Treasuring the past

With some of the most significant archaeological sites in the world, China faces major challenges to preserve its valuable heritage

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April 24-30, 2017
in Sydney

From a distance it looks like a small hill covered with trees. However, beneath its surface — at the foot of Lishan Mountain, just outside Xi’an in Northwest China’s Shaanxi Province — is the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, founder of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) and the first emperor of a unified China.

Covering some 56 square kilometers, it is said to be one of the greatest archaeological sites in the world.

“When you see it for the first time you cannot help but be moved by its scale,” said Sydney University archaeologist Peter Jia, who has visited the site many times.

Apart from the mausoleum, the site contains an estimated 600 burial tombs including those of the Terracotta Warriors. More than 8,000 of the life-sized sculptures had been buried with the emperor to help protect him in the afterlife. They were discovered by farmers in 1974.

“The tomb itself (the hill) has never been entered since the emperor was interned,” said Jia.

“From ancient scripts we have an idea of what lies below the surface — a map of his empire with the Yellow River and Yangtze River filled with mercury.

“We know this because high density levels or mercury have been detected at the base of the burial mount,” he told China Daily Asia Weekly.

Jia said that ancient documents show the emperor insisted on a full life-size replica of his palace. Once built, it was covered with earth that was then pounded down.

“One unearthed pit nearby contains the skeletal remains of some of the thousands of workers who built the tomb.”

The site was granted a World Heritage listing by UNESCO in 1987. Since then, dozens of sites around China have been added to the list.

The Great Wall, which stretches for 20,000 km across northern China, was listed the same year.

“In 220 BC, under Qin Shi Huang, sections of earlier fortifications were joined together to form a united defense system against invasions from the north,” according to UNESCO.

“Construction continued up to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), when the Great Wall became the world’s largest military structure. Its historic and strategic importance is matched only by its architectural significance.”

China now ranks second in the world with 50 sites on the UNESCO World Heritage list, just behind Italy with 51.

Among the 50 heritage sites are the 1,600-year-old Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes, which are carved into the cliffs above the Dachuan River, southeast of the Dunhuang oasis, in Northwest China’s Gansu province.

This was a strategic point along the Silk Route, at the “crossroads of trade as well as religious, cultural and intellectual influences”, according to UNESCO.

Listed by UNESCO in 1987, the site comprises the world’s largest, most richly endowed and longest used treasure house of Buddhist art.

The 492 cells and cave sanctuaries in Mogao are famous for their statues and wall paintings, spanning 1,000 years of Buddhist art.


“As evidence of the evolution of Buddhist art in the northwest region of China, the Mogao Caves are of unmatched historical value,” according to UNESCO.

The discovery of the Library Cave at the Mogao Caves in 1990, together with the tens of thousands of manuscripts and relics it contained, has been acclaimed as the world’s greatest discovery of ancient Oriental culture.

In July, the 41st session of the World Heritage Committee will meet in Krakow, Poland.

Gulangyu, a scenic island off Xiamen, in East China’s Fujian province, is expected to be added to the World Heritage list, along with Kekexili, a region in the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau where a national reserve zone was established, as a natural heritage candidate.

Situated on the highland between Kunlun Mountain range and Ulan Ul Mountain, Kekexili has an altitude of 4,500 to 5,000 meters and an average temperature of -4 C. It has some of the world’s most extreme weather, no human habitation, and is one of the most important habitats for plateau wildlife.

The piece of land traversed by Kekexili and Dongbule Mountain also has broad lake basins. It is the largest depopulated zone in China and one of the most well-preserved primitive areas.

“It is exciting to think China will possibly have two more sites on the UNESCO World Heritage list and one of them a natural site,” said Zhu Yujie, a lecturer in Canberra at the Center for Heritage and Museum Studies, at the Australian National University’s School of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Zhu said China has some of the most significant archaeological sites in the world but faces problems in the more remote areas maintaining them.

Although the Honghe Hani Rice Terraces in Southwest China’s Yunnan province are not remote, “the young are leaving”, he said.

The rice terraces are among the most spectacular in the world, cascading down the slopes of the Ailao Mountains into the valley below. They cover 16,603 hectares, and the local Hani people have been tending crops there for over 1,300 years.

“It’s hard work for little return, but government on various levels is working on programs to try and keep some young people on the terraces,” said Zhu.

Tourism is bringing benefits to local communities. “This can take on many forms,” he said. “For example, ethnic tourism could function as a platform for intellectuals studying ethnic culture or a laboratory to display and export ethnic handicrafts that might alleviate poverty in some areas.

“Another is the development of ecomuseums, which bring heritage and tourism together.”

