7. The Contemporary Values behind Chinese Heritage

  • Kuanghan Li
The China Principles (first issued in 2000) were the first formalization of heritage conservation practices and standards for professionals in China. They demonstrated a willingness to embrace concepts widely adopted by the international professional community, while maintaining an approach distinct from Western social and political traditions. As China continues developing, heritage conservation concepts and practices have become more complex and are influenced by a wider range of interests. Revisions to the principles in 2015 bring Chinese practices more in line with emerging international trends, including broadening values categories and enabling grassroots participation. A case study of village preservation from Guizhou province illustrates these transitions on the ground.

The release of Principles for the Conservation of Heritage Sites in China (the China Principles) in 2000 marked a milestone in the history of heritage conservation in modern China (). It is the first document of its kind, a formalized nonregulatory code of heritage conservation practices for conservation professionals in China. With blessings from China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage, the collaborative effort between ICOMOS China, the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), and the Australian Heritage Commission demonstrated China’s disposition to incorporate conventional conservation concepts as adopted by the international professional community, while exhibiting strong continuity with past conservation practices that stem from China’s scholarly traditions and political context (; ). Since then, the applicability of the China Principles has been widely examined, though relatively few critiques have been published by Chinese heritage professionals not involved in the development of the document.1

International reviews and perspectives often compare the China Principles with other, non-Chinese charters and base their critiques on international heritage discourses. While most of these reviews generally agree that the China Principles fulfilled a timely professional need in China, the document has also been questioned for its applicability to the conservation of historic precincts (both urban and rural), the lack of a role for public involvement or a link to nature heritage, and the absence of mentions of social value. Furthermore, there has been some skepticism regarding its political bias as a nonregulatory charter closely associated with the state (, 19–25). In other words, the critiques are concerned about the lack of discussion of issues that depart from traditional heritage values—what may be described as “contemporary socioeconomic values” or simply “contemporary values” (, 18–20; ). The editors of the China Principles are aware of its limitations and have stated their intention for it to be a living document, where collective user experiences will reveal the need for changes over time and thereby instruct future revisions (, 56).

Since 2000 China has continued to experience major social and economic developments that gravely threaten, and paradoxically stimulate, cultural heritage conservation, which is not to be confused with contemporary economics-driven reconstruction. Currently the development of cultural heritage conservation in China is advancing on two fronts. In the vein of the orthodox top-down approach, the influence of the international conservation community together with enhanced fiscal and regulatory support from the state has greatly advanced the heritage conservation profession. Meanwhile, a broader public of wide-ranging interest is becoming more informed and engaged in the heritage field, challenging the authoritative position of the state and the heritage professional community. It was this context that prompted ICOMOS China to release the 2015 revised edition of the China Principles (; , 36).

The revised China Principles reflect emerging trends in the international heritage field and accommodate new heritage genres and ideologies that are embodied in the UNESCO World Heritage system. The revised edition also reflects the shift in Chinese conservation ideology from wenwu (cultural + property/relics) to wenhua yichan (cultural + heritage),2 insinuating the adoption of an expanded Western-originated heritage concept that includes more than just tangible ancient objects (, 193–94). While the official Chinese terminology for heritage, wenwu, remains unaltered in the title of the heritage bureau and national heritage protection law, in 2005 the first official cultural heritage (wenhua yichan) themed notice was announced by the State Council. “Strengthening the Protection of Cultural Heritage” was a sanctioned declaration of a change in perspective, and the phrase wenhua yichan has enjoyed public popularity since then. In practice, it is evident in the significant rise in quantity and new genres of heritage sites on the recent national list of major officially protected sites. Many sites that would not have qualified for official protection status based on conventional interpretations of the Cultural Relics Protection Law are now are on the World Heritage List or are recognized as national treasures, such as the Grand Canal (inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2014), the Long March Route, and various rural vernacular heritage sites (, 3). Wenwu now encompasses more than monuments and ancient relics; a more diverse set of contemporary values are used to define and assess what constitutes heritage.

