ERC Starting Grant 2021
Everyone’s a Curator:
Digitally Empowering Ethnic Minority Music Sustainability in China [ECura]
Section A. State-of-the-art and objectives
Over the last several decades, digital tools have become standard in libraries, archives and museums, where they both provide new ways for us to preserve data like historical records, artworks and music recordings. These networked digital tools also provide a whole set of new means for researchers and others to access and work with such materials, including those who are globally far distant. Simultaneously, researchers have recognized that culture bearers need to be more centrally involved in music sustainability, both for these programs to prove practically effective and because it is ethically essential that community authorities determine what music might be shared with others, if any, and under what conditions. The roll-out in the last few years of smartphone technology to much of rural China thus offers a transformative possibility in relation to the ways we sustain and preserve intangible cultural heritage. The newly widespread availability of smartphones and the rise of their use in culture-related interactions offers a means by which wide-scale, grass-roots populations can be engaged in the active curation of their own cultural inheritances, including both live performances and an associated culture of digital sharing and discussion. This development arises when such heritage is under clear threat from majority Han Chinese cultural productions and values, diverse international influences, and widespread societal challenges, including shortcomings in education and economic hardship that power out-migration and damage generational cohesion.
The interactive and inclusive programme designed here will examine the processes through which researchers working in collaboration with local experts can raise villagers’ confidence in their own practices of indigenous cultural heritage, provide them with foundational expertise in intangible cultural heritage sustenance and dissemination, and create initial digital structures within which they can shape, curate and sustain their own cultural interactions, both within their own communities and beyond. Scholarship will be undertaken to document each of these stages, so that best practices can be shared globally. Aiming to reposition minority ethnic tradition bearers as digital protagonists for their own cultural productions, ECura promises to develop a new research framework using an action-based and collaborative approach with wide potential future transferability to other under-served and marginalised communities around the globe.
1. State of the art
In contemporary Chinese life, across divergent positions, relationships and cultural initiatives, people regularly connect with one another via digital social media platforms (Park 2019; Hao 2014). Music and music-related activities are favourite mediations in this set of new communicative practices. By March 2020, Chinese smartphone video users had hit 897 million, among whom 70% (633 million) stream music and music videos (CNNIC 2020, 1, 48-49). This move toward connected viewing embraces both the replay of recorded videos on smartphones, tablets and TV screens as well as live streaming of several kinds, providing viewers access to a rich repertoire of content. It is also characterised by the transfer of some control from programmers to viewers and to those uploading and sharing content (Zhao 2017; Evens and Donders 2018, 243). Benefiting from the low costs of internet-enabled platforms and from automated licensing of user-generated and -created materials, participation is very affordable, even for low-income people in China, where such users now form a market majority (Peukert 2019, 191-192; CNNIC 2020, 27-28). For instance, in the so-called “impoverished villages” of Yunnan, the economically underdeveloped Southwestern border province known for its diverse ethnic minority communities, smartphone usage has reached around 70% (Luo Haiyan [Miao ethnicity], online personal communication, 4 Feb. 2021). Like many other Chinese online streaming users, most the villagers employ the short-video sharing apps Douyin (known as TikTok outside China) and Kuaishou (Kwai) to watch their favourite video clips and some are beginning to upload self-made videos recording their own cultural traditions. These video sharing apps are particularly appreciated by villagers with a very limited educational level, since, with a little assistance from their better-educated relatives, they can share and enjoy one another’s content without struggling to understand written materials or complex user interfaces (Long Chengpeng [Yi ethnicity], online personal communication, 10 Feb. 2021). This emergent active participation in social media platforms in China by ethnic minority communities, including those in marginal positions inside such communities, brings a new opportunity for them to participate in sustaining and promoting their endangered cultural heritage.
This is the first time that community members on such a large scale have involved themselves as active participants in the sharing of their own cultural materials, a role hitherto reserved primarily for cultural experts, village leaders and governmental officers. Social media platforms allow them to communicate and interact directly with audiences from similar, related or even distant ethnic backgrounds, as opposed to an earlier, TV-broadcasting model where they could, at best, watch to see what from their cultural tradition had been selected, recorded, framed, and recoded by mainstream cultural interpreters via state oversight. New digital means thus minimize the direct filtering of mainstream culture brokers, particularly those from dominant social groups. Furthermore, they also permit the emergence—and enhance the visibility—of new cultural production by those occupying marginalised and minority positions, thus allowing a wider and more representative set of intangible cultural heritage to be shared relatively efficiently and inexpensively and preserved for the future.
1.2 Models of cultural participation and music sustainability
UNESCO’s definition of protecting or safeguarding intangible cultural heritage indicates that, “to be kept alive, intangible cultural heritage must be relevant to the community, continuously recreated and transmitted from one generation to another” (2009, 3). In a representative codification of modes of performance (and its associated listening practices), Turino emphasizes the role participatory performance takes in the sustaining of communities (2009, 96), arguing further that participatory performance groupings form “relatively cooperative, egalitarian spaces that are about sociality, bonding, and fun, rather than hierarchy, competition, financial achievement, or the creation of art objects for listening” (112). Ingram, meanwhile, working on the “big song” tradition of the Kam people in Southwestern China, reminds us that sustaining a tradition also involves the generation of new repertoire, not only the preservation of the old. Kam choirs create new songs based on the villagers’ traditional knowledge, and they also form and experience a pan-Kam identity by learning and absorbing big songs repertoires from other Kam communities (2012, 64-65). Moreover, the participatory cultures that form around music making include not only singing, instrumental performance and dance but also forms of socialization at music events and, in the present day, a rising online culture that involves liking, sharing and commenting—creating living community around these digital-traditional artefacts. In a study of the online culture as relates to the Chinese folksong genre hua’er, Park (2019, 63) found that “video sharing sites are situated at the intersection of media creation and social networking, they embed people in a participatory culture in which they can create and share content, and simultaneously make new social connections.” Each of these examples addresses a vital aspect of music sustainability, which Cavicchi (2019, 135) summarises as resting on “a sense of personal mutual connection and cooperation”.
