms which integrate social resources, and comprehensively training youth in digital and cultural skills to carry on the legacy.

Policy guarantee

ICH protection needs solid policy guarantees. Policies and regulations provide a macro-strategic direction and legal guarantee for the creative transformation and innovative development of ICH through digitization.

In 2003, the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage encouraged nation states to protect their intangible cultural heritage through scientific and technological means. In accordance with the UNESCO initiative, nations have begun to focus on the application of digitization and other technological means in their protection work. For example, with financial assistance from the Intangible Cultural Heritage Fund, Sudan launched a project in 2009 to digitally preserve archives of folklore and traditional music. By 2013, a digital database had been initially created and an action plan for the management and preservation of audio visual materials related to traditional Sudanese Music has been established. Among them, more than 3,000 audio recordings and photographs of traditional Sudanese music, collected since 1963 as a result of different research initiatives on folklore and oral traditions from diverse Sudanese communities, have all been digitally housed to the Folklore and Traditional Music Archives of the University of Khartoum. This unique collection exemplifies the diversity and the richness of Sudanese ICH. 

At the beginning of ICH protection work in China, the government had already begun taking advantage of digital technology to strengthen the identification, filing, preservation, and promotion of ICH. In 2005, the General Office of the State Council issued the Opinions on Strengthening the Protection of China’s Intangible Cultural Heritage. In 2006, the Interim Measures for the Protection and Management of National Intangible Cultural Heritage were issued, which further proposed that “local governments should take initiative to popularize ICH knowledge through mass media and other means to promote social sharing.” The measures clarified that digital technology is needed to promote ICH and increase its popularity.

At that time, the Chinese National Academy of Arts had already established the China Intangible Cultural Heritage Digital Protection Center, which uses digital technology to protect ICH digital text, pictures, audio, and video materials. In 2006, the Intangible Cultural Heritage Database Management System was developed. On the national level, according to the 12th Five-Year Plan (2010-2015), the former Ministry of Culture launched the Digital Protection Project for China’s Intangible Cultural Heritage in October 2010, aiming to make a real, systematic, and comprehensive record of a wealth of precious and endangered ICH through advanced and mature digital information technology, so as to protect, inherit, and carry forward ICH protection more effectively, thus promoting the rich cultural connotations of traditional Chinese ICH practices. 

The government also made different guidelines for different ICH protection categories. For example, in 2017, the General Office of the State Council stated, in the notice on forwarding the Revitalization Plan of Chinese Traditional Crafts issued by the Ministry of Culture, that we need to explore an organic integration of manual skills with modern science and technology. This can be accomplished with new processing equipment which will improve material processing levels and effectively transform results. Meanwhile, we need to encourage commercial websites and relevant professional websites to establish online sales platforms, to enhance the profitability of traditional craft products.

Over the years, people have come to see science and technology bring unprecedented changes to human production and life, as they promote economic development, improve living standards, and bring new vigor and vitality to many fields. 

Most recently, the report of the 20th CPC National Congress made the overall arrangement of planning “a national cultural digitization strategy,” and strengthened the top-level design of China’s cultural digitization transformation from the macro level.

Driven by sound policies and through continuous practice and exploration, the way technology empowers ICH digitization has also changed. Technology is no longer an auxiliary tool that initially assists preservation, recording, and ICH display; rather, it becomes the supporting means and scientific driving force for ICH innovation and development. As the digitization process accelerates for all of society, the country’s overall strategic planning around cultural digitization and the detailed supporting policies from various localities will help innovative development of ICH to advance further. 

Digital empowerment

The emergence of digital technological means has made breakthroughs in ICH protection in terms of recording, display, production, and sales.

ICH projects and their unique cultural value can reach a wider audience with the support of digital means, enriching people’s comprehensive cognition and understanding. The “Virtual Display of Nanjing Traditional Crafts Intangible Cultural Heritage” project, undertaken by the School of Arts of Nanjing University, conducted digital transformation and virtual displays of Nanjing’s traditional handicraft ICH projects. The project sorted textiles into three ICH techniques with deep attention to detail, including cashmere flowers, use of gold foil, and cloud brocades, via the virtual display platform “ZHI Yi.” At present, as many as 1,758 high-resolution images have been collected, and the oral history covers 691 videos totaling 461 minutes of audio recordings. The project aims to produce a contemporary interpretation of ICH traditional handicrafts through visual, aesthetic, and digital methods, and spread relevant culture and knowledge to a larger scope of audience. 

