Changes at Chinese Cultural Heritage Sites


What Changes at Cultural Heritage Sites in China Mean for Researchers


In recent years, significant changes have been taking place at the numerous cultural heritage sites across mainland China. For researchers in the humanities and social sciences, the current state of affairs prompts reflections on the contemporary relevance of monuments from the past as much as on how, for whom, and why we do research at these sites in China in the twenty-first century. Two developments, in particular, caught my attention during my fieldwork at various cave temple complexes in Sichuan and Chongqing in the past two years. The first is an increased emphasis on conservation by the central government, which has backed its directive with substantive funding for local management units to improve the protection and preservation of the sites. The impact is felt most keenly at places with national or international fame, where one often finds a conservation department loaded with state-of-the-art equipment and staffed with technicians who are trained according to international standards. The second development is more prevalent at lesser known destinations, many of which have been regrouped strategically with other neighboring attractions to form one large cluster of cultural sites collectively referred to as a “scenic area” (jingqu). The underlying goal in most cases is to enhance tourism development, while improving the chance of being recognized by some outside authorities — preferably UNESCO or professional organizations with international stature — and hence securing more state funding for conservation and other projects in the future.

When considered together, the two developments described above appear to mark the different stages in the evolution of cultural heritage as an operational framework for managing historic sites in China. But the situation today is far more complex, especially as we compare the earlier history of a well-established site with the current state of lesser known places. Clearly, recent developments have been motivated by a desire for further economic development in small towns and villages by tapping into local cultural resources, be it an imposing mountain peak or a venerable temple structure. The booming domestic tourism industry, fueled by the emergence of an urban middle class that is interested in traveling and has the means to do it, is also part of the calculation. Beyond the obvious economic considerations, which were much less of a factor in heritage governance of the Mao era, what is notable about today’s conscious branding of cultural sites is that all levels of regulatory authorities (from municipal to county, provincial, and central) carry out the process actively and willingly, each with its own rationale and agenda. Based on what I have observed in southwestern China, I would argue that cultural artifacts and sites, whether from the remote or more recent past, are central to formulating a distinct local identity in relation to the state’s new nationalistic ideology, just as they are to ensuring economic security and social relevance for those who are tasked with safeguarding them for future generations.

Chasing the World Heritage Brand

Nankan of Bazhong in northern Sichuan offers a revealing example for us to consider. Located just south of the city center, Nankan Hill is the unlikely home to two historic sites of opposite character: a Buddhist cave temple complex of the same name (Figure 1), which flourished from the sixth to the early twentieth centuries; and an area associated with the Communist Revolution in Sichuan and Shaanxi dating from 1934, now represented by a Red Army memorial park at the top of the hill (Figure 2) and a museum dedicated to the Communist revolution in the region at its base. The two destinations were managed for many years by different administrative units: Nankan Caves by the Bazhong City Cultural Relics Bureau and the Revolutionary memorials by the Bazhong County government. In 2012, a new operational framework was set up, such that all existing sites at Nankan Hill were combined into a single entity called “the City Park of Bazhong Culture.” In addition, a museum dedicated to ethnic minorities and the history of the area has been planned for the location, alongside a four-star hotel complex. In creating this special cultural heritage zone, the management of the centuries-old cave temple complex was transferred from the Bazhong City Cultural Relics Bureau to a newly established research institute at Nankan Hill, to be under the direct supervision of Sichuan Provincial Administration of Cultural Heritage. Although the site was promoted to a higher administrative status through the reorganization, it was separated in kind from the numerous smaller cave temples in the Bazhong area, all of which remain under the watch of the Bazhong City Cultural Relics Bureau.

1 nankan caves overview2 nankan red army memorial

Figure 1: Nankan Caves Overview.
Figure 2: Nankan Red Army Memorial.