Ecomuseums originated in France in the 1970s. The term refers to a holistic interpretation of cultural heritage versus the specialized focus of traditional museums, according to Zhu.

“The stress in these museums lies on the identity of a place, local participation and the development of local communities, which avoids relocating people or building museums, particularly in regions that have suffered serious reversals of fortune such as rural or formerly industrial areas,” he said.

According to Zhu, there are more than 400 ecomuseums globally, with the majority in Europe.

In 1997, the China Society of Museum Studies, Southwest China’s Guizhou Cultural Heritage Bureau and the Norwegian government launched the Sino-Norwegian Ecomuseum Program. Since then, China has seen a nationwide wave of ecomuseums.

At the Suoga Miao Ecomuseum, established in Guizhou province in 1998, “the collective memory of Miao people is documented through oral recordings in their own language,” Zhu said.

“The branding of the Suoga village as an ‘ecomuseum’ assigned cultural landscapes and traditions not only a value for preservation but also for consumption through tourism development,” he said.

Jia from Sydney University pointed out that tourism needs to be closely monitored.

“While it does bring in much-needed revenue for local communities and helps in the preservation of cultural sites, it can also cause irreversible damage,” he said.

“The dilemma between preservation and exploitation is a major issue facing the Chinese authorities.”

Professor David Faure from the Centre for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) said local governments want their heritage recognized, but preservation remains a challenge.

“The motives probably include a blend of pride of place and commercial possibilities, such as tourism,” he told China Daily Asia Weekly.

“Many of the heritage sites I have visited, I don’t think preservation is done very well.

“Most of the time, there is too much rebuilding and lack of an appreciation for what remains in situ. Rebuilding efforts do not as a rule pay a great deal of attention to historical details,” he said.

Faure added that another problem is the looting of ancient sites.

“I don’t know about the international market; I understand there is a very substantial internal market.

“We are not talking only about high-worth items in monetary terms; dealers have gutted villages for their furniture, and now even written texts,” he said.

Partners in protection UNESCO works with local agencies across Asia to save heritage sites from damage caused by tourism and natural disasters

April 24-30, 2017
in Hong Kong
For China Daily Asia Weekly

From historical port towns to ancient temples, Asia is home to some of the world’s most iconic cultural heritage sites. However, the risks to these sites posed by wear and tear from environmental factors, tourism damage and the potential for catastrophic natural disasters are often ignored.

Aware that protecting these sites is important work, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee is increasingly working with local or national governments to develop better protection plans. But with so many sites requiring extensive conservation efforts, the agency may have its work cut out for the foreseeable future.

One example of how some of the most important heritage sites around the region can suffer damage is Borobudur — the world’s largest Buddhist temple and an iconic UNESCO World Heritage site — in Central Java, Indonesia.

The ninth-century Mahayana Buddhist temple has been a popular place of worship, pilgrimage and tourism since it underwent a major renovation by UNESCO in 1973.

The monument is the most visited tourist attraction in Indonesia. It brought in some 3.8 million visitors in 2016 alone, according to figures from the Borobudur Temple Tourist Park management.

The World Heritage Committee identified damage by tourism as one of the main areas of concern under the present state of conservation. Despite the high volume of tourists it attracts, there are no systems currently in place to control or limit the number of visitors.

According to Marsis Sutopo, head of the Borobudur Conservation Office (BCO), the effects of tourism are starting to show in the site’s infrastructure, especially during peak season when tourists arrive in droves.

The high volume of tourists going up and down Borobudur’s narrow stairs daily has caused severe erosion on the 2,033 stone steps. Almost half of these stone surfaces are heavily worn. To prevent further damage, two main sections of the Borobudur stairs have been covered with wooden structures since November 2014. This was a joint effort by UNESCO, the BCO, Gadjah Mada University and the University of Indonesia.

The same technique has previously been applied at other heritage sites, such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the Egyptian pyramids. In March 2015, the BCO made a proposal to use rubber covers to protect the stone stairs. There have also been suggestions to issue special sandals for visitors at the site.

Authorities, both at the national and supranational level, are looking for ways to better protect the myriad cultural heritage sites peppered throughout Asia, but these plans often come up against the challenges of growth.

In Borobudur, the Indonesian government is reportedly considering plans to limit the number of people climbing it at any one time to 15, even as it works on developments that will bring in bigger numbers to the area. The government is planning to build a direct road linking the future Yogyakarta airport to the Borobudur area and is working on developing the surrounding districts as tourism hotspots.

Meanwhile, UNESCO is working with governments, researchers and non-governmental organizations on developing an integrated plan for disaster risk reduction at heritage sites.