Digitization and other technological means also drive the development of “ICH +.” In recent years, China has been actively exploring the “ICH+” model to strengthen its branding and improve support measures for ICH inheritors, showcasing the unique charm of China’s ICH development and inheritance to the world. In this light, inheritors and practitioners accelerated the integration of ICH products and modern social aesthetics through continuous experimentation and creative design.

For example, based on Miao embroidery, inheritors and international designers from Eve Group, a Chinese clothing brand, set up the “Embroidery Database” and “Global Designer Space.” They collected more than 8,000 kinds of embroidery patterns and information about more than 22,000 embroiderers, which has laid a solid foundation for building a digital industrial base for embroidery. Through this huge database, designers from all over the world can transcend the limitations of time and space to cooperate with inheritors of a rich embroidery culture. Among them, 77-year-old Miao embroidery inheritor Pan Yuzhen and her embroidery pieces have been regularly featured on the international fashion stage, creating opportunities for collaborations between traditional embroiderers and the global fashion industry. 

Finally, the digital age has upgraded consumption, creating favorable conditions for ICH to add to a more inclusive economic development. The popularization of the internet and the extensive application of cloud computing, 5G, big data, blockchain, artificial intelligence, and other new technologies in the process of industrial digitization have brought about important changes in the scientific and technological support for ICH development.

In the process of digitization, the market consumption demand and supply structure are evolving and restructuring. The new consumption environment pursues efficiency, with online consumption as a new consumption mode and a new consumer habit. According to recent reports, people are more interested in traditional festival activities, and related ICH items, elements, and products have become a pillar of consumption during the festivals. 

Digital technology enables a more complete display of ICH, so that the historical, social, economic, and aesthetic value of ICH achieve higher-quality communication effects.

New challenges

Though the rapid development of digital technology has brought convenience and opportunities to record, preserve, display, and produce ICH, digital integration is still in in its infancy. Therefore, we must take note of the challenges brought by digitization to the innovative development of ICH.

From the perspective of the newly released policies and regulations, most of them focus on ICH protection and encourage the use of science and technology to empower the cultural industry. In practice, more targeted institutional arrangements, methods, and implementation standards need to be strengthened. In the innovative development of ICH, requirements for digital resources must be upgraded, from the initial collection, preservation, and display to integration, analysis, and sharing. 

Therefore, the digital transformation of the professional ICH field requires a plan as soon as possible. Also, a coordinated and unified system for ICH’s digital transformation should be established, with clear standards for the construction and governance of ICH data. Only in this way can the dissemination and sharing of ICH digital resources be accelerated, and new standards for the collection, display, and use of ICH digital resources be set.

At the same time, in recent years, with the popularity of ICH and the ensuing consumption boom, the pressure of insufficient investment in ICH resources has eased slightly. However, there are complex strategic requirements for ICH, and it has a very important historical mission to strengthen cultural confidence, promote cultural exchanges and mutual learning, and build a strong socialist culture, but a long way is yet ahead of us. 

In particular, the development of Chinese ICH still lacks support of social and commercial capital, and mainly relies on government grants and subsidies and inheritors’ own funds. Therefore, in the context of the accelerated digital transformation of contemporary China’s entire society, and changing cultural consumption habits, it is necessary to build a national and regional ICH resource platform, to strengthen the integration of science and technology with ICH resource and trading platforms, and to promote the application of blockchain and other emerging technologies in the innovation and development of ICH.

According to the In-depth Analysis of the Status Quo and Investment Prospect Forecast Report of China’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Industry (2022-2029), up to now, China has announced five batches of national ICH inheritors. The first three batches were masters from the older generation. The cultivation of their successor’s talents is thus the top priority in ICH development. 

In reality, a lack of proficiency with digital technology also limits what ICH practitioners and inheritors can do in the process of digital innovation and ICH development . Therefore, it is urgent to step up efforts to cultivate ICH talents through higher education, special training, and cross-sector background skill building, to bring more comprehensive young talents with enthusiasm, vision, and skills into the ICH industry.


Shi Xuan is from the Asian Pacific Center at the Chinese National Academy of Arts.





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