Heritage studies, an unbalanced and fragmented field of applied humanities, call for on-the-ground research. On the one hand, state and inter-state institutes, such as UNESCO and the World Bank, continue building up global hierarchies of heritage value through their worldwide programmes. On the other hand, scholars of critical heritage studies are trying to deconstruct the authorised discourse--with a much weaker voice and insufficient speaking evidence. To resolve this dilemma, Xiaomei Zhao argues that a third path to heritage studies is a down-to-earth interpretation of local communities by elucidating the micro-social history and underlying memories of ordinary people. 

China is one of the top countries on the world heritage list that constructs a national discourse in the international arena. The heritage craze is peaking the national narratives within the country. Using heritage as a political tool for state propaganda leads to carefully selecting what is to be inscribed as national heritage and how it is interpreted. However, besides the outstanding sites of glittering national history, there is also the 'ordinary heritage' of folk knowledge and ordinary people's lives, often hidden in the shadows and neglected by authorities. Is it proper for these memories to be forgotten? What is the significance of an academic interpretation of ordinary heritage to academics, the engaged communities, and the general public?

Based on her long-term fieldwork in rural China, Xiaomei is working on a case study on folk knowledge, an 'ordinary heritage' in danger of being lost due to technocratic, top-down interventions in today's rapidly changing Chinese society, yet valuable as an informal pedagogy for civil society and as a resistance to state propaganda.

Xiaomei's case study concerns the folk culture in Longsheng, a minority county in mountainous Southwest China. In Longsheng, there are five officially recognised ethnic groups in a river valley of 2500 square kilometres. Their ancestors began to settle down in the area in the seventeenth century. What can folk culture tell us about these ethnic communities under the governance of past empires and the current nation? Authorities have built an exhibition centre in a minority village and showcased folk performances at several others, mainly for mass tourists. These heritage interpretations only present a stereotype of a specific ethnic group in a national narrative, lacking in-depth study on local understanding. Xiaomei began an investigation in Longsheng five years ago, mapping wooden houses, collecting local documents, participating in celebrations, and recording fairy tales. Currently, a monograph is being prepared.