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Interview: He Shuzhong on the Challenges of Protecting China’s Heritage

Heritage-Keys by Michael Kan on Wed, 11/25/2009 – 18:22

He Shuzhong knows how bad the situation is: everyday something of cultural value is destroyed in China, he says. All he need do is pick up his cell phone, which also happens to act as a cultural protection hotline.

“Do you know how many people have my cell phone number? I estimate it’s in the tens of thousands,” he said. “So everyday there’s someone who calls and tells us their situation.”

He is the founder and chairman of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center. For over the last decade, he and volunteers have worked to preserve places of historical value in both Beijing and across China. But with the country’s nonstop economic growth, construction projects continue to threaten and destroy numerous places of cultural worth.

“To speak honestly, about half of the people who contact us, we can’t do anything about. I can’t even record them all down,”
He said.

He Shuzhong took the time to speak with Heritage Key about the challenges in trying to preserve China’s cultural heritage, and how his organization has achieved its successes in the past.

In 2003, the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center became officially registered as a non-governmental organization, and the organization boasts several hundred volunteers. In the past, the group has staged efforts to protect Beijing’s hutongs, traditional courtyard homes built during China’s Imperial Dynasties. This past year, they worked to preserve places as far away as Kashgar, an ancient city which is located in China’s western Xinjiang province.

HK: Did you imagine your organization would one day come this far?

HS: The government can be very strict, and it doesn’t really hope to see an NGO. In China, a non-governmental organization basically means you are opposing the government. So the Chinese government can be very strict in regulating you, and even mean.

The other thing is China doesn’t really have the habit of donating to causes. But when you are an NGO, everyday you need money. To be a real logistical NGO you have to an office to help you. You also need a full-time staff, and you need to pay them. So fund raising is very important. But in China we just don’t really have this habit of donations.

Our goal is very clear: we want to help the local people and society’s members to protect their own cultural heritage. How to help them is not to force them to do work. But to assist them. Let them feel that they have this responsibility. And let them feel proud. If we can’t do these two things, then cultural protection doesn’t have much significance. So this type of work in China is very difficult. And there aren’t many people who do it. So it’s very hard.

When you talk about cultural heritage in China people don’t think about cultural heritage.
Instead they think about antiques, or auctions, or collections. Most think about museums. Many people, however, haven’t thought about protecting their cultural heritage. They haven’t gotten there, they are still far behind.

So in my view for the (Beijing Cultural Heritage Protect Center) to have survived until now, is pretty good.

HK: What other difficulties does your organization face?

HS: One thing that I’ve been unsatisfied and disappointed with about my organization is how much were lacking in terms of our ability to raise funds. Moreover most of our money comes from foreign countries. This is very embarrassing. To change this situation we need time.

Another thing that leaves me dissatisfied is the way other foreign cultural heritage protection groups, like foundations and NGOs, operate in China. In the time I’ve spent doing my work, I’ve felt that these international cultural heritage protection groups, while they do good things, their work in China has left me unsatisfied. There are two reasons.

The first one, is they don’t really understand what Chinese cultural heritage protection really needs. They don’t understand. They don’t understand Chinese society. And they don’t understand the biggest problems cultural heritage protection has in China. They don’t understand the kind of methods and understanding that is needed for this kind of work.

The other side to it is that a lot of these NGOs like to suck up to the government. To put these two things together, causes me to feel that these NGOs and their efforts in China don’t have much value.

HK: Can you give us an example?

HS: Restoration. Like restoring an old building. Spending money to help the Chinese government renovate an old building. But the Chinese government already has so much money. The significance of doing this is not important.

Restoration is needed. But it’s not the biggest need. First off, China has a lot of money meant for restoring ancient sites and buildings. They have so much money that every year they can’t spend it all. The Chinese government has already prepared many of these funds.

The second thing is that when the Chinese government wants to restore a building, they want to do it fast. The required methods and principles needed to renovate these buildings, however, aren’t fully used. So this process of restoring a historical site often leads to destruction. The more you fix, the more you destroy.

HK: How should these NGO’s be spending their money then?

HS: Preventing the daily man-made destruction (of cultural heritage) is the most important. Not the natural destruction, but the man-made destruction. Encouraging the local people to respect their cultural heritage is the most important. Making cultural protection an important part of their lives is crucial. And it’s also important to criticize the attitude of government officials who are against protecting the country’s cultural heritage.

Under these circumstances, to spend money to restore old buildings doesn’t have any significance. It not only has no significance, but local government officials feel it’s a good way to use someone. A government official might feel that these NGO’s have a lot of money: if these organizations have so much to spend, why not spend it here? So the significance of restoring old buildings isn’t much.

HK: Do you feel like more and more people in China have become aware of the importance of protecting the country’s cultural heritage?

HS: Yes, there has been change. But it’s not enough. The change has been obvious, but it’s still far away. Way far away.

China’s society has so many problems. From our NGO’s point of view, the two biggest problems are: the first is that people don’t respect traditional ways, and don’t respect the country’s cultural heritage. They lack this basic etiquette of politeness. The other issue is that most people don’t want to or don’t believe in taking up the responsibility themselves. It should be up to others. They rather let the government do it. Even if they are supposed to do it themselves, they won’t do it.

