CHINA HERITAGE NEWSLETTER China Heritage Project, The Australian National University
ISSN 1833-8461
No. 1, March 2005


No. 1, March 2005


In the first issue of China Heritage Newsletter, our online quarterly, we focus on problems, aspects and issues related to heritage protection in the People's Republic of China during 2004 and the first quarter of 2005.

As the 1990s progressed, it was clear that the unfettered economic development of the 1970s and 1980s was wreaking havoc on the environment and remnants of traditional culture – both tangible and intangible. China's conservationists and its incipient green movement began voicing concerns. The end of the millennium saw the first evidence of their success, and by 2004 China had accepted the concept of world cultural heritage; this was highlighted by the nation's hosting of the 28th Congress of UNESCO's World Heritage Committee in Suzhou.

Now China appears to have a continuing commitment to the concept of cultural heritage.


Photograph of the new conference centre in Suzhou constructed for the 28th Congress of UNESCO's World Heritage Committee
Photograph of the new conference centre in Suzhou constructed for the 28th Congress of UNESCO's World Heritage Committee [BGD]

The 28th Congress of UNESCO's World Heritage Committee held in Suzhou in June-July 2004 marked a watershed in the development of heritage concerns in the People's Republic of China. Potential listing by the UNESCO sent local authorities and heritage organisations across China into a flurry of meetings as the clamour to be listed by UNESCO intensified. The intense lobbying had its comic and politicised aspects, rarely glimpsed in the media. The inundation of applications resulted in the announcement by the committee in Suzhou that from any one country only two nominations, one of which must be a natural heritage site, could be listed each year, and only 42 nominations world-wide would be considered in future. However, the overall outcome was extremely positive for China. As we go online in March 2005 with our first quarterly issue of China Heritage Newsletter, the solidity of what has been achieved over the previous year is now readily apparent.

The PRC has adopted policies on heritage issues that prepare the country well for meeting the challenges of development that threaten the preservation of China's rich cultural past. China is implementing legislation to this end, but more importantly is addressing the issue of educating the public in the importance of appreciating China's heritage within a world heritage context. The new commitment is clearly signalled by the renaming of the State Bureau of Cultural Relics as the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH). The trial introduction of World Heritage as a compulsory subject in some secondary schools in Beijing is designed to test curricular requirements and teaching strategies. While actively championing the preservation of the physical monuments of its ancient and recent history, China has – to its credit - rushed to embrace the principles of intangible cultural heritage that broaden the earlier notion of "sustainable cultural heritage" and channel private and public energies into taking on the monumental tasks posed by China's economic revolution. By March 2005 China's ancient theatrical form called Kunqu and the instrument called Guqin, inaccurately translated as "the Chinese lute", were both listed by the UNESCO as "masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity", and China was preparing to apply for listing of Shaolin Gongfu. To that end China had engaged a London-based public relations and law firm, Lehmann Communications, to commission a study by "a foreign scholar" on Shaolin Temple as the homeland of Shaolin Chan (Zen) who will afforded full archival access by the Grand Master of the sect. The Chinese government is also moving to copyright the "Shaolin" name.

As custodians of the nation's heritage, SACH is constantly challenged by the depredations of tomb raiders and smugglers. In December 2004 SACH announced that it received reports of 36 major criminal cases involving thefts from museums and above-ground sites, including Buddhist and Taoist temples and historical sites. In an attempt to stem the pillage of archaeological sites and the smuggling of antiquities, SACH, on behalf of the government of China, requested the government of the USA to curtail dramatically most classes of antiquity import from China under Article 9 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention. It is anticipated by most observers that the US government will comply with the request, although there may be amendments to some parts of the convention.

Cultural heritage issues are diverse, ranging as they do across all aspects of the culture itself, from China's massive tangible and intangible monuments, memorials and achievements, whether Great Wall, Grand Canal, Silk Road or Long March, to the nation's fine needlework and paper-cut traditions and her rapidly disappearing musical systems and languages. This cornucopia of concerns requires a sensitively calibrated set of policies and measures, in order to bring the worthiest of intentions to fruition.

The Chinese government's commitment is well expressed by its budgetary allocations. On 10 March 2005, Xinhua News Agency reported that Shan Jixiang, director of SACH, announced that China is expected "is expected to double expenditure on the protection of cultural heritage, especially of large ancient tomb groups and buildings". He did not give specific figures, but disclosed that the state would allocate RMB 250 million yuan alone in special funds for drawing up a plan for protecting more than 30 major sites along the Xinjiang section of the Silk Road.

In this issue we focus on a number of stories that highlight cultural heritage threats faced by specific cities (Beijing) and designated cultural heritage sites (Great Wall, Wudangshan, Dujiangyan), as well as including regular features documenting developments in public and academic discussions on archaeology, art history and cultural heritage.

Cultural heritage concerns have acquired strategic importance for Chinese planners preparing for the Beijing 2008 Olympics, but they will ensure that the legacy of the Olympics is not limited to the acquisition of state-of-the-art sporting facilities and a better infrastructure for the capital city. Most of the restoration projects being undertaken in Beijing are part of a major heritage plan that will continue through to 2020. [BGD]