During my visit to Nankan Caves in the summer of 2012, Li Shengming, director of the new research institute, explained to me that the consolidation of the various cultural units at Nankan Hill was intended to enhance the site’s cultural significance as a whole, so that it would have a better chance at being inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Needless to say, the prospect of being recognized as such is not as favorable as it used to be, for there are more and more sites like Nankan across China vying to be put on the central government’s tentative list of potential World Heritage sites, which each State Party must submit to UNESCO before a nominated property can be considered officially by the intergovernmental body. Nevertheless, Li and other officials from the various units at Nankan Hill were clearly keen on seeking validation of their endeavors on the national and international stage, and their strategy to achieve this goal was to stress Nankan’s importance in shaping Bazhong’s culture and Bazhong’s place in Chinese history. Nowhere was such local pride more evident than at the Museum of the Communist Revolution in Sichuan and the Shaanxi and the Red Army Memorial Park. While the museum staff was careful in presenting any information that would outright contradict the official history of Chinese Communism propagated from Beijing, the exhibits were designed purposefully to highlight Bazhong’s crucial contribution to the early history of the Chinese Communist Party, which has often been neglected in the mainstream narrative. The symbolic reinstatement of controversial figures such as Zhang Guotao (1897–1978), the general of Sichuan Red Army and Mao Zedong’s one-time rival, was a case in point (Figure 3).

3 Zhang Guotao statue

Figure 3: Zhang Guotao statue.

The Conservation Imperative

Whether or not administrators at Nankan Hill would one day succeed in winning the World Heritage Site nomination they so coveted remains to be seen, but any recognition will certainly come with many strings attached. Perhaps the most demanding is a commitment to the protection and preservation of the site and its historical settings through rigorous conservation, a condition that UNESCO imposes on all successful nominations. The tremendous emphasis on conservation at World Heritage sites stems from two key concepts in the 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (commonly known as the World Heritage Convention): outstanding universal value and authenticity. The first is the fundamental criterion for site selection, with the underlying assumption that some sites possess such intrinsic value that they can be valued by all people around the world in different times, and that they ought to be protected permanently for all humankind. The second is a key criterion for identifying outstanding universal value of nominated properties. Authenticity has been interpreted in China and many non-European countries as genuine, continuous, and stable, not merely as static and frozen in time in its physical state in terms of design, material, workmanship, and setting. This more dynamic understanding of the concept in effect recognizes not only the initial cycle of creation and reception of a site, but also its changing functions over time and the subsequent coexistence of a wide variety of architectural styles dating from different periods. Conservation, then, refers to all measures carried out for the preservation and protection of the physical remains of a site and all its historic settings.

In retrospect, although the People’s Republic of China ratified the World Heritage Convention in 1984, rigorous conservation was not practiced nor were uniformed standards put in place at officially declared protected sites until the 1990s. The rapid economic development under the leadership of Jiang Zemin as President of the PRC from 1993 to 2003 made the Chinese state enormously rich and powerful, but at the same time put tremendous pressure on the country’s fragile heritage sites that the state deemed central to construing a new nationalistic identity predicated on China’s longstanding, diverse patrimony. In the name of promoting Chinese culture, the central government soon began to pour serious money and political will into improving heritage conservation. It also actively sought cooperation from the international community not only for technical expertise but also for recognition of China’s wealth of heritage on the world stage. Within this context, the formulation of the Principles for the Conservation of Heritage Sites in China (known as the China Principles), initially published in Chinese in 2000 and in English in 2002, was the first official step taken in recent years toward implementing a more systematic approach at all levels of governance. This set of guidelines was developed between 1997 and 2000 by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH), jointly with two international partners, the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles and the Australian Heritage Commission. Overall, the Principles are in line with current international conservation conventions as characterized by the inclusion of key concepts such as a fundamental respect for authenticity and values of the entire site, proper management and rational use, the importance of regular maintenance and prescribed procedures, research and documentation, and minimal and reversible intervention. At the same time, the document recognizes the complexity inherent in dealing with the great variety of cultural heritage in China by explaining different types of sites and making specific recommendations for their respective conservation. The underlying goal, then, is to provide a practical framework broad enough to be applied in a wide range of situations, while upholding some basic principles authoritatively across the board.

The China Principles have been put into practice at many World Heritage sites throughout China since the early 2000s. In the Southwest region, the impact is most evident at the famed Buddhist cave temple Baodingshan in Dazu, Chongqing, where one of the most ambitious conservation projects in the country’s history is currently underway. Popularly known as “the Thousand-Armed Avalokitesvara Project,” the undertaking centers on one of thirty-one sections at the thirteenth-century site, where a monumental sculpture of the bodhisattva with over eight hundred arms occupies nearly 950 square feet of the cliff face (Figure 4). Because the statue and its numerous hands are covered in a thin layer of gold of over 80% purity, which was applied as recently as the 1830s, the deterioration of the paint and the stone underneath it has for years caught the attention of the staff from the Dazu Academy, the government agency in charge of Baodingshan and all other cave temple sites in Dazu County (the unit until 2011 was known as Art Museum of Dazu Rock Carvings). However, the Great Sichuan Earthquake of May 12, 2008 dramatically changed the situation. The complex thankfully survived with little damage, but the State Administration of Cultural Heritage decided to take action on a grand scale. The agency’s director came to Dazu a week after the 8.0 earthquake, and a major conservation project concentrating on the Thousand-Armed Avalokitesvara was officially approved and launched two months later.