Another marked difference in the revised China Principles is that, unlike the previous international partnership, this revision was primarily undertaken by domestic cultural heritage experts. Though the “outside, international perspective” is still of some influence, as evidenced by the participation of the GCI experts, it is now diffused through the ontological understandings of Chinese heritage experts and officials, largely building on China’s successful World Heritage Site nomination experiences over the past decades. As of the forty-first World Heritage Committee session in 2017, China and Italy are tied for the most World Heritage Sites.

Domestically, the content and timing of the revised China Principles can be regarded as a supplementary text to the proposed amended draft of the Cultural Relics Protection Law of the People’s Republic of China, made public in December 2015 ().3 The proposed draft is considered the most drastically modified version to date, and the first time that China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage openly sought public opinion on changes to the Cultural Relics Protection Law. Even though the proposed amended draft was aborted due to discordant opinions surrounding the more liberal approach toward social participation and nonpublic use of heritage places, the discussion process had a huge impact on public awareness of the protection and management of cultural resources. The revised China Principles embodies core ideologies from the proposed amended draft in a non-statutory capacity, and serves to promote the application of these reformed ideas in professional practice. The document therefore further reveals the intricate relationship between China and international cultural heritage conservation, and the connections and disconnections between the greater national discourse and field applications.

Shift in Values-Centered Preservation: The “3 Plus 2” Paradigm

Modern Chinese scholars and practitioners commonly regard a values-centered methodology as the foundational approach toward heritage conservation, a phenomenon largely attributed to the popularity of the World Heritage system and the formulization of various conservation charters, including the China Principles. Disagreements arise from the establishment of heritage values typologies and their local understanding and applications. The first version of the China Principles defined heritage values in the categories of historic, artistic, and scientific value, which is consistent with the explanation in the World Heritage Convention and with Chinese conservation law and regulations. In China, these three major value typologies originated from the 1961 Cultural Relics Protection Management Temporary Ordinance and have continued to instruct the current national cultural relics law (, 65–67).4 In fact, in the early development of the first China Principles, the term “cultural values” was used instead of “heritage values,” probably influenced by the use of cultural significance in the Australia ICOMOS Charter for Places of Cultural Significance, or Burra Charter (). It encompassed both implicit heritage values (historic, scientific, and artistic values) and contemporary societal use values (memorial, cognitive, and aesthetic, and use value that generates public well-being) (, 87–88). Nonetheless, many Chinese experts are uncomfortable with the idea of the China Principles departing from the definition of the national law, and the resultant document was a compromise stating only the “major three” heritage values, and acknowledging the social and economic benefits (not values) of heritage in the commentary section.

Some scholars interpreted cultural value as a synthesis of Chinese wenwu (cultural + property) guji (ancient + remains) traditions and international heritage philosophy that introduced the concept of contemporary societal use values. While this understanding is not inaccurate in the contemporary context, Chinese have long been aware of the social impacts of heritage conservation and management. During the late Qing dynasty (mid-nineteenth to early twentieth century), China was facing extensive civic unrest and incursions of foreign forces. The resultant acts of intentional destruction and cultural exploitation, together with waves of reformation movements toward the modern state, triggered an awareness of the need for cultural heritage protection (, 24–25). With the dwindling Qing dynasty on the verge of collapse, regional autonomy became more common.

In the 1908 City, Town and Villages Autonomy Charter issued by the state, “monument preservation” was considered alongside acts like poverty alleviation and disaster relief as sanctioned benevolent deeds, recognizing the social benefits that heritage protection could generate for the local community (; , 55). With the introduction of Eurocentric heritage concepts into China in the 1930s, Chinese historic preservation discourse was predominantly dictated by architects and architectural historians with training in the West or Japan in the role of the “expert curator-conservator” (, 82). Realizing the limitations of such elitist approaches, Liang Sicheng, a leading Chinese architect and architectural historian, emphasized the importance of public education and awareness in heritage conservation (). After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the political ideology of the new regime triggered a new round of debate on “what to preserve and how to preserve” (; , 86). Given the limited resources available to develop the new republic, scholars like Chen Mingda argued for the prioritized protection of heritage that holds certain “historical and artistic values” and “continues to benefit the people today,” in other words heritage that also possesses contemporary values (, 7). Chen also urged an outward-looking approach in heritage conservation that can complement urban planning goals that may be of non-preservation interest.

