By Neville Agnew and Martha Demas

The wealth of China's cultural heritage is astounding but perhaps not unexpected, given the antiquity, size, and diversity of the country—a territory about the size of the United States, with contrasts of geography and environment, ranging from deserts and mountain ranges in the west to humid tropics in the south and desolate steppe in the far north. The nation's 3,000 years of unbroken civilization and its large and inventive population since ancient times have created a vast range of immovable heritage. China's heritage includes archaeological sites such as the terracotta warriors at Xi'an, cave temple complexes like the Buddhist grottoes of Mogao on the Silk Road at Dunhuang, imperial and religious architecture, historic cities, unique categories of vernacular architecture, classical gardens, elaborate tomb complexes, and ruins such as the famous Yuanmingyuan summer palace in Beijing, destroyed during the war with colonial powers in 1860. Additionally—and what is often forgotten—are the European and colonial architectural heritage in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Macao and, less well known, the early-20th-century houses built by wealthy "returned overseas Chinese" on Gulangyu Island, opposite the treaty port of Amoy (present-day Xiamen).

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With the rapid emergence of China since the late 1970s as an economic and world power, development is occurring at an incredible pace. Cities like Beijing have been transformed, with much of the old swept away. China is remaking itself. Almost daily, important archaeological finds are made. Many occur as a result of large-scale development projects such as the Yangtze dam. Others may never be reported to the authorities because of the illicit industry in the traffic of antiquities. And, with the increase in wealth and disposable income in China, tourism is on the rise. These factors all combine to create new and powerful threats that add to the "traditional" ones of deterioration and decay that conservation professionals characteristically have to contend with.

A Set of Principles

In 1997 the GCI and the State Administration for Cultural Heritage (SACH), the government body in China responsible for administration and policy in heritage matters, began a program, with the collaboration of the Australian Heritage Commission (AHC), to develop a set of principles to guide the conservation and management of cultural sites in the country. The project grew out of a perceived need for a uniform code of practice in China that could fit well with existing protective laws for immovable heritage.

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As previously reported (see Conservation, vol. 13, no. 1), the initial evolution of the Principles document occurred through a series of workshops in Australia and China. The final workshop, held in the United States in April 2000 (see Conservation, vol. 15, no. 2), included visits to historic sites and monuments in the Southwest United States and in the Washington, D.C., area. The purpose of the workshops was to examine present practice in conservation and management of sites in order to illuminate the process of developing relevant and practicable guidelines for China that could be framed within the traditional practices of caring for and restoring historic buildings and sites.

The Principles have now been finalized and were formally adopted under the auspices of China ICOMOS—the national committee of the International Committee on Monuments and Sites—with the approval of SACH, at an internal meeting at the Chengde Imperial Summer Resort in September 2000. Recently a seminar was held in Beijing as the first step in the dissemination of the Principles. Some 40 academics, site managers, and heritage officials from around China attended the workshop and offered papers on current conservation issues in China. Presentations ranged from restoration practice, to the conservation of historic precincts, vernacular architecture, and archaeological sites, and the integration of cultural and natural heritage preservation. Project team members Neville Agnew and Martha Demas of the GCI and Sharon Sullivan and Kirsty Altenburg of the AHC participated and presented papers on the international experience and practice at sites in Southeast Asia, Australia, and Africa. GCI Director Tim Whalen and Associate Director Jeanne Marie Teutonico attended the opening, as did SACH Director-General Zhang Wenbin and Deputy Director-General Zhang Bai, who stressed the significance and timeliness of this international collaboration.

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What is emerging from the Principles is a shift in the perception of heritage conservation practice in China and an acceptance of the importance of integrated thinking and planning in both conservation and management of heritage sites. The Principles place prime emphasis on understanding the inherent values of a place. No longer is technological intervention seen as the sole realm of conservation.