4 baodingshan guanyin overview

Figure 4: Baodingshan Guanyin Overview.

Declared by SACH as one of the nation’s top-tier priorities today, the Thousand-Armed Avalokitesvara Conservation Project has been well-planned and well-executed from its inception, following closely the many key concepts and procedures spelled out in the China Principles. In the first phase of the undertaking (2008–2011), the Dazu Academy teamed up with the Beijing-based Chinese Academy of World Heritage, which manages research projects at all World Heritage sites in China, along with conservation experts from the Dunhuang Academy, Peking University, Tsinghua University, and the Geology University of China. This consortium carried out comprehensive assessment of the site in order to identify all the existing problems and seek possible solutions to them. The study phase encompassed not only in-depth scientific analyses of the physical condition of the cliff face as a whole and each individual hand of the statue, but also historical research on the techniques involved in the initial carving and subsequent repairs to the statue. The findings then laid the foundation for a master plan that the team of experts developed for the sculpture’s subsequent restoration and future conservation.

Since early 2011, the project has entered its second phase centering on a restoration of the massive Avalokitesvara statue and its many hands. To prepare for this major intervention, the conservation wing of the Dazu Academy (officially called Dazu Geological Cultural Heritage Conservation Center) has worked closely with Shan Changfa, the head of conservation at the Chinese Academy of World Heritage, to train a team of restorers to repair the entire composition. While many of the workers came from the Dazu area, some were relocated temporarily from Longmen Caves and other major cave temple sites in China that are also dominated by painted stone sculptures. Their experience in treating stone objects would be requisite for the lengthy restoration. During my visit to Baodingshan in late 2012, I was able to observe the restoration in person with the head conservator Chen Huili. There are three main steps in the process: the cleaning of each hand and removal of any portion of the gold layer that is peeling; repeated applications of stabilizing liquid to the stone core and polishing of the stone surface afterwards; and reapplication of a gold layer and other pigments on top of the stone (Figure 5). After training, the restorers are supposedly prepared to undertake all three steps by themselves, as they work systematically across the cliff face both individually and in small groups. Throughout the restoration, restorers would consult with sculptors from the Dazu Academy to ensure that each restored hand was in keeping with the statue’s overall style. Depending on the condition of each part, the restorer would also undertake some minor repair work, such as adding broken fingertips and completing chipped sections of hands. These newly added parts would be left unpainted, so that they could be visibly distinguished from the rest of the statue. Given the painstaking nature of the work, the restoration of the Thousand-Armed Avalokitesvara is projected to take up to three years, with completion slated for 2014. SACH and the Dazu Academy have reportedly invested 40 million yuan (US$6.48 million) into the project over the years.

5 baodingshan guanyin restoration

Figure 5: Baodingshan Guanyin Restoration.

One important observation to be made about the work completed so far is that researchers and conservators in Dazu are constantly in search of techniques and materials that are the most suitable for Baodingshan. This emphasis on local suitability has resulted from years of research and experimentation with a wide range of methods supplied by experts from around the world. More tellingly, it is the careful observation of the region’s climate and its profound impact on cave temples that has led the team to realize that any solution to the site’s conservation problems must reckon with the high temperature and high humidity of Chongqing. The constant exposure of the sculpture to water, be it in the form of rainfall, moisture from the river in front of the site, or groundwater from within the mountain, poses the greatest threat to the physical integrity of the stone, which in turn bears directly on the stability of the gold layer and other paints on its surface. The stone stabilizing liquid and the adhesive for the gold sheets, both of which were developed by the Dazu Academy conservators in partnership with a company in Gansu province, have proven to perform well in the local climate. It remains to be seen how long the materials will hold up, but the Dazu team has implemented the restoration according to the principles of modern conservation practice while making innovative adjustments to prescribed procedures. In so doing, it has set a significant model for future conservation projects at other cave temple sites in the region.