The importance of participation and connectivity in effectively sustaining cultural heritage is acknowledged in recently advanced theories in applied ethnomusicology, which recognize moreover that meaningful contributions can only be achieved through collaboration and dialogue with communities interested in sustaining their own cultural heritage (Titon 2015; Schippers 2015). Titon notes the potential for collaborative partnerships between tradition-bearers and outside supporters (such as ethnomusicologists) to “lead communities to take on stewardship” (Titon 2009, 134; 2019). He also emphasizes the vital contributions of stewardship, resilience and adaptive management in coping with continuous cultural and musical change (Titon 2016; 2019).
This situation has a further specific character in China given the present great level of interest from the Chinese government in cultural heritage management (Rees 2012). State-sponsored intangible cultural heritage schemes at several administrative levels support selected exemplars of certain traditions, but they often do so without taking a holistic approach to collaboration or community participation. This means that such interventions can quickly reshape community traditions premised on broad social participation and interaction into formal contexts where a specialist musician performs in concert-style to a passive audience of non-specialists. From this perspective, the rapid rise of mobile technology even in remote and impoverished areas brings emergent possibilities for culture bearers to stage and curate their own acts of music sustainability, and so for research on their aims and approaches in doing that and the barriers they face. In all, China offers an ideal site for new research that develops innovative new models of collaborative musical participation and interconnectivity.
1.3 Structural and ideological inequalities in cultural sustainability
In the Chinese digital field, media usages are heavily structured by media monopolies and ultimately controlled by the state, which have meanwhile formed a largely mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship (Jiang and Fu 2018). Digital monopolies such as those of iQIYI, Youku, Tencent and ByteDance (the company that initiated the overwhelmingly popular video-sharing apps Douyin and Kwai) have become ever-more powerful in shaping how music is created, curated, shared, licensed and sold, providing a dynamic new structure to the music industries themselves (Negus 2019, 367-368; Zhao 2017, 38; Wang 2021). As this observation intimates, for mobile technology to play a part in helping members of China’s minority ethnicities sustain their traditions into the digital era, it is still necessary to consider how mainstream ideologies and the structures and opportunities they inform remain underpinned by the values of the middle- and upper-class citizens who run these media monopolies (Hassid 2008). In many cases, these privileged groups reveal both an inclusive and exclusive consciousness towards under-privileged social groups and their cultures in China (Qian 2017; 2020). Lei (2009) and Du (2017) show how China’s mass media cares about the equality of the rural population in general and abstract terms, but meanwhile encourages active stigmatization towards specific representatives of these marginalized groups—a dynamic we might refer to as “mis-curating”.
In the arena of indigenous cultural heritage, outsiders from socially elite backgrounds may perceive themselves as well-intentioned supporters and collaborators, but their desire to provide leadership most often results in a curatorial practice that reshape materials to conform to their own value systems. Such mis-curation means they often interfere with local practitioners, for instance by seeking to “develop” those whom they claim to represent or, conversely, by striving to freeze cultural traditions and prevent change in the interests of sustaining cultural “purity” at all costs—interventions which can lead to the severe distortion and re-interpretation of indigenous cultural systems (Zhao 2011; Yang and Lei 2019). Even worse, China’s state-wide system of nominating representative indigenous culture transmitters proceeds through a hierarchical cultural system which is often overridden by an emphasis on tourism strategies, such that each locality may be designated a particular performance art as its specific cultural inheritance (Rees 2012, 32-33). Even interventions by NGOs, whether local or international, can have very strong impacts as urban values and understandings transform local perspectives and expectations (Ndaliko 2016; PI’s own three-year experience of working with NGOs in Yunnan, China). For instance, in Yunnan—the primary site for this proposed research, key non-governmental programmes include the notable twenty-year Tufeng project run by musician Chen Zhe (1995-2015) (Zhang 2009; I have interviewed Chen in Beijing in 2009, 2016 and 2018) and the Yunnan Traditional Cultural Transmission Office (1993-2000) established by composer Tian Feng (Du 1997). Chen’s lengthy interventions primarily among the Pumi, Yi, Wa and Naxi ethnicities have built long-term partnerships and acted as a test-bed for several different models of cooperative cultural work. Both Chen and Tian’s projects, however, were based on an ideology of preserving culture “intact”, rather than allowing culture bearers to actively reshape their inheritances to adapt to the contemporary social world around them and improve their own quality of life. As such, they are open to criticisms of the kind Zhao (2011) raises above, and the urgency of a new approach is clear.
A small number of recent research publications target the participation in Chinese cyberculture of disadvantaged groups, such as rural populations (McDonald 2016), ethnic minorities, migrant workers, women, and those from low-income urban social sectors. Wang (2016) provides a thick description on social media use among migrant workers (those whose household registration defines them as rural population under Chinese governing system but who have left the countryside to take up often precarious or ill-paid jobs in urban industrial or construction settings). Her argument, similar to that of Svensson (2015), is representative of the situation of the majority of disadvantaged groups in China, which is that social norms and taboos prevent people from saying everything that they really think or do in daily life, and that such opportunities may even be diminishing. Looking at female users on social media such as Weibo and WeChat, Hou (2020) identified shifts from inclusivity to exclusivity and from diversity to universality since 2015 under the manipulation of mainstream media. Present digital options, then, are not sufficient to provide a meaningful space for minority cultural sustenance.