Even though a multiplicity of heritage values can be found in the lineage of historic preservation in China, the socioeconomic aspect was not previously considered a formal value category, and the mention of such in official cultural heritage documents remained improbable. The stigma was broken in the revised China Principles, where social and cultural values were added to the “official” heritage value typologies, recognizing the inadequacy of the traditional three major values in defining and assessing increasingly wide-ranging heritage subjects. Social value as defined in the revised document “encompasses memory, emotion and education,” and is “the value that society derives from the educational benefit that comes from dissemination of information about the site, the continuation of intangible associations, as well as the social cohesion it may create” (, 61). Cultural value, by contrast, appears to be an agglomeration of heritage notions that may not directly relate to the materiality and historicity of the site, including cultural diversity, the link between nature and culture, continuation of traditions, and intangible cultural heritage.

Reactions to the expansion of value typologies are mixed. While many approve of the change, some continue to contest the formal addition of the two “new” heritage value typologies—social and cultural values—largely out of concern for inappropriate validation of economic benefits of heritage sites. The opposing views are best summed up by the opinions of Lü Zhou and Guo Zhan, two of the most prominent heritage professionals in contemporary China, both closely associated with ICOMOS China and the international heritage scene. Lü, who led the authoring of the revised China Principles, spoke about the limitations of the three major values and the increasing awareness of the need to officially identify and define cultural and social values in Chinese heritage conservation (). However, Lü did not provide much clarification on the imprecise and at times overlapping definitions of the two new value typologies. He instead focused on discussing how new heritage genres such as cultural landscapes and cultural routes have facilitated China’s understanding of the cultural value concept, which is “about the protection of the cultural diversity of different ethnic groups, regions, and of the vernacular cultural heritage with unique local features” (, 3). This understanding has henceforth been applied to such cultural landscape sites as Mount Wutai, West Lake Cultural Landscape of Hangzhou, and Cultural Landscape of Honghe Hani Rice Terraces, as well as cultural routes like the Silk Road, Grand Canal, Shu Road, Tea-Horse Route, and Long March Route.

Interestingly, Lü has equated the literal meaning of “cultural value” in the revised China Principles (2015) with that of “cultural significance” in the Burra Charter, thereby bridging vastly different views toward understanding cultural value. In the Burra Charter the term “cultural significance” is understood as an overarching concept that includes “aesthetic, historic, scientific, social, or spiritual value for past, present, or future generations” and can be embodied in the tangible and intangible dimensions of a heritage place (, 2). In the revised China Principles, cultural value, as opposed to the “major three values,” is not based on historic fabric but relates more closely to the intangible dimension of place. Following this logic, Lü concluded that the blanket use of “cultural significance” or “cultural value” in the Australian context elevated the non-fabric-based focus above historicity and materiality of a heritage site, which he felt was inappropriate for the Chinese context: “Historical value (related directly to historic fabric) will remain the focus of mainland China in many years to come. Ignoring or diminishing historical value would cause confusion and might undermine China‘s conservation efforts” (, 4). This attitude reflects China’s national pride in its ancient legacy of rich material culture, and also the somewhat conflicted belief in the duality of the tangible built form and the intangible, which lends the “major three values” their intellectual and secular discourse claiming universal authority, in contrast with the situational and contextual social and cultural values.

