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Analysis of Public Participation in the Case of Protecting Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin’s Former Residence

By He Muren

Editor’s note: CHP strongly supports public participation as a way to advance cultural heritage protection in China. The following article by CHP volunteer, He Muren, examines the impact of public participation in shaping the outcome of a particular case: the protection of Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin’s former residence.

Liang Sicheng and his wife, Lin Huiyin, were two of China’s most outstanding architects. They designed the national emblem of the People’s Republic of China and the Monument to People’s Heroes. The national prize for architectural design is named after Liang Sicheng (the “Liang Sicheng Award”), in order to honor his contribution to the nation through design.

In 1930, Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin left Shengyang for Beijing (known as Beiping at that time) and settled down at No. 24, Beizongbu Hutong (The old number was No. 3). In 1931, Liang Sicheng joined the Society for the Study of Chinese Architecture and became the Head of the Architecture Department, where he began his research on Chinese ancient architecture. The couple frequently put themselves at risk of attack from bandits and troops by studying the country’s historical and architectural gems during this point in time – as the 1930s were an unstable point in China’s history. In 1937, Liang and Lin moved away from Beijing and never returned to their residence in Beizongbu hutong.

During the six years that Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin lived at No. 24 Beizongbu Hutong, they made their greatest contribution to the protection and academic research of Chinese cultural heritage. They discovered the Zhaozhou Bridge of the Sui Dynasty (581-617) in Hebei Province; a Buddhist wooden pagoda of the Liao Dynasty (907-1125) in Shanxi Province; and a Buddhist temple of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) in Shanxi province, to name a few. These examples of China’s built heritage are of world significance as they used advanced and innovative methods of architecture that we Chinese people can be forever proud of. The research that Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin conducted during their time at Beizongbu hutong formed the foundation of their masterpiece, the History of Chinese Architecture (published in 1943). During the War of Resistance against Japan (1937-1946) and the Liberation War (1949), Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin also submitted a directory of Chinese cultural heritage preservation to the authorities, highlighting the cultural relics they believed should be protected from the destruction of war. According to cultural heritage experts, the list became the primary reference point for later identifying China’s cultural heritage sites requiring protective status.

The six years that Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin spent at Beizongbu residence marked an important point in China’s recent history in which the need to protect China’s historically and culturally significant sites was identified. No. 24 Beizongbu Hutong marks the significance of this contribution and deserves to be protected to the highest level. Their story is a monument to cultural heritage protection in China and their hutong residence is a site worthy of heritage protection in itself.

Up to the 1990s, Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin’s former residence remained untouched. Later, a building was added in the yard while the east wing room and the ornamental inner gate and decorative roof were torn down. Not long after, the main room’s original tile roof was replaced. By 2007, a real estate developer was successfully granted a ‘demolition permit’ over the patch of land that included No. 24 Beizongbu Hutong. In May 2009, Beijing Dongcheng District Housing Administration Bureau released a demolition notice of the courtyard, posing a grave and immediate threat to the existence of Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin’s legacy.

The current condition of Liang and Lins former residence

The current condition of Liang and Lin's former residence

The demolition notice of the formers residence

The demolition notice of the former's residence

If the demolition were to proceed, it would be a devastating loss to Chinese cultural heritage. Fortunately, thanks to the news reports of several local media sources, the demolition plan quickly generated great concern amongst the public. Wang Jun, an expert on the protection of Beijing Old City and Xinhua News correspondent took the lead in making an urgent appeal in his blog, pointing out the ignorant act of demolishing this valued residence and pleading relevant authorities to bring the demolition to an end. Bejing News soon followed suit, and Xinjingbao reports triggered other mainstream media’s involvement, including the People’s Daily, the China Youth Daily, Beijing Daily, Beijing Evening, People’s Daily, and Guangming Daily.

Similarly, an in-depth discussion on saving Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin’s former residence also took place on the Internet. All major websites and forums covered and discussed widely on the demolition. China’s popular website, Sina.com conducted a survey ‘What do you think of the demolition and the transformation of Beijing Old City?’. 77% of survey participants supported the protection of the Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin’s former residence; 81% thought authorities should strengthen the census taken on famous figures’ former residences; 81% supported the protection of courtyard houses in Old Beijing.

