Heritage: A Malleable Identity

Sharon LinSeptember 5, 2016HeritageFeatures

When discussing heritage it’s important to keep a global perspective in mind.

This is especially true in light of the rapid globalization that has occurred due to the technological boom of our recent years, giving way to a rapid conglomeration of cultures, even among the most culturally distinct regions of the world.

While cultural boundaries can still be found amidst the blending of customs and traditions, aspects of different heritages often do integrate with each other, leading to the idea of a malleable heritage — an identity that can change with time.

We frequently view globalization as a modern term, but significant anthropological evidence points towards a more archaic introduction of globalization to human civilization. More than 1,500 years ago, traders along the Silk Road — one of the world’s first transcontinental trade routes, stretching from East Asia to the Mediterranean Sea — exchanged goods and ideas, allowing for the transfer of trade secrets and techniques, many of which have since become iconic to their respective national identities.

Perhaps the most significant instance of this transmission of cultural identity occurred with the spread of Buddhism at the start of the first century CE. Although globalization today occurs at a far faster rate, this early example provides a glimpse into how we have approached the dichotomy of cultural preservation and assimilation. When monks and missionaries brought Buddhist teachings from India to China, many of their new ideas were adopted by practitioners of Daoism, a Chinese tradition that emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao, or the “flow of the universe.” Even though a number of Chinese Daoists were open to assimilating Buddhism into their lifestyles, this didn’t constitute a complete omission of their original culture in order to follow the teachings of the Buddha. Rather, they were open to inheriting the positive aspects of an unfamiliar culture and aligning them with what they already practiced in their own lives.

In recent years, China has taken a different approach to globalization. In particular, the notoriety of the Western imperialist movement into Asia has cast a dark shadow on the history of the Chinese Empire. With the flood of Jesuit missionaries into China’s ports in the 16th century, the empire’s policy towards foreigners began to change for the worse, resulting in the rejection of all Western culture. This policy was especially prominent in regards to the trade of opium, which was pushed on the Chinese by various Western nations, including Great Britain. The Chinese attempted to prohibit the trade and sale of the addictive substance, but this only encouraged the Westerners to seek alternative means to smuggle the goods into the empire. The Qing dynasty was further weakened by internal struggles and governmental corruption, and the strength of the Chinese Empire eventually broke, allowing Westerners to flood into the country. With the loss of Hong Kong and the sovereignty of the nation, Western powers suddenly had free reign to convert the Chinese to their own culture. In addition to losing control of their civilian population to the whims of the westerners, China lost a large portion of its land, its wealth, and ultimately its empire.

"The empire's policy towards foreigners began to change for the worse, resulting in the rejection of all Western culture."

While this incident may seem isolated, a similar Western infiltration also occurred in Japan, with drastically different results. Compared to the Chinese, who faced a forced conversion to Western ideals after attempting to fight the changes that were occurring within their own empire, the Japanese were slightly more willing to incorporate new ideas into their traditions. Japan had maintained an isolationist policy up until the 19th century, but its freedom from Western penetration eventually ended with the entrance of US Commodore Matthew Perry’s entrance into Edo (modern-day Tokyo). Although the Japanese initially resisted the concessions demanded by the United States, Perry’s demonstration of force and power convinced the Japanese to allow Western trade with their nation.

This decision was in part recognition of the lack of technological advances Japan had made in the past few centuries, along with the potential wealth that assimilating into the global Western economy could bring. Japan eventually transitioned into the Meiji Restoration, a period recognized for helping transform the country into a modernized nation. Although Western trade was made permissible within the boundaries of the nation, the development only helped Japan strengthen its economic and military weaknesses, turning it into a powerhouse nation that would soon be a major contributor to the global economy.

Even today, with the prevalent influences of Western culture on Japan, the country is still known for its unique literature, art, music, and religion. Although animation was invented by European and American film artists, the Japanese form known as anime has since become a staple of their culture overseas. In addition, although crocheting and knitting first appeared in ancient Europe, once the yarn arts reached Japan, they transformed into amigurumi (the art of crocheting or knitting small animals) and other recognizably Japanese traditions.

Even the popular American franchise McDonald’s has adopted special menu items and flavors — such as green tea ice cream and teriyaki burgers — in order to mimic the popular tastes of Japan. Such examples of cultural exchange even on the smallest scale are highly indicative of a nation with a fluid idea of heritage and culture.

Food, in general, illustrates that globalization has affected nearly every nation in the world. One look at how local cuisines are being consumed in foreign nations — from Indian curry in Belgium to sushi in Australia — shows there is no doubt that such examples of cultural blends will continue to blend our cultural identities. Whether we base our idea of heritage on social norms of behavior, on our arts and cuisine, or on our history and shared customs, there will never be one concrete definition that can satisfy how we think of ourselves in terms of our heritage.

History has demonstrated that viewing heritage as something malleable, as opposed to something to be preserved, yields positive outcomes. Identifying ourselves based on cultural norms that we believe to be set in stone may be more destructive than helpful. There is simply no way that we can perfectly preserve a culture throughout the years, especially if we expose ourselves to technology and the global economy. From our religious roots to our modern traditions, heritage has certainly given us a way to identify ourselves, but it’s also changing every day as we interact with different cultures and customs.

Sharon Lin is a junior at Stuyvesant High School in New York. She loves writing prose and poetry, playing flute and piano, baking, watching documentaries, and studying philosophy. She participates in her school’s Lincoln Douglas debate team, varsity golf team, Technology Students Association, and Key Club. Sharon absolutely loves traveling to exotic locations and meeting quirky and interesting people from different backgrounds.