With the same fundamental understanding and yet reaching a rather different conclusion, Guo maintained the stance that historic, artistic, and scientific values are universally recognized as the three basic, intrinsic heritage values as validated in the World Heritage Site definition and Chinese national law. Social value, on the other hand, is a derivative effect of the three basic intrinsic values and is susceptible to subjective assessment by different social groups that hold diverse and at times conflicting values. While social value promoting universal and long-term benefits should be recognized, by giving social value equal importance as the more widely conceded three basic values, actual decision making may favor those with financial and political advantages, leading to unjust and possibly destructive results (). Guo also criticized the idea of “cultural value of cultural heritage” as redundant, since all values pertaining to heritage are in fact cultural, and presenting cultural value in the context of cultural diversity, traditions, and intangible heritage risks overlap with that of social value (). Furthermore, these issues have already been addressed in various UNESCO documents; in particular the legacy of the 1994 Nara Document on Authenticity has generated many discussions regarding the role of the intangible dimension in non-Western heritage places (, 5–7).

Regardless of the difficulty in finding concordance on the nomenclature of different heritage values, the distinction of sociocultural value typologies from the traditional “major three” is generally agreed upon in the heritage field, and the diversity of heritage types and the array of perceived reactions toward heritage in contemporary society cannot be denied or ignored. While general consensus rooted within the notion of material integrity has been reached toward defining historic, artistic, and scientific values within the heritage community, the characterization of cultural and social values is more variable, and the contextual interpretation can vary greatly between cultures, countries, and people ().

The Modern Construct of “Non-Heritage” Values

The revised China Principles’ inclusion of cultural and social values reflects the popular authoritative heritage discourse of twenty-first-century China, which is closely related to economic and civic developments in contemporary Chinese society. Mass urbanization and movement has led to widespread demolition of the old and vernacular, replaced with hastily constructed generic modern designs resulting in what is generally criticized as “one look for a thousand cities.”5 Reactions to violent eradication of the familiar heightened the importance of heritage conservation for the general public. Furthermore, use of the internet and social media created new channels for public participation, and an increasing number of Chinese citizens have begun to realize the relevance of heritage as a social issue with extensive impacts ().

The notion of cultural value, on the other hand, is largely shaped by the emergence of “new” heritage genres such as cultural landscapes and cultural routes, where the intangible dimension of place is critical in defining its heritage value. A strategic World Heritage List has been constructed to portray a prosperous, civil, culturally diverse, yet unified modern China ().6 It can be argued, though, that the resultant interpretation reflects more influence from a postmodern Western heritage construct than the traditional Chinese view of cultural places. What would now be recognized as “cultural landscape” is not a novel concept in Chinese culture. The interactive relationship between nature and the human is deeply embedded in Chinese philosophies where “all landscapes are cultural as they are humanly conceived images of nature and deeply involve cultural and social constructions” (, 91). The ideas of “famous scenic spots” (mingsheng) and “historic sites” (guji) coexist as places where historical traces in the landscape that require cultivated knowledge and historical research can imbue significances that transcend natural beauty. Their fame was celebrated in poetry, travelogues, records in local annals, paintings, steles, and inscriptions as layers of high-culture meaning (, 62–91). The 1929 Famous Scenic and Historical Sites and Relics Preservation Regulation law issued by the then Nationalist Government listed three categories of “famous scenic and historic sites,” including well-known mountains and lakes and all nature-associated landscapes, historic architecture, and sites of historic remnants (, 55). Only in the 1930s, with predominantly Western-trained professional architects taking the lead on Chinese heritage research, did historic built form became the focus of heritage conservation. Scenic landscapes and historic sites were separated and guided by different disciplines, and only “historical traces” (guji), in a narrow sense, became a subject of antiquarian heritage interest (, 64).

The Western cultural landscape concept, in a sense, reconciled the Chinese landscape and heritage, and widened its horizon from the “traditional aesthetic nature-based focus of high culture to ordinary, rural and ecological landscape” (, 103). The examples of West Lake in Hangzhou and Hani Rice Terraces in Yunnan province, both World Heritage Sites, fully illustrate this shift in, and integration of, theories and practices. The West Lake does not fulfill the criteria for outstanding universal value as a natural lake body, but with interpretation of its cultural value, which is a story shared by the elitist literati in conveying ideals of Chinese landscape aesthetics and by the common folk who are well versed in the many stories and legends of the West Lake made popular through dramatic, literary, and visual art forms, it is a classic example of the Chinese “famous scenic and historic site” as a meeting place of elite and popular culture, and now also realizes the construal of the imported Western cultural landscape (fig. 7.1).