Since it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008, George Town, on the island of Penang in Malaysia, has yet to develop an action plan to deal with natural or man-made disasters. However, in a sign of changes afoot, it will now be included with three other pilot sites — Malacca in Malaysia, Jakarta Old Town in Indonesia and Levuka historical port town in Fiji — in a project to develop risk management plans.

Buddhist monks pray at the Borobudur Temple in Central Java, Indonesia, on May 20, 2016. Credit: AFP

A two-day workshop in April organized by the UNESCO offices in Jakarta and Apia in cooperation with George Town World Heritage Incorporated and the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property kicked off this initiative.

“The objective of this project is to build capacity for disaster risk reduction of heritage cities in Southeast Asia and small island developing states in the Pacific with a view to develop strategies and integrate them into the overall heritage management plan of heritage cities,” Bernards A Zalo, head of the culture unit of the UNESCO Jakarta office, said at a press conference.

Lee Ho Yin, head of architectural conservation programs at the University of Hong Kong, said this is a good move. He suggested that besides disaster risk reduction, countries should also exchange ideas and plans on tourism and site management.

Blocking tourism is not the answer, Lee said, as it is essential for cultural conservation efforts. “If there’s no money, there’s no conservation. Both feed into each other.

“To prevent vandalism and damage by tourists, it’s essential that these heritage sites cater to cultural tourists rather than mass tourists.”

He added that UNESCO can work with non-governmental organizations on marketing and attracting tourists with an interest in cultural heritage.

“They can also work together on training locals for better site and tourist management. More public-private partnerships can also be grown from such collaborations. All of this will go a long way with conservation efforts in the long run.”

Heavy tourist traffic is only one of the risks these sites face. Natural disasters like volcanic eruptions, floods and earthquakes also threaten the preservation of many heritage sites in Asia.

The eruption of Mount Merapi in 2010 heavily affected Borobudur. Layers of volcanic ash up to 2.5 centimeters thick covered the grounds and destroyed vegetation in the area. There were worries that the acidic ash would severely damage the site.

UNESCO donated $3 million and worked with the BCO on rehabilitating the site. More than 55,000 stone blocks of the temple’s structure were dismantled to restore the clogged drainage system, which had been blocked by slurry.

In Thailand, the Ratchaburana Temple in the ancient capital of Ayutthaya was left severely damaged following a flood in 2011. The temple complex located inside the Ayutthaya Historical Park, a UNESCO cultural world heritage site, had many of its buildings damaged by the flood.

Germany’s Cultural Preservation Program financed the restoration project for the heritage site with a grant of 520,000 euros ($559,000) through the German embassy in Bangkok. After five years, the project was recently completed. The team managed to preserve Buddha statues, floral decorations, lime stucco and plaster remains. They also completed an inventory of stone Buddha fragments and wall paintings in the crypt.

Elsewhere in the region, similar partnerships in conservation have been formed between local bodies and UNESCO following natural disasters.

The 2015 earthquake in Nepal devastated the country’s cultural and natural heritage, including 691 historic buildings in 16 districts, of which 131 fully collapsed.

Centuries-old buildings at UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Kathmandu Valley were destroyed in the earthquake, including those at Kathmandu Durbar Square, the Patan Durbar Square, the Boudhanath stupa and the Swayambhunath stupa.

“The rehabilitation of Nepal’s museums and historical buildings following the 2015 earthquake has a deep, positive impact on the economic and social development of the country,” said Christian Manhart, director of UNESCO’s Kathmandu office.

“There is a tremendous sense of identity, determination and hope that comes with the reopening of museums and the restoration of temples.”

Lee from the University of Hong Kong believes that cultural conservation does more than just preserve the past. It is also about developing what is in the present for the future.

“Cultural conservation is important for strengthening a sense of place,” he said.

“UNESCO and their collaborators should work on fostering, educating and developing the communities in the areas of those heritage sites. These people will be the ones who play a very important role in the continuous conservation of these cultural heritage sites.”

Defenders of the forests Environmental groups seek to counter industrial plans which threaten Indonesia’s rich biodiversity

April 24-30, 2017

On the Indonesian island of Sumatra lies the ancient Leuser Ecosystem. At 2.6 million hectares, the UNESCO World Heritage site is a hotspot of biodiversity where elephants, rhinos, orangutans and tigers roam free.

But a wave of destructive industrial projects is posing a major threat to the future of the habitat, which is located in the provinces of Aceh and North Sumatra.

In March, a group of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) reached out to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre with an extensive report in a move to stop the construction of a geothermal power plant that could damage the ecosystem.

These NGOs include the Orangutan Information Center, the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program and the Forest, Nature and Environment of Aceh, known as HAkA.

