As an ancient civilization, China enjoys a wealth of cultural heritage. The nation's rapid economic growth and social progress in recent decades have presented both challenges and opportunities for the conservation of its heritage resources. Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, cultural heritage conservation in China has experienced vibrant professional development, with new and better practices, greater theoretical work, and increasing exchange and cooperation with the international conservation community.

Recent Progress

The recent progress in conservation of cultural heritage in China is reflected in the ongoing consolidation of the foundation for its heritage work. China's Third National Heritage Site Inventory, launched in the past decade and lasting four and one-half years, was the largest ever carried out in the country. Special surveys of the Great Wall, the Grand Canal, the Silk Road, and underwater heritage resources were conducted at the same time. As a result of these surveys, the number of registered immovable cultural properties soared from 300,000 to 760,000, while the number of state priority protected sites increased from 750 in 2000 to 4,296 today. In addition, the number of priority protected sites at regional and local levels also increased significantly.

Thanks to recent efforts, a great number of priority protected sites have been effectively conserved with their settings remarkably improved. Valuable experience in protecting cultural heritage in the midst of economic development has been gained through the implementation of conservation campaigns launched at national capital construction sites, including the Three Gorges Dam Project, the South-North Water Diversion Project, and the Project of Gas Transmission from the West to the East. Many important cultural properties have been rescued through major projects for the protection of the Great Wall, the historic buildings prior to the Yuan dynasty in southern Shanxi Province, and the important heritage sites in the Tibet Autonomous Region. Projects for the after-quake rescue and protection of cultural properties in Wenchuan of Sichuan Province and Yushu of Qinghai Province demonstrated the emergency response capability of Chinese conservators to address massive disasters. Foreign aid projects, including the restoration of the entrance area of the Palace of the Bogd Khan in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and the conservation of Chau Say Tevoda and Ta Keo temple of Angkor in Cambodia, showcased the professional ability of China in the conservation of cultural heritage and the nation's commitment to playing a role in international conservation.

During this period, China has undertaken significant work in the conservation of large-scale archaeological sites and the building of archaeological parks, gaining helpful experience in handling the relationship between urban development and the protection of these sites. Conservation projects and the establishment of archaeological parks at Yin Xu in Anyang, Luoyang City of the Sui-Tang period in Luoyang, Jinsha in Chengdu, and Daming Palace in Xi'an represent new approaches for the protection, utilization, interpretation, and presentation of archaeological sites, incorporating the interests of stakeholders, tourism, and economic growth into conservation. These projects have led to the sustainable development of archaeological heritage and the preservation of cultural diversity, while aiding local communities and generating positive social and economic benefits.

This has also been a period when notable progress was made in the conservation and management of China's World Heritage Sites. In 1985 China ratified the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. By the end of 2015, forty-eight sites in China had been inscribed on the World Heritage List (China has succeeded in World Heritage nomination for thirteen consecutive years since 2003). This success results from the development by the nation of an effective set of mechanisms for nominating, protecting, managing, monitoring, and researching World Heritage Sites. Significantly, awareness of heritage conservation has grown in China, thanks to the spread of World Heritage–related concepts, including outstanding universal value, authenticity, and integrity, as well as practices for protecting massive cultural resources, such as the Great Wall, the Silk Road, and the Grand Canal. Drawing upon these experiences, advanced methodologies and approaches have been applied not only to protect the nation's World Heritage Sites but also to improve the protection of other sites in China.

Since the 1990s—and especially in the last fifteen years—China has been in an active phase of theory development about cultural heritage conservation. Along with a deeper understanding of the conservation concepts of authenticity, integrity, and appropriate utilization, there has been recognition of new types of cultural heritage, which in turn have enriched China's theoretical foundation for conservation. The Notice on Strengthening the Conservation of Cultural Heritage, issued by the State Council of China in December 2005, defines guiding concepts, basic principles, overall objectives, and major measures. Beginning in 2006, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) has annually organized the Wuxi Forum on the Conservation of China's Cultural Heritage, focusing on industrial heritage, vernacular buildings, twentieth-century heritage, cultural landscapes, cultural routes, heritage canals, sustainable development of World Heritage Sites, conservation and utilization of cultural heritage, and strengthening the legal system, among other topics.

A number of important international conferences have been convened in China, including the 28th Session of the World Heritage Committee; the 15th General Assembly and Scientific Symposium of ICOMOS; the 2nd International Conference on Heritage Conservation and Sustainable Development; the International Symposium on the Concepts and Practices of Conservation and Restoration of Historic Buildings in East Asia; the International Symposium on the Conservation of Painted Wood Architectural Surfaces in East Asia; and sessions of the ICOMOS Advisory Committee and Scientific Committee meetings. Out of these gatherings, a series of international documents have been adopted, such as the Suzhou Declaration on Enhancing Youth Education on World Heritage Protection; the Xi'an Declaration on the Conservation of the Setting of Heritage Structures, Sites and Areas; the Shaoxing Declaration on Heritage Conservation and Sustainable Development; the Beijing Document on the Protection and Restoration of Built Heritage in East Asia; and the Beijing Memorandum on the Conservation of Caihua [decorative painting on wood] in East Asia. These international conferences and documents have increased communication and exchange between China and colleagues abroad and have made significant contributions to the enrichment and development of conservation internationally.