The West Lake with Leifeng Pagoda in the background, which is associated with the popular legend of the White Snake Maiden.
Four boats sailing in a lake. In the distance, two multistory structures standout on a mountain completely covered in trees. Figure 7.1
The West Lake with Leifeng Pagoda in the background, which is associated with the popular legend of the White Snake Maiden. Image: Louisa Salazar, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Hani Rice Terraces are an exemplary case of the “ordinary, rural and ecological landscape” whereby the merits of Indigenous practices and interactions with the land were undervalued by urbanites and the high cultured. Influences from Western environmental philosophies helped to reveal multifold dimensions of value in these vernacular landscapes beyond the superficial consumption of aesthetic value. These values are interpreted as cultural in the context of the revised China Principles, though they can be just as easily reasoned as “non-heritage-centered” contemporary values concerning ecological conservation, local economy development, rural land ownership, and ethnic policy resolution.

For the state, cultural heritage is also a vital instrument to enhance national identity and promote social harmony against the current complications of socioeconomic development (, 200). In his speeches on the protection and usage of cultural heritage, President Xi Jinping emphasized the importance of managing the relationship between “heritage conservation and socio-economic development, heritage conservation and heritage usage, heritage conservation and urban rural development, heritage conservation and livelihood improvement,” and various measures were conceived to integrate heritage conservation into social development (, 47). Responding to Xi’s call, one of the most drastic modifications in the 2015 amended draft of the Cultural Relics Protection Law of the People’s Republic of China is the new chapter on “appropriate use,” which is echoed in the revised China Principles, whereby cultural resources are recognized as a social-economic driver, and the release of control over and access to these protected sites from the state to the general society can help propel development. Although economic value, or more precisely the use or market value of heritage, is not officially acknowledged as a heritage value in the revised China Principles (nor in the Burra Charter), its importance as a potential development and conservation driver is conspicuously presented under the label of “appropriate use.” In fact, some of the most vigorous debates regarding the interpretation of “appropriate use” came from those in the antiquity trade and tourism industry, and some even call for the Cultural Relics Protection Law to be renamed as simply the Cultural Relics Law.

Theory into Practice

The existing legal framework that distinguishes the protection and management of immovable cultural heritage from other cultural forms is limiting in situations where there are living communities or continuing traditions on-site. With the addition of cultural and social values in the current Chinese context, formerly unacknowledged heritage genres stand to benefit from this newfound recognition of alternative values. In particular, the introduction of the Western cultural landscape concept allows for identification of the vernacular and other noncanonical forms of cultural heritage whereby the intangible dimensions and natural locale that were considered a background setting are elevated to the same importance as the built heritage (). The case of traditional ethnic villages in Guizhou province well illustrates these changes in Chinese heritage discourse.

Located in southwestern China, Guizhou is one of the least developed yet most culturally diverse provinces in China. In contrast to the parts of the country that underwent rapid and drastic developments in recent decades, the ethnic villages of Guizhou are tucked away in remote mountainous terrain and marginalized from the mainstream Han culture, and their Indigenous cultures and lifestyles seem untouched by modernization. While these villages have always been of keen interest to ethnographers and anthropologists, and their rich intangible cultural heritage is widely acknowledged, their built heritage tends to be overlooked by architects, art historians, and archaeologists—that is, the disciplines that dominate the authoritative heritage discourse. The humble construction approaches and the locals’ active rebuilding practices were among the reasons why the ethnic minority’s vernacular buildings were not considered historically and artistically significant, and they hardly qualified as classed protected monuments. But faced with sociocultural issues arising from rapid globalization and mass urbanization movements, Chinese state and heritage professionals have had a major shift in outlook. While labels like “primitive,” “remote,” and “ethnic minority” in the past were viewed as impediments to development, these places are now looked upon as “authentic” and rich in “cultural diversity.”