The NGO report highlighted serious omissions and contradictions in the 2017 report submitted by Indonesia to UNESCO about the conservation of the Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra (TRHS) site — a large part of which lies within the Leuser Ecosystem.

The TRHS site has been on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger since 2011.

The Leuser Ecosystem is representative of the threats faced by natural heritage sites in Asia as a result of economic and demographic growth.

“We shouldn’t see nature as separate from us. The environment is what sustains us and we need to sustain nature for the good of humankind,” said Farwiza Farhan, chairperson of HAkA.

“Conservation is the antithesis of exploitation,” she said. “By saving the environment, whether they are UNESCO natural heritage sites or otherwise, we are stopping the exploitation of the natural world.”

However, throughout the region, not enough emphasis has been put on conservation.

A recent study published in the journal Biological Conservation found that as many as 91 percent of forested sites in Asia have suffered losses, including 20 sites that are damaged beyond repair.

Some of the worst affected are in Southeast Asia, including the Komodo National Park in Indonesia and Kinabalu Park in Malaysia. Both are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Some governments are starting to recognize the importance of protecting such natural heritage sites, as well as their flora and fauna. Both Indonesia and Malaysia, for example, have made efforts to protect the rafflesia, the world’s largest flower.

But in few places in Asia is the destruction of rainforests as evident as in the Leuser Ecosystem.

Ian Singleton, director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program, pointed out that the Leuser Ecosystem is the “largest remaining contiguous rainforest ecosystem in the whole of Southeast Asia”.

“It’s also the last real hope for the survival of some of the world’s most iconic large mammal species, like the Sumatran tiger, elephant, rhino and orangutan, and many other rare and threatened species,” he said.

“Many like these are endemic to the region and found nowhere else on the planet.”

Indonesian mahouts train an elephant for patrol against illegal logging at the Leuser Ecosystem corridor in Sumatra on April 16, 2016. Credit: AFP

Hitay Panas Energi, a Turkish energy company, has been lobbying the Indonesian government to remove protections from a “core zone” of the Leuser Ecosystem to allow for the construction of a power plant.

The company had gained the support of the previous governor of Aceh province. However, the new governor-elect has stated he will cancel the Hitay project.

But Farhan of HAkA feels that the danger is far from over. “We are alarmed to know the company is still pushing to overrule this decision by Aceh’s incoming governor,” she said.

“Hitay is holding closed meetings with the Ministry of Environment and Forestry and its various departments in an attempt to manipulate Indonesia’s laws and enable the project to go ahead.”

Farhan said Hitay wants the space downgraded from a core zone to a utilization area.

“Having the UNESCO World Heritage site status is no guarantee that it will be safe from a downgrade,” she said.

“We will not sit by and watch as our forests are sold off to foreign-owned companies and (we) urge the Ministry of Environment and Forestry to reject any requests to destroy the legally protected Leuser Ecosystem.”

Hitay declined to offer any comment on the status of the project.

Feng Jing, chief of the Asia and Pacific unit at the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, has acknowledged the NGO report. “We have received and are considering the merits of the report. We will present it at the (annual) World Heritage Committee meeting in Poland this July,” he said.

The Hitay plan to build a power plant is not the only issue. A number of large hydroelectric dams have also been proposed in the area that could considerably undermine the integrity of the Leuser Ecosystem.

Panut Hadisiswoyo, director of the Orangutan Information Center, said the March report highlights serious threats to Leuser’s forests.

“They include several hydropower dams and geothermal energy plans being proposed in critical areas, a continuous lack of law enforcement throughout the region, and the devastating construction of new roads that carve up and fragment forests and wildlife populations, rendering them increasingly vulnerable to extinction.”

Mega power projects in and around the Leuser Ecosystem are not in the best interests of Aceh’s people either, he said.

“Not only do they lead to dependence on just a few large plants, they also devastate entire forested regions with all the roads and infrastructure they need, leading to more frequent and more intense environmental disasters — a problem from which the region already suffers disproportionately.”

In contrast, Hadisiswoyo noted, small hydro power programs have been far more effective and ecologically sensitive solutions to northern Sumatra’s energy issues.

“It’s ironic that such a precious and valuable ecosystem like Leuser, with all its biodiversity, could be obliterated in the name of renewable energy.”

Hadisiswoyo said that the current construction plans in Leuser mean that the threat has never been so severe for the last place on Earth “where so many endangered animals still live together in the wild”.

“We implore the World Heritage Committee to take urgent steps to prevent all these plans being implemented in Leuser,” he said.

“These projects would destroy critically important habitat areas of the Sumatran orangutan, which is listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as a critically endangered species on its Red List of Threatened Species.”

Singleton of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program noted that the government’s move away from traditional nonrenewable sources and toward renewable energy is a step in the right direction.