Meeting the Challenges

While China has achieved much in cultural heritage conservation over the last decade, many challenges remain, particularly mass tourism, the effects of climate change, and continuing pressure from development.

To address mass tourism at a national level, in 2013 China promulgated the Tourism Law of the People's Republic of China, which prescribes carrying capacity and management at heritage sites. In addition, SACH organized two major international tourism conferences in collaboration with the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) and other organizations in 2009 and 2013. The document resulting from the first conference was incorporated into the decisions of the 34th Session of the World Heritage Committee, while after the second conference SACH issued its Notice on Strengthening Research on Carrying Capacity at Priority Protected Sites as a national policy. The pioneering system of online booking and entry control at the Potala Palace has proven successful and has been applied to many other sites in China. The Dunhuang Academy's new visitor center for the Mogao Grottoes is another good example at the site level of dealing with mass tourism.

To confront climate change, SACH has taken two main approaches: to strengthen sites' defenses against the elements by conservation interventions, and to improve the level of protection by a national campaign of on-site safety and security installations and staff training. Thus far, six groups of state priority protected sites have been subject to these measures. The 2012 Beijing flood, a major disaster made even more severe by climate change factors, tested their effectiveness, and sites that had implemented these measures suffered the least damage. ICOMOS China is currently establishing a national scientific committee on disaster preparedness to advance theory and practice in this area.

Pressure from development is both an opportunity and a challenge. On one hand, development has made more investment in conservation possible. From 2010 to 2015 the overall fund for heritage conservation reached 140 billion RMB, with an annual increase of 16.5 percent. This investment spurred development in both the practice of and theoretical research on heritage conservation. On the other hand, state capital investment projects (such as the Three Gorges Dam, the South-North Water Diversion Project, and the Project of Gas Transmission from the West to the East) have had major impacts on heritage, and SACH has launched national campaigns associated with these projects to rescue heritage resources. Recently, urbanization in the countryside has had great impact on the conservation of historic towns and villages. In this context, SACH has conducted a series of activities, including organizing a conference on the conservation of historic towns at Zhengding, Hebei Province, and promoting the examples of the conservation of historic villages and towns in Anhui and Zhejiang Provinces. ICOMOS China established the Scientific Committee on Historic Towns and Villages last year to address this issue.

Especially noteworthy is the Principles for the Conservation of Heritage Sites in China (the China Principles), developed by ICOMOS China in collaboration with the GCI and the Australian Heritage Commission and approved by SACH in 2000. SACH and GCI have maintained a close partnership for years; a highlight of their cooperation has been the China Principles, a landmark document. This comprehensive summary of practices of cultural heritage conservation in China has established basic processes and principles, settled some long-existing controversies, improved the level of theoretical studies, set conservation practice standards, and facilitated mutual learning and communication between China and the international conservation community. It therefore has had an extensive and profound impact on the field of heritage conservation both at home and abroad.

With the rapid development of cultural heritage conservation theory and practice in China in the early twenty-first century, it was necessary to revise the China Principles to better respond to new situations. The revision, approved by SACH and co-undertaken by ICOMOS China and the GCI, lasted for four years, and the revised edition of the Principles was released in 2015. The document is more authoritative and forward-looking, with targeted guidelines that incorporate recent achievements in China's cultural heritage conservation. It reflects the knowledge and awareness of China's conservation community about heritage values, conservation principles, appropriate use, and protection of newly defined types of cultural heritage (such as cultural landscapes, heritage routes, and canals). It demonstrates the evolution of conservation attitudes and perspectives: from thinking of heritage sites as places where nothing should be changed to viewing them as resources that can be appropriately used to benefit both current and future generations; from caring solely for a site's tangible heritage to also including its intangible heritage and cultural traditions; from considering natural elements of a cultural landscape as solely its setting to treating those elements as integral to the site; and last but not least, from taking a single site approach to developing a serial site approach—moving from viewing a site in isolation to taking comprehensive measures for sites that are interlinked. Featuring these new elements, the revised edition of the China Principles will play an important role in guiding China's cultural heritage conservation in years to come, hopefully making an important contribution to international conservation.

Since the beginning of the new century, China has emerged as a nation of dynamic development in the field of cultural heritage conservation and an important member of the global cultural heritage conservation system. Moving into the future, China faces significant conservation opportunities and challenges, which will require its continuing vigorous commitment to the preservation of its extraordinary cultural heritage and the ongoing joint efforts with its international colleagues to protect the richness and diversity of human civilization.

Tong Mingkang is president of ICOMOS China and former deputy director of China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage (retired January 2016).