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Heritage Trail project

Protecting Beijing’s cultural heritage

Radio86.com by Janne Suokas, 4 July 2010

Zhang Pei works for the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center. (Image: Radio86)

(Image: Radio86)

We met Zhang Pei, from Beijing Cultural Heritage Centre, who explained how the fight to protect culturally significant areas of Beijing is progressing in a time of rapid modernisation.

What is the Beijing Culture Heritage Protection Center, when was it established and what are your objectives?

Beijing Culture Heritage Protection Center was established in 1998, and in 2003 it was granted official status as a legal non-governmental organization under the civil administration of Beijing city. The main goal in our operation is to help Beijing citizens to protect their local cultural heritage.

How do you define culture heritage and what does it consist of in China?

We can think that cultural heritage means for example cultural items, and some of them are moveable and some are immoveable. Vases, caskets, chairs, they are single physical objects and can be considered as cultural items. Buildings are also included within this sphere, and then there are historical streets or districts and ancient villages which are also part of cultural heritage. So, not only in China but all over the world there are certain common concepts about what is cultural heritage. Through my work in this organization I have realized that there are really many things worth protecting, such as the connection between people and cultural heritage. For example when we do the work to protect the old city of Beijing, it is obvious for everyone that it includes protecting the hutong-alleys and the siheyuan-houses (courtyard houses). But actually what we should pay more attention to is the people. We should be concerned about how local people see their own culture, and how they relate to it.

Zhang Pei works for the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center. (Image: Radio86)

What are the most urgent needs in protecting the cultural heritage in China?

I think that all the items I mentioned earlier, in everything that is considered to be within the concept of cultural heritage we should not distinguish between when they were protected. If there is anything that academically-speaking meets the criteria, anything that has historical importance, scientific and cultural value, it should be protected. We must cherish the cultural heritage as such, not divide it into categories. I think during this process of protection there are some issues that can be seen as relatively urgent, such as the process of modernisation.

How about in Beijing, where much of the old Beijing is already gone. What should be preserved here?

I’d say that we need to look at it from various aspects. First of all, we can enhance the awareness. You can gain knowledge through news and the internet, and then, according to your abilities and knowledge you can really consider these issues. Actually, while doing this work we have noticed that in protecting the cultural heritage is not so important that you first become expert or professional in this field and then have the qualification to take action. There are many people who say that they might not understand too much about the matter itself but would still like to do something, and while doing this work myself I have noticed that it is indeed very comprehensive. Professional knowledge from many various fields is needed. So, I’d say that everybody has something to offer, some skills or talent. Considering hutongs and courtyard-houses, they are becoming fewer and fewer. Along this process there are many features related to the way of life, that have already transformed. Life there is not any more what it used to be, some changes are quite obvious.

When you start redeveloping some area in a Chinese city, for example here is Beijing, is it only money that counts? If the economy of this area is not doing very well, can it be demolished and built a new for business purposes?

I think it is like that. For example Beijing old city, the area that is inside the second ring road. Everybody knows the value of it. That piece of land is worth a lot of money. If you possess property there the gain is huge. So I’d say money is an important factor.

If people live in bad conditions in old buildings, they need to be improved. Is it possible to improve people’s living conditions without destroying cultural heritage?

I think there can be many ways. Actually, as soon as we mention protecting the old city of Beijing many people will ask how is it possible to protect the local people’s way of living. This question comes up each time we talk about protecting the old city. In reality we think there is no conflict. Protecting is not like “keeping the water in a well” and not allowing it to move. Our intention is not to maintain everything as it is and never mind how the people deal with their daily life. We aim to help the local people to protect their own cultural heritage. We act like a motivator, show the way, that is our role in the process. The real protectors of the cultural heritage are the local residents. Within the old city of Beijing, it is really very complicated to engage into protective measures. There are lot of elements interfering. There is no single way or method to solve all the issues.

The Drum and Bell Tower area is now under threat of demolition. (Image: Radio86)

(Image: Radio86)

The Drum and Bell Tower area is now under threat of demolition.