However, “clearly not all renewable energy is sustainable if it means destroying a protected landscape and a UNESCO World Heritage site”, he added.

Top 10 ancient sites of 2016 Experts select the best Chinese archaeological finds from last year, with an emphasis on their relevance to advancing academic research

April 24-30, 2017


Chinese archaeologists worked at more than 2,000 sites in 2016, and experts have selected the 10 best ones.

Among the Top 10 Archaeological Discoveries of China in 2016, which were announced on April 12, are the remains of a 2,000-year-old city unearthed on the outskirts of Beijing and items uncovered in the cradle of Shanghai that point to the ancient Maritime Silk Road.

Remnants of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) city of Luxian, covering 350,000 square meters in the capital’s Tongzhou district, are among the top finds. The site was discovered during urban construction work for Beijing’s future administrative center.

“The basic layout of the ancient city has been figured out, and many important relics were found that show Beijing’s early history, but a few more years will be needed to fully study the site with follow-up excavations,” said Liu Qingzhu, one of the judges of the Top 10 finds and academic director of the Institute of Archaeology, affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The judging panel was composed of 21 experts from institutions, including the Palace Museum, the National Museum of China and Peking University. They took part in this year’s annual poll, which has been called “the Academy Awards of Chinese archaeology”.

Liu said that town ruins from the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) found in Shanghai’s Qingpu district indicate a lesser-known direction of the ancient Maritime Silk Road trade route.

“Previous studies often focused on southern routes,” Liu said. “Findings in the town not only unveiled an early-stage city in Shanghai, but also a route leading to the Korean Peninsula and Japan.”

Wang Wei, head of the Society of Chinese Archaeology, said preparation work for urban construction has been a main source of the discovery of archaeological sites, but Chinese archaeologists also have been trying to undertake projects away from cities.

That led to the discovery last year of some important prehistoric relics. At a 13,000-year-old site in Northwest China’s Ningxia Hui autonomous region, for instance, rare and exquisite ornaments made of ostrich eggs were excavated. This is also an award winner.

“People used to have a stereotype that there can hardly be any top-tier findings later than the Song Dynasty (960-1279),” he said. “But the time distribution of the 10 findings is more balanced this year.”

Nevertheless, Wang said physical beauty is not a prerequisite to be among the Top 10.

“We place more emphasis on whether the findings are relevant in academic research, even if some objects are not that good-looking from the public’s point of view,” he said.

Employing more study methods from the natural sciences has become a new trend in Chinese archaeology.

For example, plant seeds were found among some sites and had to be identified and the chemical analysis of materials found at an ancient mining site was needed.

Chariots given pride of place

April 24-30, 2017

Bronze chariots that belonged to the first Chinese emperor are to be moved from a cramped underground showroom to a new exhibition hall in Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum.

The museum, in the northwestern city of Xi’an, is known as home to the 2,000-year-old Terracotta Warriors. It will build the new hall for the horse-drawn chariots as part of an overhaul this year designed to accommodate a surge in visitors to the site, said Zhou Kuiying, deputy director of the Shaanxi Provincial Administration of Cultural Heritage. Zhou added that the underground showroom is too crowded during peak season.

The renovation’s timeline and other details have yet to be disclosed. Emperor Qinshihuang, who died in 210 BC, is remembered for unifying China and joining segments of the Great Wall to form an unbroken military barrier. He had an army of clay warriors and horses created for his afterlife.

The terracotta army figures around his mausoleum represent one of the greatest archaeological finds of modern times. It was discovered in Lintong county, 35 kilometers east of Xi’an, in 1974 by farmers who were digging a well. The mausoleum was later declared a national heritage site and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The museum received about 2 million visitors annually before 2012. In 2016, 5.6 million people visited.

A bronze chariot on display in Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum, in Xi’an, Northwest China’s Shaanxi province. Credit: Provided to China Daily

Stepping up to protect global relics China has responded to a call for nations to look after endangered cultural artifacts from around the world

April 24-30, 2017

China’s national body overseeing the protection of the nation’s historical heritage has vowed to respond to the call to establish “safe havens” for cultural properties from regions in conflict.

“Development of a network of safe havens will allow China to offer temporary asylum for endangered cultural heritage,” said Liu Yuzhu, director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, during a seminar in Beijing.

“National-level museums and conservation institutions are encouraged to support international actions protecting these artifacts,” he added.

China began considering taking action in December, when Liu attended an international conference in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, on safeguarding endangered cultural heritage items.

Liu also encouraged Chinese enterprises to donate more to international foundations involved in protecting cultural heritage.

