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Preserving Asian Dance Through UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Program

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Born and raised in Malaysia, Mazlan is proud of his Malaysian and Asian heritage. He likes to write about its culture and current issues.

Preserving Asian Dance Through UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Program

Preserving Asian Dance Through UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Program

Preserving Asian Traditional Dances

How do you protect the intangible cultural heritage of people around the world including their languages, cultures, and performing arts? If the country is poor, this is not their top priority.

What Are Examples of Intangible Cultural Heritage?

Intangible cultural heritage is the country's traditions and living expressions passed on from one generation to the next. This includes languages, cultures and several types of performing arts such as dance, opera, music, theatre, and puppetry. Other examples are beliefs, cooking skills, traditional healing and medicine, handicrafts, wedding customs, etc.

Kabuki from Japan is now an all-male ensemble

Kabuki from Japan is now an all-male ensemble

Asian Dance Culture

Many of the Asian dances are in danger of becoming extinct. The local communities have difficulty keeping them alive. To make matter worse, these classical and folk dances are now of less interest to the younger generations.

Part of the reason may be due to the endless wars that were raging in some of these countries. The indifferent political views to this cultural and traditional heritage is another possible reason.

There are other pressing issues that are more important such as the economic and educational needs of the people that are top in the government's list of things to do. Hence, 'trivial issues' such as dance and other intangible heritage are not important and face a slow death.

Using Dance as a Form of Cultural Preservation

It is crucial to continue and maintain the tradition of the communities, such as dances not just from a historical perspective, but also from its cultural importance. They reflect the lifestyle, outlook, and ritual features of the communities.

The protection and cultural preservation of these intangible treasures will also help safeguard them for their future generations.

UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Program

To depend on the countries concerned to revive these dying dances will be difficult. UNESCO had therefore taken the initiative to finance their conservation and to revive their comeback through their intangible cultural heritage program. It will be done not just for dances in Asia, but also for other parts of the world.

Asian Dance Style

This article will share some of the Asian traditional dances that illustrate the diversity of the dance style and heritage that received assistance under the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage program.

Kabuki from Japan

Kabuki was started around the year 1600 by a shrine maiden, Okuni. Her performance was copied, and it became popular. However, in the early days, the Kabuki dance ensemble was performed mostly by women who were also prostitutes. To protect public morale, the government banned women from performing Kabuki, which leads to an all-male Kabuki.

This resulted in a change in style from purely a dance form to a drama form of theater.

Japanese Kabuki

This Japanese opera is mostly about historical events and moral stories. The actor will speak in a monotone voice and his particular make-up and costume will identify his role and character. This is typical in many Asian dance styles and cultures.

Kabuki has its own unique form of music, stage devices, and costumes. It was very popular with the royal court and the upper-class Japanese. After 1868, when Japan was accessible to foreigners, Kabuki was adapted to appeal to wider audiences.

Why Kabuki Was Selected

During the Edo period (1603 to 1868), Kabuki was severely oppressed with numerous government restrictions. It also lost many young talented actors during World War 2.

After the war, the occupation forces imposed censorship. In addition, it also faced competition from the Western forms of entertainment such as television and movies.

This resulted in many Japanese rejecting Kabuki, which they associate with dance styles and thoughts of the past generations.

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Kabuki was originally proclaimed in 2005 but was listed under UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage only in 2008.

Kabuki Theater

Beijing Opera from China

Beijing Opera, also known as Peking Opera, was a popular form of entertainment during the Qing Dynasty era.

Chinese Opera

It was created by combining several popular Chinese operas. This gave rise to an opera that combined dance, mime, acrobatic fights, music, dialogue, and song.

The story or repertoire is mainly on folklore, important historical events, and important people from ancient times.

Peking Opera Costume

The opera has four main types of roles; male (sheng), young female (dan), painted face male (jing), and a male or female clown (chou). They can be loyal or deceitful, good or bad, beautiful or hideous. You can tell them from their make-up and painted faces

The costumes are handmade with beautiful embroideries and are highly valued.

Why Beijing Opera Was Selected

Despite China's numerous traditions and cultural practices, Beijing opera or Peking opera represented a cultural expression for the whole of China. The community embraced it as part of their heritage and it is considered China's national treasure. It was used as a cultural exchange to improve relationships between communist China and the rest of the world.

It was inscribed on the Representative List of UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage only recently in 2010.

Beijing Opera or also known as Peking Opera

Beijing Opera or also known as Peking Opera

Mak Yong Theater from Malaysia

Mak Yong, also known to the Malay society as Mak Yung, is a combination of stylized dance, ritual, song, vocal and instrumental music, improvised and formal spoken text, and stylized acting. It sometimes delved into elements of mysticism.

