Forbes Prize Lecture 2014

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The Forbes prize lecture for 2014 was presented during the IIC Hong Kong congress by Dr Jixiang Shan.

(Fig.0 - click on the figures for larger version)

Dr Shan is currently the Director of the Palace Museum, Beijing, China (Figs.1,2). Before this appointment in 2012, he has been variously the Director of the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Cultural Heritage, Director of Beijing Municipal Commission of City Planning, and Director-General of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH), China. Dr Shan graduated from the School of Architecture of Tsinghua University with a doctoral degree (Doctor of Engineering) in urban planning, and he is a doctoral supervisor and adjunct professor of Beijing University and Tsinghua University. In 2005, he received an International Leadership Award from the American Planning Association, honouring his outstanding efforts and distinguished achievements in the field.

Dr Shan is a pioneer in historic preservation in China. His research on the conservation and planning of historical cities and heritage cultural areas started as early as in 1980-1984 when he pursued his studies in Japan. He has published more than 10 books and over 100 academic papers, including From ‘Functional City’ to ‘Cultural City’; Cultural Heritage Conservation & Urban Culture Renaissance; Retaining the ‘Root’ and ‘Soul’ of Urban Culture: The Exploration and Practice of Preserving China’s Cultural Heritage; and Secure Palace Museum, Thoughts and Practice: Collected Works of the Renchen Year.

During his term of office in SACH, Dr Shan has ardently promoted the preservation of cultural heritage in an era that has witnessed the ever-accelerating pace of urbanisation. He has commissioned nationwide surveys of cultural heritage sites and introduced the landmark National Historic Cultural Heritage Protection Law to provide a legal framework for heritage protection. His tireless efforts have led to the successful implementation of a number of major heritage conservation projects, including The Conservation and Dredging of the Imperial City Moat; The Conservation and Renovation of the Garden of Perfect Brightness Heritage Site; and The Conservation and Restoration of the Ming Dynasty City Wall.

The common people as the true owners of cultural heritage: Reflections on cases of collective heritage protection by farmers

During my ten years working in China for the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, I have come into contact with a great many cultural heritage protection teams and seen a host of conservation projects. Of these, several cases of farmers' collective participation in cultural heritage protection have left a profound impression.

The first case happened in Yangjia Village in Meixian County, Baoji, Shaanxi Province. On January 19 2003, Ningxian Wang and four other farmers were digging near the village when they unexpectedly discovered a cellar filled with a valuable collection of artifacts. Realizing that these were priceless treasures left by their ancestors, they decided immediately to inform the local government. Some of them remained to protect the scene while the others ran off to report the find. Hastening to the site, cultural heritage conservation workers were stunned by the exquisite artifacts before their eyes, and moved by the farmers' actions. Twenty-seven Western Zhou Dynasty bronzes in total were excavated, each bearing an inscription. These were truly national treasures. Archaeological research later demonstrated that the collection had immense historical, artistic and scientific values, and provided hard-to-come-by evidence for the Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project being conducted at the time. The farmers’ discovery was included in that year’s list of China's Top Ten Archaeological Discoveries, and they were invited to Beijing to celebrate their achievement (Fig.3). Media reports on the event also drew public attention and inspired further stirring acts in the local area: in the four years between 2003 and 2006, eleven groups of farmers in the same region, Baoji, discovered cultural artifacts, mainly bronzes, while carrying out farm work, and voluntarily handed these artifacts to the state. The artifacts protected by them have enriched museum collections. But it is not only the priceless treasures that are inspiring: still more so were the actions of those ordinary farmers in protecting the treasures. Baoji was where the Rites of Zhou was written, and thus one of the birthplaces of traditional Chinese culture. Since ancient times, the earth of this legendary ground has yielded great numbers of breathtakingly exquisite national treasures, bearing witness to the national spirit expressed in the Book of Changes: ‘sustaining all things with deep virtue’ and ‘unremitting self-improvement’. In the admirable actions of farmers to protect artifacts we see the local people displaying a selfless dedication to heritage preservation, growing out of their inheritance of the long and splendid cultural traditions of their locality.

The second example took place in Diping Town, Liping County, Guizhou Province. In a poverty-stricken mountain village in the Diping area, inhabited by people of Dong ethnicity with an annual per capita income below 700 RMB (slightly above $100 and slightly below €100), there was an age-old covered bridge. Named the Wind and Rain Bridge it had been included on the list of national priority protected sites for its significant historical and cultural values. On July 20 2004, in a once-in-a-century deluge, the river surged up and destroyed the bridge. 124 young villagers risked drowning by jumping into the floodwater to salvage its components. Soon afterwards, the villagers went on to search along the river, from Guizhou all the way to Guangxi, telling people in villages on their way that the timbers were parts of the Wind and Rain Bridge upstream and that they must recover them because their home town could not afford to lose the bridge. Over three days and three nights they retrieved 73% of the parts, including all of the 28 large components without which the bridge would have been impossible to reconstruct. The villagers' actions stand as a heroic feat in China’s history of cultural heritage conservation.