China will expand its conservation efforts beyond the nation’s borders and thus better serve China’s overall diplomacy, he said. However, a timeline for the effort was not released, and the institution responsible for overseeing it has not been named.

Pan Shouyong, a professor of museum studies at Minzu University of China in Beijing, said such a network was first advocated by UNESCO to respond to the endangerment of cultural relics created by wars and other threats in recent years.

“It’s an international responsibility to aid the artifacts in danger,” Pan said. “Now it is clear that China will accept the responsibility.”

Huo Zhengxin, a professor of international law at China University of Political Science and Law, said there have been several successful examples of such protection in Europe, though the “safe haven” concept is relatively new.

For example, when the Taliban group effectively ruled Afghanistan, many cultural relics were secretly transported to a museum in Switzerland and were temporarily housed there until 2006, when they were taken back to the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul.

Additionally, Huo said, the British Museum once supported the maintenance of Iraqi museums’ operations when the country’s cultural heritage management system became paralyzed during the Iraq War in 2003.

He added that an international convention signed in The Hague in 1954 stipulates that cultural property temporarily stored in other countries due to conflict must be sent back after the conflict ends.

“China has a stable political and economic environment, which is an advantage for having such safe havens,” Huo said. “China also has leading expertise and technology in relevant fields.”

However, he added, more complete rules and laws are needed to aid the effort to set up safe havens for relics.

Liu from the State Administration of Cultural Heritage said China is conducting cross-border joint archaeological projects in 15 countries. Major China-led restoration projects at such sites as Ta Keo Temple in Angkor Wat, Cambodia, and Bhimsen Tower in Kathmandu, Nepal, have provided much experience regarding efforts abroad to conserve cultural relics.

Chai Xiaoming, head of the Chinese Academy of Cultural Heritage, which is in charge of the projects, said:“Though international cooperation on cultural relics usually has a smaller scale and investment compared with other types of projects, the influence is much bigger.” Chai added that cultural relics “represent history and people’s deep emotions”.

Pagoda body comes home to Shanxi Monastery in Taiwan helps to return stolen relic to province where it was built 1,300 years ago

April 24-30, 2017
in Taiyuan

Nearly 20 years after it was stolen, the body of a 1,300-year-old stone Buddhist pagoda has been returned to its home in the northern Shanxi province with the best wishes from pilgrims across the Taiwan Straits, officials said on April 16.

The 1.77-meter component, part of a 3.2-m pagoda, was located in Dengyu village in Shanxi’s Yushe county. Based on inscriptions on the pagoda, it appears to have been made in 720 AD. It was included in Shanxi’s first provincial list of key protection cultural relics as early as in 1965.

However, its top part was stolen in 1996, and the body became lost two years later. Its octagonal foundation and eaves were left at the site.

“It’s rare to see such an exquisite stone pagoda of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) in Shanxi, even though our province has abundant Buddhist cultural relics,” said Shi Jinming, director of the Shanxi Museum, where a ceremony on April 16 was held to announce the pagoda body’s return. The artifact was quietly returned to the museum in January.

“The figures are elegant and vivid,” he said. “What the artifact reveals is the typically prosperous flavor during the zenith of the Tang Dynasty.”

A ceremony marking the return of a 1,300-year-old stone Buddhist pagoda body to its home in Shanxi province is held in the Shanxi Museum on April 16. Credit: Hu Yuanjia / China Daily

Four facades of the pagoda body are carved with Buddhist reliefs and decorated with color drawings. The inscriptions also include important historical information, Shi said.

In 2015, the pagoda body was donated by a private collector to Chung Tai Chan Monastery in Nantou county, Taiwan. Nevertheless, Abbot Wei Chueh, who since has died, founder of the monastery, showed willingness to return it via his delegates who visited the State Administration of Cultural Heritage in February 2016, noting “it was possibly an artifact stolen from Shanxi around 2000”.

An official in charge of cultural relic repatriation under the administration was on a business trip in 2015, taking in Yushe county, where he was told by locals that the pagoda may have been taken to Taiwan. Even as the administration pursued clues to confirm this theory, the pagoda body was returned.

An expert panel was organized to compare the artifact with old pictures and files of the lost pagoda in Shanxi. They determined the two matched perfectly, and the Shanxi Museum and the monastery signed an agreement in August 2016 for the pagoda body to be returned.

“It was Wei Chueh’s last wish to take this pagoda body back to enhance religion and art exchange across the Taiwan Straits,” Abbot Jian Deng from the monastery said at a ceremony marking the item’s return.

Still, no one knows where the rest of the pagoda is.

“This is a remarkable event to set a good example for similar cases in the future,” said Guan Qiang, deputy director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage. “It encourages more people’s good deeds to better protect cultural relics and bring more lost artifacts back.”