First of all we must provide a right to choose for the local residents, if they want to move out to live in apartments of a higher standard. When the population in old houses is smaller, the ones who have decided to stay there can also increase their living area. Many houses in the old city are already in very poor condition, and the government allocates a certain sum each year to be spent on renovating them.

There are other ways too. For example many parts of the city are developing fast and tourism has a strong impact there. In many areas, such as Houhai and Gulou, tourism can affect the life of local residents. All in all, in these most vigorous tourist areas the travel industry need to be developed more carefully, make new plans and decide in what terms tourism can be developed further, so that it does not destroy the hutong-environment or disturb residents life. This process will be done little by little, and there certainly is a way to solve problems, it is not necessary to tear everything down to improve peoples living conditions.

There has been news that the areas around the Drum and Bell Towers will be demolished. Can you tell us about that and how has your organization been involved in this case?

Certain major Beijing media, such as Xinhua Times and Xinhuanet reported around mid January this year, that the area in Beijing Dongcheng district, around Gulou, is designated to become some kind of “culture town”. The media described the overall plans concerning this project, for example the coverage of the area, how far it would reach in each direction, and what woud be constructed above ground and underground. As soon as we got this information through the media we thought that it just might be the case, that this project could cause damage to the environment in the area. Gulou is one of the few places that can be considered really representative of the old Beijing culture. First of all, it is on the very centre line of our city. The Palace museum at the southern end of this line represents the imperial culture and when you go further north to Gulou you enter the area of genuine local folk culture. We got very concerned, as this project covered such a big area, and because it just might damage one of the last areas of authentic old Beijing culture. In addition, we also knew what had happened in Qianmen (during a similar “culture area” project) and we were really scared that Gulou would end up the same. That is why we decided that we should at least hold a seminar concerned, and so we started to organize it at the end of February. It was set to be held on March 28th and was to be an open public seminar, and everybody who felt interested was welcome to come and air their opinions. That is what people should do if they are concerned about their environment, make an effort and express their opinions. We distributed the information at the beginning of March on the Internet and it got a lot of attention. The information is still available on the website. There were something like 600 people who shared our concern and about 200 who expressed they would participate, who pushed that “participate” button. This number does not include those people who do not use Internet, and many people would not indicate their participation through any channel. But indeed there were so many people who aired their opinions on our forum.

But, it is very pity that in the end we did not manage to organise the seminar that day. We did go to the place the meeting was supposed to take place, because although we cancelled it we thought that many people might not receive the message in time. We went there to explain to people. Actually that day, in addition to those young people who regularly visit our website, there were quite a lot of local residents as well. They were wondering why we did not make the event happen, and it seemed they were eager to air their opinions. Well, actually we already had some idea about the residents opinions through the website, and there was obviously part of the residents who would rather let the houses go, or somehow rather improve their living conditions. For us that is also very understandable. In the end we did not hold any seminar, but instead wrote reviews concerned and explained our organisation’s point of view.

What happens with the people living in the area and the businesses there?

Actually they have not so much been discussing about the project as such, they are more concerned about their own interests, if it would be possible to get their share somehow … many people even put it very directly, that if you provide me with a new flat I will follow your plans. They consider these things in a very concrete level: “do you give me money or do you provide me with a new flat, if I need to move very far can you give me some assistance for the transportation cost, or give assistance for medical or education expenses… ” people are mostly concerned about those kind of personal interests. They also pay attention (to protection) but relatively speaking the issues that concern their own life are more important to them. Yet, that afternoon we had our meeting there were some elderly people who were interviewed by journalists, and they said that as they had been living in this area already for such a long time it would be impossible not to have any emotional detachment to it, and everybody knows that this particular area is so good and deserves to be treated respectfully. It would be wrong to say that people don’t care about protecting the environment, they have sentiments towards it, but in the end they really are more concerned about their own life. That is understandable.

Read the original article.

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