In the ceremony marking the reconstruction (Fig. 4), of the Wind and Rain Bridge, we observed the whole village singing and dancing joyfully - a truly moving scene. An elder resident told us that the Wind and Rain Bridge links the villages of Shangzhai and Xiazhai, home to more than 1,500 residents of Dong ethnicity. The Wind and Rain Bridge is the scene of leisure and festival activities, and on it young Dong men and women sing songs in the moonlight and express their love. The locals are proud of their bridge, regard it as a spiritual treasure, and from generation to generation have seen its protection as their duty. The bridge is part of their lives: the village children grow up sitting on the bridge listening to elders recounting stories about stockaded villages and singing Kgal Laox (Dong choral songs) about the bridge. The need to guard the bridge has for so long been in their blood that risking any danger to preserve it has become as natural as breathing. The spontaneous actions of the local people in saving the age-old bridge show that conservation awareness has reached its highest expression here.

The third case happened in Taoping Qiang Village, Lixian County, Sichuan Province. The Qiang people, an age-old ethnic group, have created a splendid ethnic culture and made great contributions to the continuation and development of Chinese civilization. During the Wenchuan earthquake on May 12 2008, a great number of Qiang cultural heritage sites were badly damaged. Taoping Qiang Village was in one of the hardest-hit areas. In this village many of the houses were Diao-style houses, high watch-towers mostly built with stone and some of adobe, which were often constructed on hilltops or hillsides and connected with one another. The building materials consisted chiefly of local stone fragments, yellow earth, and timber. Traditional Qiang artisans constructed the houses, each more than ten meters in height, and the higher towers, each several dozen meters tall, without recourse to measuring instruments and construction drawings. Upright, regular and magnificent, they constitute a unique wonder in world architectural history.

Following the earthquake, the villagers had to live in makeshift shelters, facing considerable inconvenience. Only two months after the earthquake, a post-disaster cultural heritage salvage and conservation project was launched in the earthquake-hit Taoping Qiang Village. The first problem encountered was by whom the project was to be implemented. Discussions led to the adoption of an unprecedented approach: the project was to be organized and supervised by organizations qualified for the conservation of national cultural heritage, and implemented by a trained renovation team consisting of local Qiang artisans. Before construction commenced, the team held two training sessions on the traditional skills and techniques used in Qiang architecture. Lecturers included experts on cultural heritage as well as senior heirs of Qiang architectural techniques. The training covered the characteristics of Qiang architecture, carpentry, tile work and stonework as well as conservation methods, and skilled artisans personally demonstrated their construction skills. More than a hundred trained Qiang artisans participated in the conservation and reconstruction project, which lasted for three years. The project not only restored all of the damaged residences, but also built for the Qiang area an engineering team skilled in traditional building methods, allowing for its unique architectural traditions to be preserved for future generations.

The fourth case happened in Turpan, in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Here are found karez systems, underground water supply systems dating back over two thousand years, which ancient people in arid desert regions invented to suit the local environment and hydrogeological characteristics. A karez system uses gently sloping manually dug tunnels to channel groundwater into an oasis for drinking water and irrigation. In recent years, however, with environmental degradation and excessive extraction of groundwater, the number of karez systems has seen a sharp decline. If not protected in time, they are likely to disappear in decades. It was therefore decided that funds be allocated to reinforce the karez systems in Turpan. Two different renovation methods were initially designed: one was to line shaft walls with cement, and the other was to reinforce shaft walls with supports and potassium silicate solution. The former would significantly alter the historic state of the karez systems’ physical fabric and thus do harm to their authenticity as cultural heritage, while the latter would face the same problem while requiring excessively high costs, demanding several million RMB (roughly half a million US dollars or European euros) for each karez system to be repaired.

Local villagers were then consulted to find a better plan that could enable not only effective repair of the karez systems but also proper preservation of their authenticity. Inquiries revealed that some villagers still possessed sophisticated techniques for constructing and repairing karez systems, which had been passed down from generation to generation for centuries and which required only tens of thousands of RMB to repair a single karez system. It was finally decided that the karez systems should be repaired using a combined approach, using modern materials and construction methods for the salvage and conservation of structurally weak and severely dangerous sections, and employing traditional local techniques for the rest. The approach allowed not only minimal intervention in the karez systems' authenticity as cultural heritage but also ensured the passing down of traditional ethnic techniques from generation to generation, preserving both the tangible and intangible cultural heritage while restoring the water supply functions of the more dysfunctional karez systems to provide lasting benefits for local people.

