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Preserving Asian Dance Through UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Program

Updated on December 4, 2018
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Born and raised in Malaysia, Mazlan is proud of his Malaysian and Asian heritage and likes to share its mysteries, culture & current issues.

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

Kabuki from Japan is now an all-male ensemble
Kabuki from Japan is now an all-male ensemble | Source

About UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Program

What can UNESCO do to help countries keep and preserve their local cultural traditions?
UNESCO had already put in place their World Heritage Program to protect and preserve historical buildings and natural sites, but there was none to help intangible heritage such as languages, dance, rituals, etc.

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.

In this treaty, it was agreed that UNESCO to take steps to protect cultural traditions and preserve it for the 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 UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Program.

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

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

Part of the reasons 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. Maybe there are other pressing issues that are more important such as economic and educational needs of the people that are top in the government's list of things to do. Hence, 'trivial issues' such as dances are not important and faces 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 historical perspective, but also from its cultural importance. They reflect the lifestyle, outlook and ritual features of the communities.

The protection and 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 help to revive its comeback, not just for dances in Asia, but also in other parts of the world including in developed countries.

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

UNESCO is United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

Kabuki from Japan

Kabuki started around year 1600 by a shrine maiden, Okuni. Her performance was copied, and it became popular. However, in the early days 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.

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

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.

Reason for Selection

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 Western form of entertainment such as television and movies.

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

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

It was created by combining several popular 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.

Beijing 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.

Reasons for Selection

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 | Source

Mak Yong Theater from Malaysia

Mak Yong or 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, 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 | Source

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

Reason for Selection - Intangible Heritage in Malaysia

Mak Yong is currently the only Malaysian performing art that was listed into 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 continue 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


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Xizang (Tibet), China

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Lhamo from Tibet China

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

The main feature of Lhamo is its mask. It is from this mask that the audience can identify the characters in the opera.

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

Ache Lhamo from Tibet
Ache Lhamo from Tibet | Source

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 blessing.

Reasons for Selection

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, but it only matured and flourished after the 14th century. It soon became one of the most influential opera and an important cultural symbol of Tibet.

Besides being a form of entertainment, it was also 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 mainly based on Hindu mythology and the actors will role-played in stylized vocal recitation with a unique hand-gesture language and highly suggestive facial expressions.

It is unique with a continuous history of more than 2,000 years making it the oldest and the only surviving form of Sanskrit theater.

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.

The play will always have a character, Vidushaka, like a court jester, who will translate 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.

Reasons for Selection

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.

When was Koodiyattam Listed in 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 | Source

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, but 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 are also part of the movements. It will start slowly and then increased gradually in its tempo and finally come to a complete stop.

Saman Dance from Indonesia
Saman Dance from Indonesia | Source

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

Reasons for Selection

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

This dance form had diminished in its popularity due to lack of opportunities 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 is slowly building 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.

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 the gender, are performed by female dancers.

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

The graceful movements of fingers, wrists, elbows, toes and ankles are 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 Khmer holidays.

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

Royal Ballet of Cambodia was inscribed into UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2004,

Khmer classical dance repertoire is associated with legends linked to the origin of 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 back this centuries-old lost heritage. UNESCO is supporting this research and documentation effort by the people of Cambodia in safeguarding this heritage.

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 | Source

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 will include songs, calligraphy, puppetry, storytelling, etc. at Wikipedia's UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage website.

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

Preserving Intangible Cultural Heritage in Your Country

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

© 2013 Mazlan


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    • greatstuff profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Malaysia

      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 profile image

      Dolores Monet 

      7 years ago from East Coast, United States

      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)

    • greatstuff profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Malaysia

      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 profile image


      7 years ago from Ottawa, Canada

      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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