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Underground cultural artifacts: Beijing’s forgotten and vanishing history

Beijing has over three thousand years of history. For a remarkable eight hundred years of those, Beijing has been the nation’s capital. Because of its rich cultural history, undoubtedly there are countless of priceless underground cultural relics that remain unexcavated – hidden below both Beijing’s buildings and social consciousness.

However, disturbingly it has been revealed that many of these artifacts have been damaged or destroyed in recent years. Some of the cases include:

  • In Xicheng District, central Beijing, no scientific research or excavation was conducted before launching the Maojiawan Development project. After breaking ground on the project, over 1.2 million pieces of porcelain dating back to between the late Yuan and mid-Ming Dynasties were unearthed. These valuable archaeological relics, however, were not formally protected. Tragically, much of the porcelain was stolen by individuals shortly after discovery.
  • During construction near the old city wall on Deshengmen Neidajie, crews found large amounts of porcelain from the Ming and Qing Dynasties that were subsequently removed in entirety.
  • Many relics were discovered during the construction of the Beijing South train station and the surrounding areas. Unfortunately, development continued unabated, and it is now impossible to examine and verify the authenticity of the buried artifacts.
  • A group of Qing Dynasty stone tombs were found during the construction of Terminal 3 at the Beijing Capital Airport. Due to obstruction of the builders, archaeologists were unable to conduct proper research and excavations at the site.
  • When Mercedes-Benz was building a new factory in Beijing’s Yizhuang Economic Development Zone, Han and Tang Dynasty tombs were uncovered. Rather than halting construction, the building overseers hurriedly moved on with the project. The site was destroyed.

In 2008 and 2009, 4191 constructions projects were launched in Beijing. Only 89, or just over 2% of these projects first received a thorough archaeological survey. This categorically shows how the vast majority of construction is being conducted without regard to the possible cultural relics buried underneath the surface.

Therefore, we have reason to believe that the aforementioned cases only represent a small minority of incidents in which underground historical relics have been destroyed.

Despite that Beijing’s above ground cultural sites are also suffering from destruction, they are more easily protected by the people and the media and the situation is improving. But due to the presence of security guards and large machinery, it is difficult for the public to access underground sites and lodge complaints against their destruction.

Over the past three years, CHP has mobilized and aided volunteers to file 35 formal complaints about damage being done to underground sites. Unfortunately, many of the sites were discovered after irreparable harm had already been done to them.

The power to decide the fate of underground sites lies in the public’s and the media’s ability to shed light on the acts of wanton destruction.

There are several ways for concerned members of the public to get involved.  In addition to filing complaints with the government, we recommend that everyone frequently visit the Beijing Municipal Commission of Urban Planning’s website and Beijing Municipal Commission of Housing and Urban-Rural Development’s website to understand the development situation.

Also we hope that everyone concerned will keep track of underground relic protection through the Beijing Municipal Administration of Cultural Heritage’s website. In the event of any suspicious activity or potential damage to cultural heritage sites, please consult with the project managers to ensure that proper underground surveys have been conducted.

Concerned citizens can also request that the Beijing Municipal Administration of Cultural Heritage conduct the proper surveys on underground relics. All information about underground surveys legally is meant to be open to the public. Furthermore, if you have any questions or concerns, CHP will do our best to help you resolve them.

CHP would like to thank our volunteer translator, Michele Scrimanti, for his outstanding translation of this article.

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