The returned pagoda body will be exhibited in Shanxi Museum until May 21, and it is unclear whether it will be housed at the museum or moved it to Yushe county after, Shi from the museum said.

“If safety conditions allow, it’s good to let it go back home in the village,” Shi said.

Desert warrior guards heritage Archaeologist overcomes tremendous odds to preserve ancient cultural treasures at China’s Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes

April 24-30, 2017

If it had not been for Fan Jinshi and her team, the world cultural heritage at Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes in a remote Chinese desert might have long been destroyed by sand, weather or humans. Born and raised in Shanghai, Fan has spent half a century fighting an uphill battle to preserve the ancient Buddhist wall paintings at Dunhuang, in Northwest China’s Gansu province.

“It was not that I favored my job over my family, I just could not bear the guilt of having our ancestors’ legacy destroyed,” she said in Beijing while attending the annual session of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in March.

The 1,600-year-old Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes contain a huge collection of Buddhist art — more than 2,000 Buddha figures and 45,000 square meters of paintings spread among 735 caves.

It is China’s first UNESCO World Heritage site.

Archaeologist Fan was sent to Dunhuang after graduating from Peking University in 1963. Her college sweetheart was assigned a teaching job thousands of kilometers away in Wuhan, in Central China’s Hubei province.

While in Dunhuang, a desert outpost then, Fan lived in an abandoned temple. At first, she did not even dare go out to the toilet at night.

“I saw a pair of shining eyes in the dark. I thought it was a wolf,” she said, before finding out that the eyes belonged to a donkey.

To protect the treasures from sand and dampness, Fan and other workers put doors on the caves, planted trees and started monitoring temperature and humidity in the caves. They also control the number of visitors.

“The carbon dioxide that people exhale in the caves accumulates and will damage the paintings, so we allow a maximum of 3,000 tourists each day.”

Main: Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes in Northwest China’s Gansu province contain a huge collection of Buddhist art. Inset: Fan Jinshi, archaeologist and retired director of the Dunhuang Research Academy. Credit: Sun Zifa / For China Daily

In the late 1990s, with tourism booming nationwide since national holidays were extended, the local government planned to go public with Dunhuang Mogao, but found Fan firmly in their way. “The legacy would have been destroyed if it had been listed,” she said.

The Dunhuang Research Academy has now photographed and cataloged online all the sculptures and paintings. “Despite our efforts to minimize damage, we can’t completely stop them from being eroded. But the digital database will last.”

Fan was grateful when her husband joined her in Dunhuang in 1986 after 19 years of separation. Her two sons grew up in Shanghai with their aunt.

“I have not been a good mother or wife. With regard to my family, I’m full of guilt,” she said.

Fan, 79, retired two years ago as director of the academy but continues her efforts as a national political adviser.

She has spent International Women’s Day (March 8) in Beijing for the past 25 years as the CPPCC typically convenes for its annual sessions in early March.

As one of the longest serving CPPCC members, Fan has raised many proposals for protecting China’s heritage. Some have been accepted and led to changes in policy.

Fan recalls the proposal she made in 2003 which led to the establishment of the Dunhuang Tourism Information Center. The digital center opened to the public in 2014 after 11 years of research, verification, planning and construction.

“The center helps tourists have a better understanding of what we do here, and doubles our tourist capacity,” said Fan.

Another proposal resulted in changes to a planned railway line, which she thought would damage the grottoes.

For the past two years, she has been working on a proposal to use technology to protect sites across the country.

She proposed that the Ministry of Science and Technology prioritize cultural heritage protection, have more sites digitized, and combine traditional antique repairs with modern technology.

“Dunhuang has benefited from digital technology and I hope our experience can be replicated in the whole country,” she said.

This year, Fan has decided to retire from the advisory body. “I’m too old for the CPPCC job,” she said. “But I will keep on working for our heritage protection.”

Excavation reveals ancient city Archaeological treasures of Beijing’s Tongzhou district unearthed before construction of new administrative center

April 24-30, 2017

On Feb 26 last year, just a few weeks after the traditional Spring Festival holiday, more than 2,000 archaeologists from across China gathered in Beijing.

The municipal government had invited the experts to conduct an archaeological survey of Tongzhou district, which had been chosen as the capital’s new administrative center. The government was anxious to preserve archaeological treasures buried under the soil before construction teams moved in to erect new government buildings in preparation for the change.

By the end of the excavation, seven months later, more than 10,000 cultural relics had been unearthed that traced the history of Tongzhou back to the Warring States Period (475-221 BC).