HK: Other cities in China also deal with the destruction of their cultural heritage. How does you organization try to help?

HS: The destruction of China’s cultural heritage is occurring across the country. We emphasize in the rights of local residents. So our offices try to help the local residents resolve their own problems. Let’s say if the local residents don’t have this feeling, then there’s no point. How do we make the local residents feel that they need to protect their cultural heritage? Well this takes a lot of work. I feel like a lot of experts aren’t willing to go do this. Many NGO’s aren’t capable of it.

HK: How many volunteers does your organization currently have?

HS: We have two offices currently housed in hutongs here. There is three full-time staff members. Two part-time staff members. And two foreign one-year interns. Every year we have interns from American schools. We also have several hundred volunteers. We have them in every part of the country.

A third of our efforts are spent on preserving the cultures of minorities in China. This is because these problems related to minority populations in China are getting more and more serious. In the future it will get even worse.

We also spend time on awareness programs for citizens. Another thing is the media is very important. Including the Internet, the influence of the international media outlets, as well as the local media’s influence, it’s all becoming more and more important. So these awareness programs along with our media efforts also take up a third of energies.

The other third, which is also important, is spent on research. This organization and how it handles matter is very critical. This is because the very existence of an NGO in China is a kind of power. But to have it continue to flourish and be of use, and not die, this takes a lot of thinking.

HK: Your organization has also tried to prevent the government from demolishing parts of Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang province. Why has this been important?

HS:  From a cultural heritage protection viewpoint, it has some very special significance. It’s not just protecting a city, but also protecting a minority’s cultural heritage (Kashgar is home to a Uighur population). Because of its special position, our ways of protecting it have had much more of an impact also on other old cities like Kashgar and for other minority populations.  This issue is very sensitive. And this won’t be resolved for a long, long time. It’s only just started to become an issue. So the work is very sensitive and hard to do. But we still do it anyways.

At the same time, we also can’t have high expectations of this Kashgar situation and believe that we can completely succeed. This just isn’t possible. The destruction will come. But because of our work, the destruction will be cut in half. There will still be destruction, but it will be cut in half. To have that destruction cut in half is pretty good. There’s no way the government over there will just listen to you.

When we do this kind of work, we often rely on pressure, giving our advice, making criticisms, and trying to make people understand things from our perspective. If we didn’t do this, then all this pressure and these recommendations would have been much less in regards to the Kashgar situation.

Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang province. Photo provided by sandandtsunamis

HK: What do you think of China’s cultural heritage protection laws? Are they adequate?

HS: I think the laws have some problems, but it’s just a small problem. The law isn’t perfect. But it’s not the main problem. In terms of the protection of China’s cultural heritage, what’s really wrong is that there is no enforcement. A lot of the laws exist only paper. And there’s no authority. Common people also have no interest in the law. They don’t know it, and they aren’t interested. Government officials also don’t know the law, and they aren’t interested. So the people who destroy China’s cultural heritage can be pretty bold.

HK: Your organization has also worked to protect hutongs in Beijing. If many of the local residents work to prevent a hutong from being destroyed, do they have much chance at succeeding?

HS: You would think it would be this way. But in most cases, in order to protect a hutong, you must spend a lot of time. What usually happens is that in the first or second day, the residents will have a lot of motivation. But after a week they start to tire. Then after a month they won’t do it anymore. This happens a lot. At other times the developer will give them some money, and so then residents won’t do it anymore. So to see people that really don’t give up is very rare.

HK: Recently your organization succeeded in protecting the former residence of Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin, two architecture scholars. Why was this important?

He: Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin were huge contributors to the protection of China’s cultural heritage. In the 1930’s when they were living in that residence for several years, they did the first nationwide survey of the country’s historical buildings. They had a list., that they gave to the government, so that when the country was at war, all these historical places were not destroyed. This list was later given to the Communist government, and so none of these places were destroyed. Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin had many contributions, but this was their biggest.

HK: What methods did you use to save it?

HS: We wanted the (demolition) to stop. Basically we found the best timing. Everyday we went to observe the residence. Everyday. Because we knew it was going to be destroyed. But when we should decide to oppose the demolition involves important timing. So everyday we went to observe it. And found the most opportune time. We then contacted the certain members of the media, which we have good relationships with. We then picked an angle for the media to report on that could spark society’s involvement. This took time to research. We had to think it over.

HK: What do you think your organization’s biggest accomplishment has been?

HS: I think our biggest accomplishment is that we’ve found a way, a perspective on things, that works. We are promoting a very basic principle in Chinese society. What is cultural heritage protection? What is its worth? This is our first contribution. China doesn’t have any organization promoting this.

We are constantly coming up with new cases that we can tackle and that have effectiveness. We use our past successes as way to prove of our effectiveness, to show which are the best methods and what is the right perspective to have. Because of our methods and solution, and because of our basic principles, if other organizations and people are interested, and they can raise some money, then they can learn how to do this too.

CHP would like to thank Heritage Key for allowing us to republish the article for educational purposes. First published on Heritage Key, a website aims to provide the best and most up to date information of key ancient world or heritage sites and objects, on November 25, 2009.
Read the original article.

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