After the restoration of the Avalokitesvara statue is completed, the wooden-framed structure in front of the sculpture will be disassembled and rebuilt and reinforced with modern parts. This will mark the final step of the second phase and the entire project. The rebuilding of the front structure will also allow the conservation team to address some larger issues in the immediate setting of the statue that pose threats to its well-being. A more systematic drainage system to channel water from rainfall and from the mountain, for example, will be put in place throughout the surrounding cliff face. To have better control over air pollution from automobiles, the Dazu Academy will expand its foot-traffic zone to at least one-kilometer radius from the main complex, while redirecting roads around the entire site. The plan will certainly help improve the condition of the site, but acid rain remains a threat to the many sculptures at the site that are left unsheltered. Seeking a solution to this problem, however, is a far more complex process that would take years, because the industrial pollution that causes acid rain lies beyond Dazu and hence out of the legal jurisdiction of the World Heritage site and the local government.

A Lesson from Sichuan

What do all the recent developments at cultural heritage sites in Sichuan mean for researchers? One lesson to be learned from the two developments under discussion here is that the government agencies in charge of these places have a rather different understanding of research than that of the academic world. This understanding is molded largely by the administrative structure within which these agencies function. As with all facets of the Chinese government, a heritage management unit is a bureaucratic, top-down institution in which the agency’s priorities and budget are controlled by its director and the secretariat who serves as the unit’s liaison with the local government and Communist Party. Research is part of the operation only at larger or more prominent units — those officially designated as “academies” being at the highest tier in the hierarchy — where there are full-time researchers. Staff at smaller places would take on research projects mainly in their spare time, as their primary tasks lie elsewhere. But even at the larger units, research may refer to many different types of work, and historical topics do not always receive adequate attention or support, especially if the top leadership chooses to pursue other priorities such as site management, conservation, security, or tourism development. Under such circumstances, outside researchers would likely have a more difficult time gaining cooperation from the management unit for their projects. In some cases, they might even be treated like regular tourists and hence subject to paying admission fees. Likewise, photography might be restricted and its use for future publication subject to hefty permission fees.

From my experience in conducting fieldwork throughout Sichuan and Chongqing, most of the heritage sites have been prompt and gracious in offering assistance when solicited. Some no doubt received me out of commitment to scholarship and education or sheer compassion, while others likely did so for publicity purposes. Regardless of their motives, it would be wise not to assume that all heritage sites in China, even those on UNESCO’s list, share the same welcoming attitude that we find in most museums, libraries, and research centers in North America and Western Europe. Also, it is crucial to think about the broader significance of one’s project in a way that would make it equally meaningful to both sides. As conservation has become a top priority for all levels of heritage governance in China, now is an excellent time for the strategic development of innovative research projects that bring art history and conservation together.

Sonya S. Lee
Associate Professor of Chinese Art and Visual Cultures
University of Southern California

The author would like acknowledge the generous assistance offered by the following individuals during her visits to Nankan and Baodingshan: Li Fangyin, Li Xiaoqiang, and Chen Huili of the Dazu Academy; Lin Jinyong and He Hui of the Bazhong City Cultural Relics Bureau; and Li Shengming of the Bazhong Nankan Caves Research Institute.

For Further Reading

China ICOMOS. Principles for the Conservation of Heritage Sites in China. English-language text edited by Neville Agnew and Martha Demas. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 2002.

Fiskesjö, Magnus. “The Politics of Cultural Heritage.” In Reclaiming Chinese Society: The New Social Activism, ed. You-tien Hsing and Ching Kwan Lee, 225–245. London: Routledge, 2010.

Jokilehto, Jukka. A History of Architectural Conservation. Oxford: Butterworth Heinemann, 1999.

Labadi, Sophia. UNESCO, Cultural Heritage, and Outstanding Universal Value: Value-based Analyses of the World Heritage and Intangible Cultural Heritage Conventions. Lanham, Md.: Alta Mira Press, 2012.

Shen, Chen, and Chen, Hong. “Cultural Heritage Management in China.” In Cultural Heritage Management: A Global Perspective, ed. Phyllis M. Messenger and George S. Smith, 70–81. Gainsvilles: University of Florida Press, 2008.

Images: All photographs by Sonya S. Lee.

The views, perspectives, and opinions expressed here and by those providing comments are those of the author(s) and commentator(s) alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Dissertation Reviews, its members, editors, or advisory board members.

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