Some other research, though, shows how disadvantaged people have created spaces within this wider digital domain and system for the expression of their own values, even if only temporarily and at the margins. Yang and Lei (2019) investigate how disadvantaged populations reinterpret media products according to their own understandings and contexts, when given the opportunity to do so. For instance, WeChat initially acted as a space that accommodated Uyghur cultural production and mediated discourse against the state’s violent interventions into Uyghur religious life between 2013 and 2014 (Harris 2020, 137). Qian (2020) provides a case study on the angry audience backlash that occurred online when a successful village musician was patronised by the urban judges and presenters of a TV talent show. With a focus on vernacular culture of several kinds, Stock (2016), Wang (2018), and Liu and Yang (2017) explore aesthetic trends in working-class culture, including the production of rustic and spoof music videos. These productions may be widely disparaged by elite cultural commentators but they have proven remarkably popular with certain viewerships and so have attracted much public attention, and commercial sponsorship in turn.
Outside China and referring to the many ways traditional musicians have turned to digital means more generally, Yates-Lu observes Korean folk musicians use of livestreaming for self-promotion (2021). Tan investigates the various online platforms and virtual communities through which indigenous Taiwanese musicians promote their work (2017). Summit provides an example of how Jewish chanters collaborate digitally to sustain the Jewish musical tradition of chanting (2019), and Hilder, Stobart and Tan offer a study of several digital approaches taken by members of indigenous populations worldwide (2017). The present proposal builds on the insights offered in such work to construct and research a series of new, community-based and collaborative interventions that collectively form a novel arena for the sustaining of minority culture by engaging the culture bearers directly as participants at every level of the action.
2. Research questions
The key philosophy for the ECura project stems from economist Manfred Max-Neef’s work on Human Scale Development. Max-Neef identifies nine fundamental human needs—subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, idleness, creation, identity and freedom—that closely match with what an indigenous ethnic minority (or any other) group require in order to be able to sustain their lives, culture and identity (Max-Neef et al 1991, 32-33). Max-Neef further argues that “human needs, self-reliance and organic articulations are the pillars which support Human Scale Development. However, these pillars must be sustained on a solid foundation where people are to be the main actors (‘the protagonists’) in their future…. Attaining the transformation of an object-person into a subject-person in the process of development is, among other things, a problem of scale” (8). In research that examines the impacts of international cultural NGOs on local people in Congo, Ndaliko follows Max-Neef’s model to argue that “the extent to which an organization supports or undermines the protagonism of people is an important determinant of truly sustainable development” (2016, 151). I take up this idea of the centrality of self-reliant protagonism in this project, although here I adjust the terminology to “curatorship”, a choice that reflects the fact that traditional cultural practices range from those oriented primarily within the group in question to those performed collectively and presentationally (but non-competitively) to outsiders; at several points along this spectrum, an implied protagonist-antagonist dyad is not so much in play as one of curating the traces and resonances of live performance for others in particular ways in the digital domain.
ECura thus aims to develop a new research framework for applied ethnomusicology (and related areas) that capitalizes on newly emergent possibilities for sustaining intangible culture arising from the rising participation of ethnic minority members in digital social media platforms. This framework will be designed to rest upon balanced interdependence between the communities and their members and between
communities and various categories of external supporters, including the “virtual”. It repositions culture-bearers as culture-creators, -sustainers and -curators—protagonists for their own cultural sustainability. It does so via an action-based method founded around the central research question: How can we empower ethnic minority groups to be the main actors in sustaining their indigenous cultural heritage via their wide and rising participation in mobile digital media platform domains?
In addressing this question, the project comprises four sub-questions:
What barriers remain for ethnic minority members seeking full and equal participation in digital media platforms, and how can we overcome them through effective collaboration with outside-supporters including state authorities, representatives of the media industry, members of the urban cultural classes and NGOs?
• How can ethnic minority culture-bearers be equipped with the key capacities of self-reliance (i.e., stewardship, viability, resilience and adaptability) so that they can effectively curate and sustain their culture under new digital circumstances?
• How can an indigenous community sustain its culture while its members are consistently sharing and dialoguing with partners across a diverse digital world?
• What longer-term technological assistance and cooperative supports are required to facilitate the active participation of ethnic minority members in sustaining endangered cultural heritage via globally accessible platforms?
1) To address obstacles resulting from existing structural and ideological inequalities that block ethnic minority members from full and equal participation in digital media platforms
Addressing barriers that remain for minority communities in full and equal access to digital information and communication means addressing the political and economic inequalities between the more privileged groups and ethnicities around them. For instance, due to imbalances in the economic development of different regions inside China, many members of ethnic minority populations have limited fluency in Mandarin Chinese (the national language used in almost all official settings) or the written Chinese characters used in their digital devices (many members of these populations are essentially illiterate). As a result, they can only use very limited functions on their smartphones, such as voice message communication, and may only be able to watch videos recommended by the software’s algorithm rather than being able to actively search for content by typing in keywords of their own choice. Meanwhile, in the process of sharing their own materials on various platforms such as Douyin and Kwai and seeking attention there from audiences outside their immediate communities, some villagers present these offerings in a “self-colonized” manner, which is to say that they alter their music in order to meet these external audiences’ assumed aesthetic preferences. Here, the project’s plan is to recognize all such barriers and to assist the villagers in working out manageable solutions with regard to music sustainability that are viable in respect of their current conditions and allow them to participate more fully than at present.
