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Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP) is a small grassroots, legally-registered NGO working to protect cultural heritage across China.

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Slow and Steady Wins the Games

Among the many projects being implemented to build “New Beijing, Great Olympic” for the hosting of the 2008 Olympic Games, the Beijing government has adopted a “Plan of Cultural Relic Preservation for the Olympic Games”.  Municipal funding has been increased for cultural relic preservation. The attention being accorded to cultural heritage protection is of course to be welcomed, and CHP supports the plan in general terms.  But when we look at the plan in greater detail, we fear that the ill-considered haste with which it is to be implemented could result in permanent and needless damage.
 
What does the Cultural Relic Preservation Plan consist of, and wherein do we perceive the dangers to lie?  The Plan focuses on renovating the views of the “Two Axes,” restore the appearance of the “Five Districts,” and to rebuild the “Six Scenic Sites.”
 
The “Two Axes” refers to the two lines on which imperial Beijing was laid out in the Ming Dynasty by the Yong Le Emperor: one north-south and one east-west.  The Central Axial Line, along which the Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City are situated, runs through the city center. The second axis, the Chaoyang-Fucheng Line, runs from Chaoyang Gate in the east straight across the old Ming-Qing City to the Fucheng Gate in the west.
 
The “Five Districts” are the architecture and scenery surrounding the Shi Sha Hai Lake, a replica of the traditional Chinese gardens, pavilions, and corridors; the Guo Zi Jian, or  Capital Library, a former haven for Confucian students and scholars preparing for the imperial examinations; the Liu Li Chang commercial center, a street lined with ancient style bookshops and antique stores; the Imperial City, containing within it the Forbidden City and Tiananmen; and the Drum and Bell Towers, which are the center of a conserved area of ancient hutongs and traditional courtyard houses.
 
The “Six Scenic Sites” refer to the Western Scenic Area; the Beijing Sector of the Great Wall; the Imperial Tombs preservation area; the remains of the ancient canal culture in Tongzhou district; the Wanping historical relic preservation section, where the Marco Polo Bridge is located; and the temples of the western suburban area of Beijing. 
 
Though CHP supports the increased attention and funding that cultural heritage protection projects are receiving, we believe that racing to meet a 2008 deadline for completion of these projects will ultimately prove to be more damaging than beneficial to many of the historical sites.  The number and magnitude of restoration projects that the Beijing government has proposed cannot be properly undertaken in such a limited amount of time.  The process of restoration takes time. It requires several years of initial surveys, research, and investigation.  In addition, Chinese laws states: “In the repairing, maintaining and removing of immovable cultural relics, the principle of keeping the cultural relics in their original state shall be adhered to.”  (Law of the People’s Republic of China on Protection of Cultural Relics, Article 21) Similarly, generally accepted best international practice discourages hasty and superficial repair of ancient relics.   
 
We note in the Cultural Relic Preservation Plan the use of the words zhengzhi and chongxian. These two words are difficult to explain in English, but both give a sense of improving upon the past, doing something better than the original: zhengzhi would be a bit like giving a facelift to a site, while chongxian really implies rebuilding (and not always rebuilding the same as the original that was replaced). These words we feel are not appropriate for a well conceived historical preservation project, and do not accord with best international conservation practice.
 
On the cultural heritage side of preparations for the 2004 Olympics Games, the Greek government set an excellent example of how to undertake restoration work. It did not insist on the early completion of the Acropolis restoration project, but instead allowed qualified experts sufficient time to study and survey the site, refine project planning, and accurately document project progress.  Had the Greek government forced premature completion of the project, the Acropolis, a priceless cultural heritage site, would have suffered irreparable damage and much of its authentic cultural history would have been lost.  The resulting success of the Acropolis restoration project generated awareness among both residents and visitors of not only the importance of cultural heritage protection itself, but also of the meticulous process that cultural heritage protection requires.  
 
CHP recommends that increased funding for cultural relic preservation and protection in Beijing be accompanied by strictly abiding by the relevant laws, rules, and regulations concerning heritage restoration so that the task can be undertaken in a totally professional manner.  We strongly advocate that the “Plan of Cultural Relic Preservation for the Olympic Games” be revised according to Getty Institute’s “Principles for the Conservation of Heritage Sites in China”:  Some of the projects may not be completed, but Beijing will be seen by all the visitors who come to the city in 2008 and subsequent years to be setting the same high standards of historical and cultural conservation that were set in the previous Olympics by Athens.
 
In future CHP Updates, we will take a closer look at the details of some of these projects.
 
(Translated by D. Chu)
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