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The China Principles initiative finds echoes in the pre-World War II connections between U.S. and Chinese architectural historians and academics, connections that were almost completely eclipsed by the disruptions of war and the establishment of the People's Republic of China under Mao Zedong in 1949. Among the founders of an academic school of historical architecture in China was the famous scholar Liang Sicheng, whose influence is still strong in preservation circles today. He and his wife Lin Whei-Yin, both fluent in English, studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania in the mid-1920s. In 1929 Liang joined the Society for the Study of Chinese Architecture and began a survey in the 1930s of surviving ancient buildings in China, including some dating to the 9th and 10th centuries. He was the first Chinese scholar to establish the discipline of architectural history and to introduce modern concepts of preservation in China. Chinese architecture until then had been the province of craftsmen over the centuries, and it was always viewed as a poor cousin of the high arts of calligraphy and painting. Liang died in 1972, a somewhat broken man as a consequence of the Cultural Revolution. However, his tradition lives on, and today he is revered as the founding father of both the study of ancient architecture and the need for its preservation. In a real sense, the Principles are his legacy.


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The present focus of the China Principles project is the implementation of the Principles at selected sites. Implementation began two years ago at the Mogao grottoes, with overall master planning for the site. Additionally, this process examined site conservation and management issues at Mogao to validate the Principles. It continued with the application of the planning process to the wall paintings conservation project for Cave 85 (see Conservation,vol. 14, no. 2) and, in May of this year, with the development of visitor management strategies, both of which form a part of the master plan for the site. Development and implementation of visitor management strategies, which will include a carrying-capacity study for the site, are continuing.

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Beginning in fall 2001, the GCI will undertake a feasibility study for the application of the China Principles at Chengde, the great summer resort of the emperors of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Located some 400 kilometers to the northeast of Beijing, this vast complex, comprising a royal lodge and park replete with artificial lakes, is surrounded by a 12-kilometer-long wall. Facing the park across the valley are eight temple complexes built between 1730 and 1780, spanning the reign of one of the great emperors of the dynasty, Qianlong.

The site, now on the World Heritage List, was the venue for an early meeting in 1998 of the China Principles core team. Following its abandonment in the late Qing period and decades of turmoil in this region throughout the first half of the 20th century, the site is now in need of a policy and plan that will guide its future use and conservation, particularly as tourism burgeons in China.

By August 2003, when the GCI and the Dunhuang Academy will cohost a second Silk Road conference upon the anticipated completion of the wall paintings conservation project in Cave 85 at the Mogao grottoes, the China Principles will have been thoroughly integrated into conservation and management at both Mogao and the Chengde Imperial Summer Resort. The results of the wall paintings conservation project and the application phase of the Principles will be presented at the conference.

The challenge at this point is the widespread dissemination and adoption of the China Principles as a uniform code in China, one that fits within the existing framework of protective laws for heritage. In other parts of the world, the effective adoption of heritage preservation charters necessarily has taken years to permeate all levels of the preservation community. In China, however, with endorsement by the State Administration and international acceptance of the guidelines by ICOMOS, it is hoped that the process will be efficient and rapid. But stacked against this process are rampant economic development and the expanding tourism industry—most tourists are Chinese nationals, but the number of tourists from abroad is rapidly increasing. Much of China's heritage has been lost, and the challenges for the nation are great, as is the need.

Formal translation of the China Principles and its associated commentary into English is nearing completion. SACH will review and approve the translation and will forward the document to ICOMOS in Paris as part of its contribution to the intellectual capital of the preservation movement worldwide.

In 2005 China ICOMOS will host the international congress of ICOMOS. It is the intention of the cooperating parties to assist through the intervening period in applying and disseminating the Principles, both through model projects such as Chengde and Mogao and through workshops, to ensure the use of a powerful and practical tool for the preservation of China's great heritage.

If, by contributing to the creation and use of a codified set of principles that mesh well with existing laws, the GCI can have assisted in saving one of the last great archaeological and heritage treasure stores of the world, this will indeed be a significant achievement.

Neville Agnew is principal project specialist, and Martha Demas is a senior project specialist with GCI Field Projects.