2) To assist and support community members in acquiring key capacities of self-reliance in sustaining their indigenous culture under the new digital circumstances
Building viability in sustaining a music culture means building the resilience and adaptive management skills that people need to cope with change in society, their environment and lifestyles, and also with respect to the opportunities (and illusions and pitfalls) brought by digital accessibility. The project team will stand behind villagers in each of our research sites (see below), via daily communications, outreach activities and specific workshops, to assist them in acting as stewards for their cultural heritage and in tackling the specific and common issues that arise as they participate and connect with digital platforms. For instance, the various self-uploaded video-sharing platforms see a huge neglect of copyright issues. Indeed, videos placed on Douyin appear with a Douyin logo superimposed, suggesting that the parent company ByteDance owns the copyright of these videos rather than the material’s producers. This proprietorial practice sets a barrier to community members in realising the various economic and cultural potential of their cultural heritage over the longer term. The ECura project will follow up on the practical steps villagers need to acquire greater resilience in managing their online cultural connectivities.
3) To enable culture-bearers to form a self-reflexive, critical awareness of being curators of valuable yet often endangered intangible cultural heritage, while benefiting from participation in a global digital world.
Easy and frequent virtual connection with a wider world brings a real challenge for minority community members who need to manage the relationship of their heritage and worldview with values dominant elsewhere. A long-term target of ECura is for culture bearers in each location to develop the organizational systems and practices they need to enable them to sustain and transmit their culture within ongoing contact with external groups and forces. This means avoiding the extreme of preservation without change—which suggests an entrenched or besieged attitude and is unlikely to withstand sustained contact with wider digital or social worlds—and that of cultural abandonment, where internal cultural practices are rapidly discontinued in favour of imported ones that are uncritically assumed to better fit contemporary social milieux. Addressing this objective requires research into the ways minority cultural expressions continue to provide unique contributions in a more connected world, such as in the production and experience of identity, and building requisite confidence and critical interest around such moments, such that villagers can communicate and collaborate with outsiders, including other ethnic minority communities as well as the people in a mainstream position from a position of cultural confidence and self-respect.
4) To provide, through long-term technological assistance and collaboration, high-quality video materials from ethnic minority members organised into a globally connected and sustainable digital database with full accompanying identification data.
The project team will work with villagers to tackle the following issues: 1) On the platforms Douyin, Kwai and similar video sharing sites, a massive amount of video clips is currently uploaded and shared by ethnic minority people who record aspects of their daily cultural practices. However, because of the system requirement of these apps and the quality degradation that occurs at various phases (capturing, encoding, and storage and transmitting of video), these crowdsourced cultural products are usually very short, fragmented and of low digital quality; 2) Non-integration between apps meanwhile results in these video uploads only being available to other smartphone users who installed the same apps, and reduces the chance for such materials to be shared in a wider digital connected society; 3) These self-produced video clips additionally disappear quickly from the database of these platforms because there is no planned long-term back up technology and the technicians sustaining the platforms usually lack professional knowledge in sorting and storing them from the perspective of sustaining cultural heritage. The result is that much potentially valuable material is incompletely preserved or only preserved temporarily via these platforms, and that while they have a role in cultural sustainability, they cannot be the only digital space where it occurs.
1. Research locations
The ECura project will be carried out in Yunnan, China. Yunnan is an economically underdeveloped mountain province on the Southwest border of China (see map above). This province is noted for having the highest ethnic diversity in China: of the country’s 56 recognized ethnic populations, 25 are found in Yunnan. Some 38% of the province’s population are members of one or another ethnic minority, including the Yi, Bai, Hani, Dai, Zhuang, Miao, Lisu, Hui, Lahu, Wa, Naxi, Yao, Zang (Tibetans), Jinpo, Bulang, Pumi, Nu, A’chang, Jinuo, Mongols, De’ang, Man, Shui, Buyi, and Dulong. The ethnic minority groups marked in shading are those with whom I have previously worked.
Based on my fieldwork experiences, I have selected three villages with which I have established connections—Mayou, Qifeng and Xiaoshuijin—as sites for the new work that comprises the present proposal. They are inhabited by Yi, Bai and Miao minorities respectively. Each village community sustains traditional music practices of a considerable scope, has community leaders who actively organize various cultural activities, and has experience of working with external bodies offering resources and support. Economically, they are all listed as “impoverished villages” by the state, a category that describes villages with an annual per capita income of €200-€500. In addition, each village has developed its own strategies in sustaining traditional culture. Contacts in each location have signalled interest in taking the new steps proposed here, should this application be awarded funding.
a) Mayou village, Yao’an County, Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture. Mayou has a population of 2,223, of whom 95% are Yi. Located among several high mountains, this village is home to two nationally recognized Yi intangible cultural heritage bearers in Meige and hulusheng respectively. Meige is the general name for the Yi’s comprehensive music tradition, including folk songs, dance and oral literature, all of which may be sung to the Meige tune family. The hulusheng is one of the oldest versions of the Asian free-reed mouth organ, and dates back c.2,500 years. The Yi language is one of very few ethnic languages preserved both in oral and written forms in China, this dating back to over 6,000 years. In Mayou village, Guo Xiaowei (one of the proposed senior consultants in this project) and other villagers have been actively organizing transmission workshops every Saturday evenings, with learners from 5 year-olds (learning Children’s Meige) to villagers in their 50-70s. The village’s transmission groups for Meige and hulusheng are people whom I collaborated with on my previous project.
b) Qifeng village, Eryuan County, Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture. Qifeng has a population of 3,399, of whom are all Bai. The village sustains various small community groups who practice various Bai music traditions on a daily basis. The villagers remain highly active in cultural practices, including religious rituals in the village temple, which accommodates three different religions (Daoism, Confucianism and Shamanism) and each religion has its own ritual music ensemble. There are several women, children and elderly people’s dance groups which mainly dance Bawangbian (a dance that involves holding a whip). There are also individually performed genres, such as the Bai dragonhead three-string lute longtou sanxian and the Bai-language singing and chanting genre dabenqu. I worked with the Yunnan-based NGO Eco-Women on the revitalization of village cultural activities and together we supported the villagers in reviving two traditional festivals in 2018 and 2019, in which several hundred villagers participated.
c) Xiaoshuijin village, Fumin County, Kunming. Xiaoshuijin has a population of 469, of whom all are Miao, 80% of them being Christians. There are several choirs in the villages. The Miao village has developed a new music tradition Miao hymn, a hybrid of Miao traditional music, language, dance and costumes with elements of Western choral practices. With a rising reputation in singing Miao Christian hymns, these choirs have received national attention and participated in various commercial performances outside the community and also stage Christian singing competitions with performers from other Miao villages each Christmas. The singers work as farmers by day, gathering together to practice choir a few times a week as well as every Sunday. I joined the village’s choir activities twice and have close connections with some villagers.
The choices of these three villages collectively represent a highly representative range of comparable examples, each of which also has its own distinctions. Mayou represents a community with a small group of masters of Yi musical traditions in respect of both performance skills and community knowledge. The village also has a very good grass-roots organizational system allowing these expert musicians to transmit their cultural heritage to the next generations. Qifeng village represents a locale where none of the individual musicians is treated as a high-level master, but the large-scale participation of villagers in a comprehensive set of Bai music practices shows how the village as a whole forms an eco-system for sustaining cultural heritage, one within which music forms a major space for social bonding and collective entertainment. Xiaoshuijin provides a case of a hybrid form of cultural heritage common among certain ethnic minority communities in Yunnan. Here Western music, especially church music brought by Western missionaries in the early 20th century, has become an integral part of the local indigenous intangible cultural heritage. It is also a village that acts as a nexus of regional cultural creativity in that particular style.
2. New research framework
In exploring the new possibilities for members of ethnic minority communities to engage in digital participation as active curators sustaining their own cultural heritage, the ECura project will develop a new five-part research framework that leads to achievement of the four objectives of the project (see Section A, 3). Via this framework, these underprivileged groups will overcome observed obstacles, benefiting from technological advances in sustaining their endangered culture while developing self-awareness toward their needs, community identity and culture. Under this framework, the ECura team will study how the villagers in each location acquire and sustain self-reliance in managing their indigenous culture in a context of rising global digitalization.
a) Making tailored platform programs better accommodate equal online participation
An applied approach is a vital part of this project, allowing us not only to benefit by extracting knowledge and experience from the communities in question but also to provide input that benefits the community, and that has potential for adoption and adaptation by other communities in similar situations elsewhere. To empower the initiative of ethnic minority members with regard to digital communication, and to address the linguistic and other obstacles they currently face in fully and equitably using online platforms toward their own ends, the project team will design tailored programs or user interfaces that can be used, as freeware, with such platforms as WeChat or Douyin. The project team will:
• design and write tailored programs for use with the social media platform WeChat (already widely used as social media platform by villagers in all three locations), using indigenous language voice controls to replace touch-control panels (using Chinese characters) to accommodate the needs of the villagers who are illiterate (in Chinese) or who face other difficulties using these platforms fully, such as poor eyesight. Voice control in Yi, Bai and Miao will be applied.
• Meanwhile, design and write a tailored program which uses an image-led user interface to replace touch-control panels using Chinese characters, will accommodate the need of villagers with cognitive or literacy difficulties.
• These tailored programs will be used in the villages initially and, when tested and developed, can be released into wider society later on. They will be available as freeware.
b) Set up a website as a crowdsourced database “recording” community culture.
I. Establish a database for collection and storing of audio and video clips uploaded by the villagers themselves via various platforms such as WeChat, Bilibili and Tencent Video, and apps such as Douyin, Kwai and Papa, with a backup system that automatically sorts and stores the database. The steps are as follows:
• The project team will train villagers in how to utilize the functions on their smartphones, teaching and assisting them to upload high-quality video clips to the NetEase cloud database.
• The project team will categorize database content on the NetEase cloud and then upload each item onto a WeChat Channel so that villagers can watch and comment with one another on these uploads.
• Meanwhile, the project team will also help villagers share their self-produced video clips on various popular video sharing apps and platforms such as Douyin, Kwai, Bilibili and Tencent Video, in order to get feedback from the audiences outside the communities and outside their ethnicities. This action will help them present themselves to wider viewerships, gain feedback from insiders and outsiders, consider the issues of culture contact and (self-)colonization and the modes of communication they can utilize to present their cultural heritage more widely.
• The database will include villagers’ voices (in their minority languages) and other materials (e.g., photographic images) showing their own understandings of the content of the videos they are uploading, such as singing, dance, rituals, working songs.
II. Set up a website so that all the gathered videos can be viewed and accessed by internet users worldwide.
The project team will explore copyright and permissions issues for every video stored in the website, letting users know whom they should contact to request to use a video for commercial benefit, using both Mandarin Chinese and English. (None of the minority languages used is widely utilized in written form at present, but written texts in the indigenous language will be added if culture bearers can provide them.)
• All materials will be identified accurately and described with a short introduction, again in Chinese and English.
• A back-up copy will also be stored in the database of the Insight Centre for Data Analytics, UCC as well as kept by PI.
III. Integrate website content into wider commercial and cultural applications, as appropriate.
The team will make a video documentary for each of the three villages, giving viewers a sense of the scenery, people, history, rituals, architecture, and natural resources associated with the intangible cultural heritage in each location.
• Each village will receive a copy of all content stored in the database from or related to its villagers.
• Explore the commercial and cultural potential of the database. For instance, it may be possible to integrate some content into digital resources that offer tourism guidance.
• The team will remain open to unseen ideas and opportunities, so long as they are consistent with the principles of i) positioning the culture bearers as curators of their own materials and ii) returning any benefit back to the villagers themselves.
• Incorporate the database-website as part on a suitable long-term host website, e.g., that of NGO Yuansheng Studio 源生坊 (yuanshengfang.net) or China Intangible Cultural Heritage 中国非物质文化遗产网·中国非物质文化遗产数字博物馆 (ihchina.cn) when the project ends.
c) Applied ethnography: daily communication, community outreach, workshops, etc
The project team will keep in daily communication, both online and offline, with the villagers (via virtual means while the team members are away from the village) in order to build up mutual trust and recognize obstacles arising in their access to and use of online communications and video sharing.
• Informed by these insights, the team will hold various formal and informal workshops for villagers, tackling aspects of equal and full digital participation, including: self-colonization, ethical issues in online communication, copyright awareness, sourcing outside supports for cultural initiatives, pushing for updates in the state’s cultural heritage policies, resilience and adaptive management, learning successful cases from other villages and communities, technical guidance in recording video, technique issues in uploading and sharing videos, etc.
• The team will investigate subgroups inside each village and encourage those in marginal positions to join the community’s cultural activities or lead their own, as appropriate.
• The team will attend the villagers’ cultural (re)creation and transmission activities to learn about the knowledge, skills, values and meaning of these forms of cultural heritage.
• In all these communication and activities, the team will create opportunities for community members to express themselves, including: what themselves understand about their communities and culture; what do they want to achieve and what can they do in transmitting and sustaining their own culture; what kind of sources do they rely upon and what do they need; how can they best learn to collaborate with outsiders from a position of cultural confidence.
d) Cultural and media studies approach
This aspect of the framework utilizes literature reviews and online observation to assess the attitudes and support/disinterest of differing state bodies (at local, regional, provincial and state levels), the media industry, and wider Han (majority) Chinese attitudes towards the actions and presence of ethnic minority culture-bearers in online spaces. In some cases, interviews or non-structured conversation will be used with selected people in these sectors. The team will investigate:
• Changes and continuities in attitudes and methods of governmental policies on sustaining endangered intangible culture heritage.
• Elite and popular narratives towards endangered intangible cultural heritage, particularly that of minority ethnic populations.
• The technical support and barriers produced by social media companies, such as ByteDance and Bilibili, and how these shape the equal participation of community members.
• Community members’ creativities, democracies and layers of consciousness as enabled and aroused through their participation in digital media platforms.
e) Virtual ethnography on social media activities of community members
To document the dynamic engagement of community members in social media platforms, the project team will widely investigate and record content and comments made on the platforms and apps frequently used by community members. This includes materials widely shared by villagers as well as those they themselves created, and moments where there were marked differences in opinion on popularity from those inside the village and those outside. Platforms, etc. to be analysed include:
• Online video platforms Youku, Bilibili, Tencent Video; channels in WeChat; apps Douyin and Kwai.
3. Project collaborative team
The collaborative elements of this project are of foundational significance to its success. PI, postdoctoral and PhD researchers will work cooperatively with non-academic consultants (such as experts working in the government sector and media industry, intellectuals in mainstream culture, and community organizers), and will rely upon technical support for data storage and website maintenance and writing the tailored programs. All those named below have agreed to participate in the designated role should ECura be funded.
Research team members
• PI: on project at 70% FTE over five years. Responsible for Mayou village.
• Postdoctoral researcher: full-time, months 5-60. Based in Qifeng.
• PhD student: full-time, months 7-53. Based in Xiaoshuijin.
The PI will be assisted by access to an Advisory Board which will meet online twice a year and can be contacted by PI, postdoctoral and PhD researchers flexibly as needed. In-person board meetings are scheduled for year 3, at the proposed conference, and year 5. Board membership:
• Prof. Jonathan Stock, University College Cork, Ireland. Specialist in Chinese music, indigenous culture in Taiwan
• Dr. Elizabeth Kiely, University College Cork, Ireland. Chair of University Ethics Committee, Senior Lecturer in Social Policy. Ethics Advisor of ECura project. • Dr. Lidia Guzy, University College Cork, Ireland. Specialist in anthropology. Director of the Marginalised and Endangered Worldviews Study Centre (MEWSC)
• Assoc. Prof. Lonán Ó Briain, University of Nottingham, UK. Specialist in music and culture of Hmong Ethnicity in Vietnam. (Hmong are the same ethnicity as the Miao in ECura Project.)
• Prof. Helen Rees, University California, Los Angeles, USA. Specialist in musics of the Naxi and Han ethnic groups in Yunnan and intangible culture heritage in China. Ethics Advisor of ECura project
Prof. Yu Hui, Yunnan University, China. Yunnan-based ethnomusicologist specializing in Chinese traditional music in the digital era and ethnic minority music in Yunnan.
• Prof. Zhang Junping, Fudan University, China. Specialist in intelligence information processing, computer science. He will provide various computer and internet related technical guidance..
The team will work closely with community leaders in each village. These figures will guide and approve activities, help us gather and share experience, and maintain good communications. The leaders’ role includes keeping in close contact with villagers who engage with the research and listening to their self-reflections on their communities and culture. Some of this can occur via the creation of groups on social media platforms such as WeChat when project starts. This will allow interested and supportive villagers to gather together virtually and provide a space where the wider team can begin to work together: sharing useful information, organizing cultural events, trying out aspects of the tailored platform programs, etc.. It will also act as a record of group chat, which can be reviewed regularly to identify patterns or problems. They will regularly give feedback to other project team members. Up to eight community leaders spread across the three villages will work 4-7 hours per person per week (46 weeks/per year) during years 1-4 (added hours in year 4). Community leaders will be chosen from among those already active in each location in proposing and organizing community cultural events and transmission.
Experts identified here are established authorities in state, industry and cultural policies in China’s rural communities and in the relationships between intangible cultural heritage and media companies. They will be approached by the PI, postdoc and PhD student for up-to-date information and guidance as necessary. (This is an unpaid role.) Senior advisors:
• Deng Ke, Music program producer, China Central TV Station
• Long Chengpeng, Chief editor of journal Ethnicity Today
• Guo Xiaowei, Head of The Centre of Intangible Cultural Transmission, Preservation and Exhibition, Yao’an county, Yunnan
• Su Junjie, Director of the Yunnan Provincial Research Base of Intangible Culture Heritage & Assoc. Prof. at School of Ethnology and Sociology, Yunnan University
• Su Xiaoyin, Manager of Yunnan Yingda Film and TV Cultural Media Inc.
• Liu Xiaojin, the founder Yuansheng Studio and TV documentary producer
I. A data technician will work with PI, postdoc and PhD researchers on the storage and maintenance of all collected data. S/he will also in charge of the task of setting-up and maintaining the website mentioned above. The technician will work from month 7-60, 4 hours per week (the project team is mostly responsible for uploading materials to the website; the technician’s role is to assist with design and fix the technical problems that will inevitably arise.) A data technician can be sourced from:
• Insight Centre for Data Analytics, University College Cork
II. A tailored program writer will be commissioned to write 2 tailored programs, one using voice commands (in Yi, Bai and Miao language variants) and one using pictures, to help a wider range of people use social media platforms. The programmer will work intensively for 3-6 months in year 2. The programmer can be outsourced from Shandong Mengxintianxia Internet Technology Inc (山东盟信天下网络技术有限公司 – 首页 (b2b168.com)).
4. Impact analysis
ECura address a long-standing challenge in the field of endangered cultural sustainability. The problem is that many culture bearers from socially marginalized groups are not equipped to sustain and transmit their cultural traditions under the impact of rapid social and economic transformations to their environment, life patterns and systems of belief. Rising global digitalization increases the risks of the disappearance of these indigenous cultures as it allows dominant cultures to expand their influence into these populations. Yet the new ubiquity of these digital means also allows them to be taken up as tools in support of cultural sustainability. ECura thus seizes upon an emerging opportunity in sustaining minority ethnicity intangible
culture heritage through employment of social media and digital platforms and tackles challenges associated with realising this opportunity. To achieve its central goal, namely to empower members of underprivileged groups as the digital curators of their own culture and so achieve long-term sustainability by means of new digital possibilities, ECura develops an innovative new research framework that maximizes the support that digitalization provides to members of endangered cultural populations by:
• enabling culture bearers to acquire key capacities of self-reliance (stewardship, viability, resilience and adaptability) so that they are aware of and confident to deal with various outside opportunities and challenges by using a combination of approaches from applied ethnomusicology and cultural and media studies;
• enabling cultural-bearers to become self-reflexive and critical curators of their own endangered culture via their own digital media practices;
• making customised programs to support the full participation in digital media platforms of people currently marginalized by lacks in educational provision of reliance upon minority language use;
• providing the foundation of a long-term, globally connected and sustainable digital database with high-quality, self-produced and crowdsourced video materials, which culture bearers can exploit to support their own economic and cultural development.
The project has the potential to transform the ways ethnomusicologists, folklorists and others work with communities to sustain endangered cultural heritage. Its step of transforming culture bearers into the curators of their own digital materials is crucial, and is now more fully enabled by the present day’s technological possibilities than was hitherto possible. The project focuses on three villages in Yunnan, China, which will allow the acquisition of a deep understanding of the situation in question and development of carefully shaped solutions to the challenges detected, but similar situations of cultural imperialism, the vanishing of indigenous culture, and the disempowering of underprivileged in managing their own culture, occur worldwide. As such, the new research framework proposed here is transferable to a broad cross-section of endangered cultural heritages among minority communities globally, particularly for marginalised ethnic minority populations in larger contemporary states adapting to rapid digitalisation.
5. Project organization, feasibility, and risks
To enable such a new research framework, and as a responsive cultural outsider, as PI I have set up a wide project team which is innovatively designed and well thought-through in order to maximise feasibility. It combines academic experts from ethnomusicology and cultural studies, an advisory board, community representatives, senior advisers from the governmental and media industrial sectors, as well as specialist technical support and outsourced tailored platform programming skills.
As PI, all my experience stated below makes the project manageable and feasible. I have been working in related fields for my entire research career (please refer to my publications and grant awards in B1). I spent over three years co-working with NGOs Eco-Women and Yuansheng Studio in Yunnan and I already have close connections with the 3 villages proposed for this project (CAROLINE postdoc “Applying Cultural Heritage as a Means of Sustainable Development: Voices of Women Culture Bearers in Yunnan, China”). I also worked for 2 years on an Irish Research Council postdoc project “Making Sense of TV Music Talent Show, An Audience Ethnography” for which I gathered over 1,043 questionnaires among audience members from over 13 different Chinese cities and villages, as well as numerous interviews with participants from within the music and media industry. My PhD “Pop Song Composition in China in the 1980s: An Elite Synthesis for the Mainstream” looked at Chinese popular music historically, investigating the interactions between governmental, intellectual and popular culture in that key decade as China opened up to the rest of the world after the Cultural Revolution. Interviews and case study analysis formed the main methodology in that research. As such, I am richly experienced in music research in China, in both urban and rural settings, and in relation to both traditional and contemporary aspects of musical culture and the music industry. I am experienced at working with various non-academic partners in the area of cultural sustainability, and have a strong foundation of in-place contacts in Yunnan so that the project is ready to go.
The project will clearly require careful ethical management throughout, a process that will be greatly assisted by my existing connections in each village and the collaborative framework proposed. Some further risks can be identified. One foreseen risk to this project concerns change in policies on intangible cultural heritage in China, which already constrains the sharing of the proposed budget for consultancy in China. Since it is not possible to route these payments through an NGO (they are currently unable to accept overseas financial support), I have designed an hourly-pay system supported by an intermediary media production company (Yunnan Yingda Film and TV Cultural Media Inc. 云南映达影视文化传媒有限公司) which will allow me to appropriately compensate the community leaders who join the project (and with whom I have been already built relationships of trust over the last three years). A second risk concerns political sensitivity in China: currently, the project doesn’t raise sensitive content within a Chinese context, indeed there is generally a great deal of state-level support for intangible cultural heritage work of most kinds and, with the exception of certain religious rites, such work is generally unproblematic (outside of areas where ethnic populations have been pushing for independence from the nation). I am confident that the research proposed can be carried out as currently planned without raising political tensions. A third risk is that the budget for the Smartphone programming work is insufficient. The current sum of €18,450 (within the category of Consumables, year 2) was prepared with reference to current market prices for such work as discussed with experts in China, but exchange rate fluctuations or the complexity of the task itself could pose a risk over time here. If so, I can apply for to re-allocate some funds from the budget “other costs” (current overall amount, €60,000) to ensure this essential task is completed.
6. Research outputs
• Who Is the Curator? A Dynamic Ethnography on Sustaining Community Cultural Heritage in Digital China (PI, year 5)
• Monograph on sustaining intangible cultural heritage in Bai communities with digital means, exact title to be confirmed (postdoc, year 5)
• Sustaining Indigenous Cultural Heritage through Digital Means, A Case Study from Ethnic Minority Villages in Southwestern China (co-authored by PI and postdoc, year 4)
• On the sustaining the Miao Christian Hymns via Digital Media Platforms, exact title to be confirmed (PhD, year 5)
• “Structural and Ideological Inequalities in Sustaining Musical Traditions among Ethnic Minority Communities in China” (co-authored by PI and postdoc, year 3)
• “An Action-based Ethnographic Project in Supporting Community Members as the Main Actors in Sustaining Their Indigenous Culture under New Digital Circumstances” (PI, year 5)
• 1 article to be confirmed (postdoc, year 4)
• 1 article to be confirmed (PhD, year 4)
• “Empowering Communities and Intangible Culture through Digitalization” (PI, postdoc, PhD, advisory board, year 3). Edited Conference proceedings to be published online.
• “Keeping Community Identity: Intangible Culture Heritage On- and Offline” (PI, postdoc, PhD, advisory board member Yu Hui, and senior consultants Long Chengpeng and Guo Xiaowei, community experts, year 4). Kunming, China, with summary document and selected materials available online (Chinese language).
• Website: a global shared database for high-quality video materials produced by the community members as they record each village’s intangible cultural heritage activities (project team, year 1-5).
Tailored social media platform programs
• 2 freeware programs for ethnic minority communities, one using three language variants (project team, year 2)
7. Project schedule
• literature review, data collection and archive (month 1-4, PI only; month 5-12, project team)
• recruit Postdoctoral Fellow and PhD researchers (month 1-2, PI)
• hold 3 online meetings with advisory board (PI, Postdoc, PhD, advisory board)
• set up connections and work with consultancy group (PI, Postdoc, PhD)
• Postdoctoral Fellow starts work from month 5; PhD researcher starts work from month 7
• fieldwork trip, Yunnan, China (PI, postdoc, 3-month)
• Database-website established for community cultural heritage in each village (project team)
• attend international conference (PI, Postdoc)
• fieldwork trip, Yunnan, China (PhD, 6-month; PI and postdoc, 3-month)
• produce 2 tailored social media platform programs and apply to the communities (outsourced)
• Database-website expands (project team)
• hold 2 online meetings with advisory board (PI, postdoc, PhD, advisory board)
• attend international conference (PI, Postdoc)
• fieldwork trip, Yunnan, China (PI, postdoc, PhD, 3-month)
• co-write article “Structural and Ideological Inequalities in Sustaining Musical Traditions among Ethnic Minority Communities in China” (PI, postdoc)
• Database-website expands (project team)
• hold international conference “Empowering Communities and Intangible Culture in Digitalization” at University College Cork, Ireland (project team; advisory board hold meeting during conference)
• attend international conference (PI, postdoc, PhD)
• fieldwork trip, Yunnan, China (PI, postdoc, 3-month)
• Database-website expands (project team)
• hold workshop “Keeping Community Identity: Intangible Culture Heritage On- and Offline” (PI, postdoc, PhD, advisory board members, community experts), Kunming, China
• co-write book draft Sustaining Indigenous Cultural Heritage through Digital Means (PI, postdoc)
• hold 2 online meetings with advisory board (PI, postdoc, PhD, advisory board)
• attend international conferences (PI, postdoc, PhD)
• finish 2 journal articles (postdoc and PhD)
• finish PhD thesis (PhD, month 53)
• fieldwork trip, Yunnan, China (PI, 3-month)
• Database-website expands (project team)
• hold in person board meeting (PI, postdoc, PhD, advisory board)
• finish draft monograph Who Is the Curator? A Dynamic Ethnography on Sustaining Community Cultural Heritage in Digital China (PI)
• finish draft monograph (Postdoc)
• write article “An Action-based Ethnographic Project on Supporting the Community as Principal Actors in Sustaining Their Indigenous Culture under New Digital Circumstances” (PI)
• attend two International Conferences (PI, Postdoc)
• finish individual report (postdoc, month 60)
• finish project report (PI, month 60)
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