“We found a huge number of tombs, an ancient city from the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), and many other relics that prove Tongzhou, 25 km east of downtown Beijing, had a large population at least 2,000 years ago,” said Yu Ping, deputy head of the Beijing Municipal Administration of Cultural Heritage, which oversaw the excavation.

Workmen clear the ground in preparation for an excavation in Hugezhuang village, Tongzhou, Beijing. Credit: Provided to China Daily

The different types of tombs unearthed provided invaluable research materials about Beijing’s role from the late Warring States Period to the Han Dynasty, he added. According to the administration, the team surveyed more than 1 million square meters — equal to 142 soccer pitches — and unearthed relics from an area covering 40,000 sq m.

“It was the first time in the city’s history that such a large team, drawn from nine provinces, had been called together to work on an archaeological project in an urban district,” Yu said. “The findings were significant too.”

More than 1,000 tombs were unearthed, spanning the period from the Han Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Liu Qingzhu, academic director at the Institute of Archaeology, a think tank with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the tombs dated from the Han, Liao (916-1125), Jin (1115-1234), Yuan (1271-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties. Excavation and analysis of the burial sites will help archaeologists learn more about how people from different regions and eras integrated into the existing culture.

“Different dynasties were established by people from different regions. The process by which they integrated can be determined by examining their daily lives, which we can research through their tombs,” Liu said.

“The tombs are precious treasures, but they are also more than that. As a nation, we don’t lack gold, but we do lack a common spirit. The 1,000-plus tombs reflect how Chinese culture developed during different periods, which can sometimes help us to understand and solve modern problems.”

About 80 percent of the tombs date from the Han Dynasty, with 163 from the Western Han (206 BC-AD 24) and 696 from the Eastern Han (AD 25-220).

The archaeologists also discovered 62 tombs in Tongzhou’s Hugezhuang village that ranged from the late Warring States Period to the Western Han Dynasty. All of them contained burial urns.

Guo Jingning, deputy head of the Beijing Cultural Relics Research Institute, said it is extremely rare to discover such a large number of relics in one place.

“In addition to the number of urn-burial tombs, they are also of different types. We discovered six or seven different decorative patterns on them, which is very unusual,” he said.

The urns were mainly used for the burial of children, but also sporadically for adults, and were favored because they prevented wild animals from desecrating the bodies. In addition, some researchers believe the shape of the urns is reminiscent of a womb, which was regarded as accelerating the rebirth of the dead.

The archaeological team also discovered 26 counting rods — tools made from bone that were used to perform calculations — in Tongzhou’s Houbeiying village. Counting rods have also been discovered in other parts of China and are considered to have been important tools during the Western Han Dynasty.

Feng Lisheng, a professor who specializes in ancient texts at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said it was the first time that such a large number of counting rods had been discovered in Beijing, and noted that most of them were intact and well-preserved.

“The city was for people to live in while they were alive and the tombs were used for burying people when they died. Those factors form a full picture of society that will allow us to research the use of space and structures and the human habits prevalent at the time,” said Liu, director of the Institute of Archeology.

The archaeologists also unearthed the complete remains of the ancient city of Lucheng, founded during the Han Dynasty. The discovery included a road dating back to the Ming and Qing dynasties, and the remains of a moat from the Liao and Jin dynasties that was 30 to 50 meters wide.

The north wall of the ancient city was 606 meters long, while the south wall was about 575 meters. The east wall was 589 meters and the west wall was 555 meters, according to Liu. Together they formed a rough rectangle covering an area of 350,000 sq m.

Liu said the discovery of Lucheng indicates that Beijing was North China’s political, military and transportation center two millennia ago: “However, the history of Tongzhou is even longer than the capital’s. These findings have greatly enriched our research materials about the 2,000-year history of Beijing.”

By putting archaeology ahead of infrastructure construction, Beijing has set an example to other parts of the country, a move in accordance with the Law on the Protection of Cultural Relics, according to Liu.

Despite that, the project has not been without its difficulties. “It’s hard to keep archaeological excavations on schedule to match the construction work that will follow, because you don’t know what you will find. It largely depends on the specific circumstances underground,” he said.

“On this point, the municipal government was very tolerant about the working period for the project. It didn’t draw up a strict timetable for the team, even though it is required to complete the infrastructure construction of the new buildings in Tongzhou by the end of October.”

During the work, the team even used equipment to detect old plant seeds, which is rare in such a large project, Liu added.

“I was interested by how the team coordinated its work in a very scientific and smooth way,” he said.

From 2000 to 2015, Beijing invested 140 million yuan ($20 million) in the restoration and protection of cultural relics, the authorities said.

At present, 236 unmovable cultural relics in Tongzhou are under State-level protection, and there are plans to build cultural parks, museums and exhibition halls based on them.

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