As Mak Yong includes the combination of ritualistic elements and mysticism, the Kelantan state government, the state in which Mak Yong was mostly performed, banned it from performing in the state.

Photo of Mak Yong dance theater from Malaysia

Photo of Mak Yong dance theater from Malaysia

Most of Mak Yong's tales were developed from Kelantan-Pattani mythologies and this storytelling will be in a series of three-hour acts and stretch over several days.

Why Mak Yong Was Selected as Intangible Heritage in Malaysia

Mak Yong is currently the only Malaysian performing art that was listed in UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage and was inscribed in 2005.

It is the most authentic and illustrative of Malay performing arts as it is still not corrupted and unaffected by outside sources. Its musical repertoire is unique, unlike other Malay dances that had strong Indian and Javanese influence.

It is, therefore, important that Mak Yong continues to remain authentic to its origins. However, due to the tough apprenticeship, not many youngsters are keen to learn this art form and Mak Yong might go into decline and extinction.

Countries That Are Listed in This Article


Lhamo from Tibet China

Lhamo, or Ache Lhamo, which means Fairy, is Tibet's folk opera that combined songs, chants, and dances. This performance art dance was inspired by Tibetan history and Buddhist teachings.

Ache Lhamo Theater

The main feature of Lhamo is its mask. It is from this mask that the audience can identify the characters in the opera. This is typical in many Asian dance cultures.

The King wears a red mask, the queen wears a green mask, and religious people wear yellow masks.

Ache Lhamo from Tibet

Ache Lhamo from Tibet

Before any performance can begin, the stage will be blessed and purified. Then, a storyteller will sing the story's summary. Only then will the actual opera begin where the performers will sing and dance. This performance will end with another ritual to give thanks and blessings.

Why Lhamo Was Selected

Ache Lhamo was listed as part of UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2009.

This unique performing art started at the beginning of the 8th century. It only matured and flourished after the 14th century. The repertoire soon became one of the most influential operas and an important cultural symbol of Tibet.

Besides being a form of entertainment, it was used to appease the deities.

Koodiyattam from India

Koodiyattam or Kutiyattam is a mixture of music, dance, mime, and theater performed in classical Sanskrit. It is based on Hindu mythology and actors will role-play in stylized vocal recitation with a unique hand-gesture language and highly suggestive facial expressions.

This dance performance art is unique with a history of more than 2,000 years making it the oldest and the only surviving form of Sanskrit theater.

Koodiyattam Malayalam

Koodiyattam literally means performing or playing together. Hence, it will be performed in the presence of several actors to the rhythm of mizhavu drums. (mizhavu - a big copper drum played only by hand). Koodiyattam is a lengthy performance and can stretch up to forty days.

This traditional play will have a character, Vidushaka, like a court jester, who translates or explain to the audience the storyline. His costume and special make-up will set him apart from the rest of the cast.

Koodiyattam is mainly staged in the state of Kerala, India in special venues in Hindu temples. In the past, it was mainly accessible to the upper caste Hindus.

(Note: Malayalam is the language spoken mainly in the southern Indian state of Kerala)

Why Koodiyattam Was Selected

As mentioned earlier, Koodiyattam is more than 2000 years old and is the only surviving form of Sanskrit theater.

Over the years, it suffered from lack of patronage and hence serious financial difficulties, which could turn it into a dying art form.

Listed in the UNESCO Program

After UNESCO enlisted it into their Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2008, Koodiyattam enjoyed wide coverage and attracted the media as well as the government, who in the past had not given it much encouragement.

Koodiyattam from Kerala India

Koodiyattam from Kerala India

Saman Dance from Indonesia

Saman dance originated from the Gayo ethnic group in Aceh, Indonesia, and literally, means dance of thousand hands.

It used to be performed by men only. Now both males and females will partake in this dance form. About eight to twenty performers will sit on their heels in close rows, clap their hands and click their fingers. Simultaneously they will sway and twist their heads and bodies to the rhythm of the song. The leader usually sits in the middle and sings the selected verses. Slapping their chests, thighs and the floor is also part of the movements. It will start slow and increased gradually in tempo and finally come to a complete stop.

Saman Dance from Indonesia

Saman Dance from Indonesia

It is quite simple to learn and had regained popularity after being enlisted into UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Why Saman Dance Was Selected

Saman dance was inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list in November 2011.

This dance form had diminished in its popularity due to a lack of opportunity to perform and changes to the social, economic, and political preferences. The rural-urban migration also poses a threat to Saman dance.

