Maximizing China’s Cultural Heritage


By special correspondents DUAN HAIWANG & PAN JIANFANG


OVER the past few years, China has made great improvements in the preservation of its cultural heritage, but historically the country still faces huge shortfalls in many areas. Issues to be contended with include technological inferiority, inefficient management systems, and a shortage of homegrown professionals in the field.



This site, now in Tonghua City, Jilin Province, was formerly a beacon tower on a section of the Great Wall built in the Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220).


In an interview with China Today, Feng Tiehong, director of Cultural and Natural Heritage Conservation Institute at China Construction Engineering Design Group Co., Ltd., shared his views on the development of cultural heritage preservation in China.


China Today (CT): What is the value of cultural heritage these days?  


Feng: First, our cultural heritage is a variety of local treasures from different places. These treasures often increase people’s pride in their hometown. A large proportion of the population leave their birthplace to find new opportunities in big cities. This empties many rural villages, leaving only young children and the elderly.


The obvious question is: How can we develop these villages? I think we can start by better preserving and utilizing our cultural heritage to increase local people’s pride in their hometowns and make them happy to live and work there. People who are willing to stay will be more interested in developing local businesses, which will create new jobs and boost regional economic development, as well as playing a positive role in treating “urban disease.”


Second, our cultural heritage is a window through which other countries can see more about China and understand our country. Since the drive of “reform and opening-up” started over 30 years ago, China has achieved stunning economic growth but the international community still fails to take an impartial view of China. We need to create an image using a combination of economic strength and distinctive culture. Now we understand more about our cultural heritage and we are ready to introduce it to the world, showing other nations that China has things well worth learning: philosophies and traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation.



A Russian-style Architectural Complex in Gongzhuling City, Jilin Province.


Third, our cultural heritage contains excellent values that should be taught in schools. The turbulence of the “cultural revolution” from 1966 to 1976 did have a negative effect on traditional culture, causing the loss of some virtues and replaced with unsavory habits. Our cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible, contains many positive values. If these values are better utilized in domestic education, Chinese people will be able to absorb good qualities and abandon negative values. This cultural heritage has proved to be full of vitality as it has been passed down for generations.


CT: How can we better tap the potential of the cultural heritage market?  


Feng: I think efforts should be made to develop cultural and creative industries. We still have room for improvement. At the moment we are held back by inadequate management and a lack of cultural heritage specialists. We have made it a priority to save and protect cultural heritage but we haven’t developed related industries.


Taking a wider view of the whole industrial chain, we can spot many business opportunities in cultural heritage preservation and utilization. A good example worth noting is the Forbidden City in Beijing, which has developed many cultural and creative products. This, however, is a rare example.


We need to embrace the spirit of craftsmanship, focus on the special characteristics of different types of cultural heritage from different periods of history and develop relevant products designed to meet particular needs.


In the process we need to address two important issues. First is that a professional organization should be established to lead and promote the overall development of a cultural heritage industry. Second is that efforts should be renewed to guarantee follow-up action after a plan for the preservation of each cultural heritage site is made and monitoring systems should be set up to ensure the correct implementation of these plans.


CT: How have you and your team developed Chinese cultural heritage preservation and utilization over the past few years?


Feng: My team took the lead in completing the Overall Plan for Preserving and Managing the Great Wall Sites in Jilin Province. We made the Plan for Preserving the Salawusu Site, Ordos City in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (this site dates back to the Paleolithic Age), which served as the guidelines for the preservation and utilization of the site. We also completed the Plan for Preserving and Renovating Shiyi Bridge in Hunan Province which was approved by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH). We are currently working on the Plan for Renovating the Russian-style Architectural Complex in Gongzhuling City in Jilin Province, which is nearing completion.


CT: What can we do to improve the preservation and utilization of our cultural heritage sites?


Feng: I think the government plays a leading role under the current system. Over the past few years, the Chinese government has paid increasing attention to cultural heritage preservation, creating more supportive policies and financial aid. I believe the government’s role remains crucial in the effort to bring Chinese cultural heritage preservation to a high standard.


In addition, more professional research, consultation and design institutions, like my team, are needed. As China has such a long history and vast territory, its cultural heritage sites are very diverse, including ancient architecture, Buddhist grottos, and murals. The joint efforts of professionals with backgrounds in architecture, urban planning, archaeology, history, geography, materials, and geotechnical engineering are needed for preserving different types of cultural heritage sites. However, these skills are in short supply, so the government and institutions of higher learning are working hard to nurture new talent and the SACH also organizes occasional training sessions.


Public participation is also important. There are cultural heritage sites scattered all over China, with new sites constantly being discovered. It is difficult to protect them with only the limited efforts of the government and relevant departments, as they are unable to implement complete supervision. Therefore, it is crucial to enhance people’s awareness of cultural heritage preservation and encourage public participation.


The media should, as they speak directly to the population, utilize its guiding role to shape public opinion. If they report on the significance of cultural heritage preservation and showcase new technologies to be used in the process, as well as highlighting previous mistakes in order to encourage change, the effects will be noticeable. 


Last but not least, exchanges and cooperation, both domestic and international, should be increased. Today there are global standards and guidelines widely acknowledged by the international community such as The Venice Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites.


However, countries still have different views on cultural heritage preservation. Asian and European architecture is very different, for instance. European buildings are often stone structures that can withstand erosion caused by wind and rain, while those in the East are more often wooden structures which require constant renovation and maintenance. This leads to different views on how to preserve ancient architecture.


From the very beginning, Europeans were of the opinion that fewer intervening measures should be adopted – for example, the ruins of the Roman Colosseum have simply been left as they are – but the Asian approach has a tradition of ongoing restoration and renovation of cultural relics and we believe that this approach will not affect their authenticity. The Ise Grand Shrine building complex in Japan is rebuilt every 20 years as a way of passing building techniques from one generation to the next.


Such tradition triggered a debate in international cultural heritage preservation circles, as some feared that the renewal process would harm its authenticity. Experts around the world travelled to Japan especially to conduct on-site inspections and discussions, and they eventually issued the Nara Document of Authenticity. They recognized that the concept and application of the term “authenticity” actually varies from culture to culture. Therefore when the authenticity of a particular cultural heritage site is being assessed, its underlying cultural context should be considered.


The significance of these international exchanges is that they will help the world understand China, and form a new respect and acceptance of Chinese culture and values.