A traditional ethnic Dong settlement named Dali village in southeastern Guizhou is a classic example of this phenomenon. Found only in the specific terrain of this region, the Dong people are famed for their rice cultivation set in picturesque terraced fields, carpentry skills manifest in the form of pagoda-like drum towers and covered wooden bridges known as “wind and rain bridges,” and polyphonic choir singing. Dali village is a classic Dong settlement set in a secluded valley, with close to three hundred wooden houses built in the traditional chuandou (column-tie) frame structure, supported by a road network and water system that are integrative to the natural environment, organically developed from hundreds of years of experiential wisdom (fig. 7.2).

View of Dali village with the drum tower in the center.
Figure 7.2
View of Dali village with the drum tower in the center. Image:  Li Zhang

Until 2012 Dali was a sleepy village known only to its residents. Eager to protect these ethnic villages, Guizhou Province Administration of Cultural Heritage approached Global Heritage Fund, an international NGO that focuses on cultural heritage conservation and community development, to support the preservation of Dali village. At the same time, the Chinese state was issuing a series of official declarations emphasizing the importance of protecting rural villages and their cultural heritage as a counterstrategy against the drastic impacts of mass urbanization. By 2014, with attention from both local and international involvement, Dali was transformed into a heritage hotspot claiming all the official heritage status, including the Chinese World Heritage Site tentative list.

Differing from types of heritage sites that emphasize material culture, Dali village was first and foremost recognized as a cultural landscape. This understanding stems from the long-term local experiences of Guizhou heritage professionals. In the Proposal on the Conservation and Development of Village Cultural Landscapes (Guiyang Proposal) drafted in 2008, village cultural landscapes are characterized by the “harmonious relationships between people and natural elements,” “rich historic-cultural information,” and the “essence of traditional indigenous culture.” Their heritage values can be defined by the embedded cultural diversity and biodiversity, which have “important symbolic values” and can “provide sources of vitality for cultural sustainability in the future” (, n.p.).7

With this basic understanding in mind, a multidisciplinary team assembled by Peking University, led by the author, created two sets of conservation planning recommendations: one with legal binding that conforms to the specific formality of the national Cultural Relics Protection Law, where only selected historic buildings can be designated as protected sites based primarily on assessment of their architectural and historical values; and another “unofficial” one with a more practical approach that can address the diverse concerns of different stakeholders and the preservation of different heritage dimensions.

The identification and appraisal of heritage values of Dali village was very much informed by ethnographic methods and approaches. Due to the lack of written Dong language, there is almost no early historic documentation. In addition, the humid climate, which is unfavorable for the preservation of timber, combined with widespread building knowledge among Dong people, promotes active repair and rebuilding activities. With a lack of both textual and material historic evidence, social memories and ontological experiences of the community, as documented through oral histories, folklore, social customs, and traditional farming and building practices, define the sense of place, therefore lending the built, cultivated, and natural environments their historic, artistic, scientific, social, and cultural values. Instead of the traditional preservation planning approach to either designate the entire settlement area as a protected zone, thus stifling the developmental rights of the villagers, or to landmark individual buildings and disregard the rest of the village, the conservation plan recommends a diverse approach toward preserving different types of heritage places. While a few remaining historic buildings are preserved as landmarks, other structures like the wind and rain bridges that have been altered, rebuilt, or even relocated are also deemed socially significant to the community and slated for protection while allowing improvements to better adapt the spaces for modern uses (fig. 7.3).

