Saturday, 31 December 2011

China’s vanishing cultural heritage

A survey of China’s cultural heritage has revealed some rather shocking results – around 44,000 ancient sites have vanished, and around a quarter of the 700,000 remaining are in a poor state of repair.  The results have been out for a short while in China, but the BBC has just picked up on them here.

Although the figures are undeniably awful, and will no doubt be used by those who wish to bash China, I’d like to offer the following thoughts, which both applaud and condemn China’s cultural heritage management as I see it from afar (though I stress that I don’t claim to be an expert, more an interested observer):

1) The survey was carried out by the Chinese authorities, not an overseas organisation which is undoubtedly a positive first step in ensuring that the problems of the past are corrected.  This was the first such survey in 20 years, so the rate of deterioration cannot be determined.  It will only be through future surveys that more detailed data can be obtained.  A little birdy with some insider knowledge of how things work told me recently that a national database to keep track of heritage sites is currently being developed.

2) It is an obvious point, but China is huge.  The carrying out of such a survey is a mammoth task, and many heritage sites are in mountainous and desert areas which are very remote and difficult to reach.  Even recording the existence of the surviving heritage sites in such areas is an achievement in itself.

3) China is not devoid of law (despite what some seem to claim), and it has heritage legislation.  The problem here is not a lack of law, but a lack of understanding and education coupled with the lack of a solid, independent judicial system to punish those who break the laws.  Sadly, too many officials are able to put economic interests above other issues, and even if locals are proud of their heritage they are unable to voice their opposition to its destruction.  Roads, railways, mines and quarries are a national priority, and heritage usually comes last in the priority list.  That has to change if such shocking statistics are to be eradicated in future.

4) There is a problem in China with ‘fake heritage’.  Huge amounts of money have been spent creating heritage theme parks which distract people’s attention away from the needs and importance of the real heritage.  People are used to seeing shiny, restored heritage sites and massive reconstruction.  Heritage sites are of course not always like this (nor should we desire them to be), but the public perception can lead to them devaluing what we might term the ‘non-shiny’ heritage.  Which leads us on to...

5) China places too much emphasis on its major sites – the Forbidden Palaces, Great Walls, Terracotta Warriors and the like.  These are so closely associated with national prestige and cultural identity that they have become almost religious in their nature, and take focus away from other heritage sites.  Any heritage site not deemed worthy of making the highest grade (such as achieving the hallowed World Heritage Status) invariably falls by the wayside.  Of course, many such heritage sites are of immense local importance, but this is often not recognised.

In short, as with so many areas, China has a long way to go in cultural heritage management, but there are some signs that things are changing.  The hope is that in 20 years time a similar survey won’t have cause to make such shocking headlines.

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