Who created cultural heritage? Who are the true owners of cultural heritage? And who should be the main force for the conservation of cultural heritage? These are fundamental issues for conservation. The moving stories told above fully show that the broad masses of ordinary people are not only aware of but also emotionally engaged in preservation. As a matter of public interest that benefits both current and future generations, conservation must involve the broad masses of ordinary people. Numerous valuable cultural relics were first discovered and protected precisely by ordinary people. If they had had no awareness of cultural heritage protection and had taken no immediate protective action, those valuable cultural relics could have been damaged or even destroyed before anyone else found out. Despite rampant present-day robbery and smuggling of cultural relics for monetary gain, the Shaanxi farmers valued justice over money and donated the ‘national treasures’ so that they could be preserved. While historic precincts, villages or towns in some places are demolished on a large scale in favor of new construction projects, causing the destruction of a great number of traditional buildings, the Guizhou farmers fought to defend their ‘bridge of life’ so that the Diping Wind and Rain Bridge could be reconstructed. These noble deeds show local people's high awareness of the need for the conservation of traditional culture, and should be respected by the whole of society. More importantly, that this conservation can be made a common cause for millions upon millions of people suggests that cultural heritage values, which are a universally accepted part of modern civilization, are taking shape in this country.

In fact, the fate of every cultural heritage site is inextricably linked to the common people and affects the feelings of every family. It is only possible to change ‘struggle by a few’ to ‘concerted efforts’ when local people plunge with great enthusiasm into the cause of protecting cultural heritage in their own communities. In this sense, therefore, the conservation of cultural heritage is not just the duty of governments and cultural heritage departments at various levels, but also a social responsibility that every citizen should shoulder.

The common people are the creators, users, guardians, and, ultimately, the true owners of cultural heritage. Their active participation and support represent the decisive force on which the cause of cultural heritage relies for existence and development; they are its future hope. Both the Diao-style buildings and villages of the Qiang people and the karez systems of Turpan are creations that local people have built over centuries with their wisdom, and it is these people that best understand the meaning of this heritage in their daily life. Today, the central purpose of conserving this heritage is to protect the splendid creations of local people so that they can be passed down and benefit both current and future generations. Therefore, the common people should become an important force for heritage conservation.

Through organization and training in traditional skills, local people can actively participate in cultural heritage salvage and conservation programs, resulting in unexpected benefits. First, in the work of reconstructing and maintaining their own hometowns with their own hands, local people are sure to gain an enhanced sense of pride, honor and responsibility for their locality, ensuring the quality of conservation projects. Second, these projects can realize the aim of ‘work in place of charity’: local people can, through their labor, increase their income and improve their living standards. Third, local people's active participation in conservation projects can encourage more neighborhood residents to master renovation skills so that traditional crafts can be passed down from generation to generation.

Today, levels of public awareness and the ability to cherish and conserve cultural heritage have become one of the factors the international community considers in appraising the qualities of citizens. It is therefore necessary to constantly strengthen the public's understanding of the value and importance of cultural heritage, enhance their habitual conservation awareness, and encourage more people to care for and take part in the conservation of cultural heritage, so that the general public can benefit. These are my reflections on the post-disaster salvation project for Taoping Qiang Village and the repair of the karez systems in Turpan.

The conservation of cultural heritage requires conservation professionals and cultural heritage management departments to perform their duties like soldiers guarding their homeland. At the same time it requires the general public's active participation. As our objects of conservation have existed for decades, centuries, or even thousands of years, their physical fabrics have often suffered severe damage, and their original surroundings have also undergone a complete transformation. At the same time, we cannot neglect changes of another kind: with original ways of life and production vanishing, some aspects of cultural heritage have gradually become increasingly hard to understand, and with the passing of time local people have become estranged from and indifferent to their cultural heritage. With regard to the former problem, we are doing our utmost to protect cultural artifacts and their environments from further damage and deterioration by means of conservation techniques and engineering measures. With regard to the latter, however, as often as not little attention has been paid to the issue of how to overcome local people's weakening connection with and indifference to their cultural heritage. We often fail to include ‘establishing connections’ and ‘developing a sense of attachment’ as part of our conservation work. Weakening connections and indifference in fact lead to a progressively greater sense of distance between the general public and their cultural heritage, and may severely harm the sustainable and healthy development of the heritage cause. We should actively promote the idea that the public are the true owners of cultural heritage, and strive for understanding and participation from the general public, especially local residents, whether in historic precincts, villages or towns, in archaeological excavations and the repair of cultural buildings, or in museum construction and exhibition programs. Only with the general public guarding cultural heritage properties willingly, lastingly and wholeheartedly, can cultural heritage have the dignity it deserves, and only through this dignity can cultural heritage be filled with life and become the pride of local neighborhoods and citizens.