Women and children passing time on one of Dali village’s five wind and rain bridges.
Figure 7.3
Women and children passing time on one of Dali village’s five wind and rain bridges. Image:  Li Kuanghan

Policy recommendations are designed to sustain the social and environmental systems. These include protection of the hilltop forest land that provides building wood supply and the integrated water management system; promotion of community-based building activities that reinforce the family-clan governing system and community bonds; and improvement of basic infrastructure to encourage retention of young Dong people. In other words, sustaining the context and actions that result in the tangible cultural heritage are just as significant, if not more so, than preserving the materiality, such that the Dong culture can continue to evolve in the native environment while adapting to shifting values in different times (fig. 7.4).

Construction of a traditional chuandou structure in Dali village by the villagers.
Figure 7.4
Construction of a traditional chuandou structure in Dali village by the villagers. Image:  Li Kuanghan


There is general advancement in the theoretical understanding of value assessment for the Chinese heritage community, which also creates new conflicts and discrepancies in practice. Even though value assessment provides a new, profound understanding of heritage places, the resultant conservation and management decisions based on such assessments are oftentimes not supported by existing heritage policies, as the statutory system is slow to react. Furthermore, China’s unilateral governance model makes it difficult to foster interdepartmental cooperation; cultural heritage departments are often sidelined by other government departments that promote economic development agendas. Budding public-private partnerships and social participation is encouraged, but monitored in a cautious manner, as the state is trying to balance socialistic democracy with continued strong-arm governance (). Conservation professionals are scrutinized by a broad range of stakeholders, but are lacking in effective tools and updated industry support to manage changing roles and responsibilities.

This article attempts to explain the tendencies of current Chinese heritage theory and practice by examining the presentation and interpretation of contemporary values in context. While all heritage constructs and values are political in one way or another, it is conceivably more striking in China’s context, where the identification of heritage typologies and interpretation of values is highly attuned to the national political agenda. For instance, the promotion of cultural routes is closely associated with the international diplomacy policy of the Belt and Road Initiative;8 the preservation of cultural landscapes and vernacular heritage in urban and rural settlements is devised as a means to alleviate the adverse effects of the widening urban-rural wealth disparity, environmental pollution, and key resource depletions, and to foster ethnic harmony; and the development of national archaeological parks around large-scale archaeological sites is aimed not only at conservation but also at urban-rural regeneration. A reading of the contemporary “non-heritage” values not only requires local contextual examination of the heritage site, but also consideration of the greater sociopolitical agenda where such a typology could serve in the greater regional or national context.

Values-centered preservation has provided a paradigm to navigate the shifting nature and relativism of heritage that was both criticized and extolled. How should heritage professionals approach non-heritage values that are not conservation-centered at heritage sites, given the inadequacy of legal and professional tools and the overwhelming abundance of resources and enthusiasm from the market and high-level politics? Moving forward, contextual study of the characterization and understanding of value typologies in different social, cultural, and political landscapes is crucial to the search for answers.


  1. The author’s keyword search on China Knowledge Resource Integrated Database returned nineteen relevant articles, mostly written by participants in the development of the China Principles.
  2. These literal meanings of terms are derived from the combination of two or more Chinese characters. They can be interpreted or translated in multiple ways. Some of the meanings used herein are drawn from the glossary in the China Principles.
  3. The aborted amended draft is not to be confused with the official 2015 amendment of the Cultural Relics Protection Law of the People’s Republic of China.
  4. Cultural Relics Protection Law of the People’s Republic of China (2015 amendment), article 3, states that “Immovable cultural relics … may, depending on their historic, artistic and scientific values, be designated respectively as major sites to be protected.”
  5. This term is commonly used in China to describe the phenomenon.
  6. Since 2000, thirteen out of the twenty listed Chinese World Heritage Sites are characterized as cultural landscapes, cultural routes, canals, historic settlements, and vernacular architecture, demonstrating a strong inclination toward protection of cultural diversity and living heritage sites.
  7. The Guiyang Proposal was drafted at the “International Symposium on the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Village Cultural Landscapes,” held October 24–26, 2008, in Guiyang, Guizhou.
  8. The Belt and Road Initiative is a development strategy that emphasizes cooperation and connectivity between China and other Eurasian countries by the land-based Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road.


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