Another major setback was the loss of several important records on Saman dance during the 2004 tsunami. However, the community slowly build up inventories to preserve this heritage.

Royal Ballet of Cambodia

Royal Ballet of Cambodia or Khmer Classical Dance is believed to have been around since the Angkor period (1800+) and may have been influenced by Siamese classical dance.

Cambodian Court Dance

In the early 19th century, Siamese classical dancers performed at Cambodia's royal court on many occasions. Hence, the connection to its influences. Historically all roles, irrespective of gender, are performed by female dancers.

Its repertoires of dance-drama are usually based on mythology, epic poems, religious stories, and stories of damsels in distress.

The graceful movements of fingers, wrists, elbows, toes, and ankles are in sharp contrast to what we know of Western ballet. Each role will have its own distinctive costume, mask, and makeup and it takes years of intensive training to master this dance drama.

It is usually performed during royal ceremonies and during the Khmer holidays.

Khmer Rouge

When Cambodia was seized and controlled by the Khmer Rouge in the '70s, many of the country's art and cultures were either wiped out or suppressed. This includes its classical dances where several principal dancers and musicians were killed.

Reasons for Selection

Khmer classical dance repertoire is associated with legends linked to the origin of the Khmer people.

After the suppression of this art form by the repressive Khmer Rouge, several efforts were made by the Cambodian royal family to recover this centuries-old lost heritage.

UNESCO supported this research effort by the people of Cambodia to safeguard their heritage relating to dance, music, and culture; and had the Royal Ballet of Cambodia inscribed into UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2004.

Part of the effort to revive Khmer Classical Dance is the continuous training of youngsters into this dance drama

Part of the effort to revive Khmer Classical Dance is the continuous training of youngsters into this dance drama

Asian Dances and Cultures

Not all of the Asian Dances were inscribed into UNESCO's list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. You can check out the full listing that includes songs, calligraphy, puppetry, storytelling, etc. at Wikipedia's UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage website.

UNESCO finances this activity from compulsory contributions from member countries and voluntary contributions from organizations and individuals. UNESCO also sells publications and souvenir items to raise finance. You can contribute by buying some of these items.

Preserving Intangible Cultural Heritage in Your Country

Feel free to share other initiatives taken to preserve your country's invaluable and intangible cultural heritage. You can do this in the comment section, below. Thanks.

About UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Program

In most poor countries, this intangible cultural heritage is at risk of disappearing, partly due to globalization.

UNESCO World Heritage Program

What can UNESCO do to help some of these countries keep and preserve their local cultural traditions?

The World Heritage Program, i.e. to protect and preserve historical buildings and natural sites, was already put in place by UNESCO.

But there was none for the intangible heritage such as languages, dance, rituals, etc.


UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Criteria

In 2001, UNESCO initiated a program to identify and preserve various cultural and traditional practices that are intangible. Subsequently, at the 2003 UNESCO General Conference, all member countries voted for this multilateral treaty except for Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and the United States who abstained.

Protect Cultural Traditions

In this treaty, it was agreed that UNESCO take steps to protect cultural traditions and preserve them for future generations. Dances, traditional arts, rituals, songs, festivals, languages, and other forms of artistic and creative expressions will be part of this agenda. Hence, the birth of the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Program.

However, it went into effect only on 20th April 2006.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Mazlan A


Mazlan A (author) from Malaysia on October 13, 2013:

Dolores Monet, thanks for the vote and share. It was recently reported that for 2013, the program will be looking at the unique cultural heritage of the Caribbean countries for possible assistance and listing.

Among the unique listing so far, is Austrian's 'Viennese coffeehouse culture'! It was stated that the social practices, rituals and the elegance of drinking coffee at Viennese coffeehouse, had created a specific ambiance that was important in shaping the Viennese culture. Hmm, must go there one day.

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on October 13, 2013:

Thank heavens UNESCO has seen fit to preserve these beautiful dances. It would be a great loss to the world's cultural history if they were forgotten. (Voted up and shared)

Mazlan A (author) from Malaysia on May 19, 2013:

kidscrafts, yes you are right, there are so many lists of endangered what have you. So it is good for UNESCO to take steps to safeguard and preserved our endangered intangible heritage, such as dance. You can write a hub on the Inuit youth and their endangered heritage. That will be an interesting read!

Thanks for the compliment and good to see you here again.

kidscrafts from Ottawa, Canada on May 18, 2013:

There is a list of endangered animal species so why not have a list of Asian dances and/or music that we might lose forever. Those dances are part of the cultural heritage of different countries and it would be good to try to keep it alive. It's like in Canada, where Inuit youth are losing their language and their culture.

Very interesting hub! Thank you for sharing!

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