Fragments of the Prosperous Age: Living with Heritage and Treasure in Contemporary China

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Li, Shuai 

This thesis studies contemporary China’s heritage boom phenomenon as experienced through the everyday lives of antiquarian communities (collectors, antique dealers etc.) and heritage professionals in and around Beijing. Aiming to extend our vision beyond heritage sites and museums, which constitute the traditional subject of anthropological studies of heritage, the thesis explores the ways in which ‘heritage’ and ‘treasure’ are lived by wider Chinese urban residents, constituting a total social fact. Challenging the popular assumption made by heritage scholars in which heritage phenomenon is considered a by-product of modernity’s tendency to contrast the current progress with the past as a benchmark, this thesis argues that contemporary China’s heritage fever is, however, a social symptom of utopian replacement, in which the idea of linear progress promised by modernisation has been challenged by a recent nationwide utopian project of returning to ‘the prosperous age’ (‘shengshi’) with its emphasis on cyclical ‘rise and fall’. Treasures of China, as ‘Fragments of the Prosperous Age’, have thus emerged as powerful imaginaries and resources to open up a utopian vision of ideal society based on fantastic imaginations of China’s past glories.

Foregrounding the relations between heritage and utopianism, the thesis subsequently investigates the complex ways in which heritage activists from state systems and antiquarian communities contribute to the utopian project from different pathways, bifurcating China’s heritage phenomenon into formal and informal parts. Chapters one and two demonstrate that state-led imaginings have changed from the evolutionary perspective to one pursuing the glory of the past under the new spell of ‘civilisational revival’. Officials and activists associated with formal heritage deploy a variety of discursive and bureaucratic technologies to securitise, manage and utilise China’s ancient treasures, so as to legitimise the current regime. On the other hand, Chapters three and four show that collectors associated with informal heritage encounter fragments of the past in a bodily and joyful way. In ordinary antiquarian practices which juxtapose the cultivation of moral self with the patination of antique objects, collectors pursue an archaic yet neoliberal custodianship which has altered the ethics and sense of moral responsibility in the domains of market exchange. These two factions in China’s heritage world may differ from each other in many aspects, but Chapter five suggests both of them, in fact, conspire to reproduce ancient ‘prosperous age’ (‘shengshi’) in the present and for the future. The thesis concludes with a discussion about the extent to which Hegel’s future-oriented conception of ‘capitalised History’ that structures the writing of national history has transformed into a ‘capitalised Heritage’ in contemporary China. ‘Capitalised Heritage’ works to recast the importance of the Chinese nation in the contemporary world, reaching an ultimate reconciliation with the spectre and material legacies of the past.

Bulag, Uradyn E.
Material Culture, Cultural Heritage, Utopianism, Nationalism, Artifact-oriented Anthropology, Human-thing Relations, Antiquarianism, Collecting
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge