Taiji is looking to follow in the footsteps of yoga and Taekkyeon and become the next ‘martial art’ to make it onto the UNESCO list of  Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The outcome of its application is due this year, but despite the precedents, its approval is by no means certain.

Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list is intended to celebrate and help to protect the world’s cultural diversity. The South Korean martial art of Taekkyeon made it onto the list back in 2011, while India had yoga approved last year, but the background of Taiji’s application is a complex one.

China Taiji Cultural Appropriation Fear

China Taiji UNESCO

China first put Taiji forward for consideration back in 2008, but after the application was deemed to be “too vague” and it was subsequently withdrawn.

Taiji was one of 35 put forward by China in that year, but by the following year, the rules had been changed so each country could only submit two nominations. China opted for the Peking Opera and acupuncture, both of which were approved, and Taiji suddenly found itself battling merely for a place on China’s list.

But in recent times, the urgency around Taiji’s application has grown. This is because there are growing concerns that other countries, namely South Korea and Japan could nominate it instead. There is a precedent for this.

In 2008, South Korea had their nomination for the Gangneung Danoje Festival approved. This angered many in China, who argued that the festival has its roots in the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival. They saw South Korea’s application as cultural appropriation of Chinese heritage, something that China is very sensitive towards, although the Chinese festival was itself approved a year later.

Whilst Taiji unquestionably embodies unique aspects of Chinese culture, both South Korea and Japan have their own variations and its origins are still open for debate.

Taiji UNESCO Heritage Application Group

China Taiji UNESCO

The Chinese application is being driven by the Taiji UNESCO Heritage Application Group which is based in Wen County, Henan Province. This is the place which the Chinese argue is the home of Taiji.

“Through Taiji, one can understand Chinese culture, from medicine to literature, from philosophy to art,” explained the group’s leader Yan Shuangjun.

It is believed in China that the art of Taiji was created by Master Chen Wangting in Chenjiagou village, in Wen County, sometime in the middle of the 17th century. Originally a form of self-defence, Taiji itself has evolved over the years and is now as much a type of physical and therapeutic exercise as a form of combat.

This evolution is the main reason for its huge global popularity and its widespread popularity is one of the main worries of the Application Group, which fear rival application could see Taiji’s historical roots being lost. Such is the concern, that Zhang Liyong, a delegate from Henan Province, and President of the Henan High People’s Court, raised the matter at the Chinese Communist Party’s recent National People’s Congress.

Speaking to reporters after the session, he said “Both South Korea and Japan are competing with us to get Taiji registered… Especially South Korea. Some people there are claiming Taiji was invented by Koreans. And since South Korea has already registered the Dragon Boat Festival as theirs, we should be alarmed.”

China ‘Soft Power’ Taiji

China Taiji UNESCO

This year, Taiji’s application has been submitted by China, and Yan Shuangjun, Zhang Liyong, and the many other Taiji advocates in Henan Province, and all over China, will be impatiently waiting for the outcome. Such impatience is somewhat ironic given the Taiji teachings of calmness, but for many, this is about more than simply another martial art making it one onto the list.

For some, it is its broader cultural associations in China which are most important. “It is not just a traditional activity; it is deeply rooted in many areas of Chinese culture, such as medicine, aesthetics and mechanics,” explained Zhu Xianghua, 40, the son of Taiji Master Zhu Tiancai in an interview with the Telegraph.

But perhaps most importantly for the Chinese Government is the soft diplomatic victory it would secure for the regime. As Yan Shuangjun told the New York Times earlier this year, “Compared with many other aspects of Chinese culture, Taiji is relatively practical and could help China expand its soft power.”

So, whilst it would be a big boon for Chinese Martial Arts to see Taiji listed, as those who follow Chinese politics closely, it is this and the threat of perceived cultural appropriation which seems to be behind this year’s renewed push for recognition.

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