NGOs also actively participated in protecting Liang and Lin’s former residence. CHP published a commentary on its website, criticizing local cultural relics administration’s indifference and ineffectiveness in failing to give Liang and Lin’s former residence any sort of cultural relics status, nor addressing to the public the importance of the site. CHP also highlighted the ineffectiveness of the Law for Preservation of Cultural Relics in failing to implement the legal protection to the former residence. It organized a forum ‘The Protection of Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin’s Former Residence and its Relation to the Construction of Civil Society’, where participants discussed on how the public could take initiatives in protecting cultural relics and what concrete steps were possible. Additionally, CHP organized a short publicity documentary with the help of Beijing Film Academy volunteers. An architectural protection plan for the remaining of the residence was also prepared by CHP volunteers of the Architecture Department of Tsinghua University.

An illustration of the former residences architectural protection plan

An illustration of the former residence's architectural protection plan

Media attention towards the protection of Liang and Lin’s former residence was crucial in putting the demolition to an end, as well as highlighting the unique role of NGOs. CHP advocated and assisted concerned citizens in taking legal actions. We witnessed an unprecedented level of public participation in cultural heritage protection.

On October 20, 2009, Zhang Pei, He Muren and other five Beijing residents submitted the ‘Request for Confirming Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin’s Former Residence in Beizongbu Hutong as Immovable Cultural Relic’ to Beijing Cultural Relics Administration in accordance with the Provisional Regulations Governing the Management of the Designation of Cultural Relics*, which was launched not long before. The Beijing Municipal Administration of Cultural Heritage rejected this initial application, leading the seven residents to appeal to the State Administration of Cultural Heritage in November.

By December 2009, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage released an ‘Administrative Reconsideration Letter’, stating their belief that the previous decision was ill-considered and recommended city officials assign the former residence of Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin as a permanent cultural relic, under the Law for Protection of Cultural Relics of the People’s Republic of China. This decision represented a great victory for city residents. It was the first case of administrative redress since the Provisional Regulations Governing the Management of the Designation of Cultural Relics* legislation had been implemented.

The Administrative Reconsideration Letter

The Administrative Reconsideration Letter

The Administrative Reconsideration Letter

The Administrative Reconsideration Letter

The success behind the protection of Liang and Lin’s former residence was largely due to the collaboration among public participation, experts’ recommendations, and government’s strategic redress. Several prominent experts presented their suggestions directly to the government; the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee – Beijing Municipality organized a visit to the former residence for its members and appealed for the protection. The Beijing Cultural Relics Administration and Beijing Urban Planning Committee acted in response to the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, stating that they would invite experts to participate in the developing concrete measures of the protection of Liang and Lin’s former residence.

However, the road to the full protection of Liang and Lin’s former residence remains a long way. Although a permanent cultural relic status was granted to the site and relevant parties have expressed their intention in protecting the residence, no concrete measures have eventuated as yet. No physical protective measures have been made to the residence, aside from some improvement in the area’s sanitation. The remaining part of the residence will become increasingly fragile unless additional protective measures are made.

Frustratingly, the Beijing Dongcheng District Housing Bureau has once again pasted another demolition notice on the same location, with a very similar content to the original notice issued roughly a year before. The fight for Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin’s former residence is far from complete and can only be accomplished by the combined effort among media, law, public’s attention

The reemerged demolition sign in 2010

The reemerged demolition sign in 2010

As an active participant in protecting Liang and Lin’s former residence, I have learned the significance and challenges of public involvement in cultural heritage protection:

Cultural heritage sites are the standing testaments to Chinese social development. They validate the country’s progress of civilization. These historical and cultural blueprints give us pride and national identity. If Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin’s former residence was to vanish, it would be a significant loss to us and our future generations. It is our responsibility to protect heritage sites such as this, and through public participation we can strive to achieve this mission.

China is currently experiencing a time of drastic social and economic change. With rapid urbanization and economic development on the rise, finding a balance between modernization and heritage preservation is one of the nation’s pressing challenges. Protecting key relics like Liang and Lin’s former residence requires the public to exercise management in social issues, and to revisit the key question – What is a city’s priorities?

Public participation in cultural heritage protection also gives us remarkable insights into the local community as a whole. For instance, neighbors of Liang and Lin’s former residence did not oppose the protection of the relic, to the contrary: they hoped to gain monetary benefits from the demolition. They remained highly observant of the local authorities’ reaction to the demolition plan, but had a lot of doubt in the intentions of real estate developers and government officials. Real estate developers were determined to drive the project forward due to the commercial incentive involved, while government officials avoided direct responsibility through bureaucratic processes, remaining hazy about the details of the proposed redevelopment. Experts offered conflicting opinions: some were more interested in academic issues than social issues, while others remained guarded due to political and media pressures. The general public had a limited understanding about how to tackle this social issue. It appeared that people were hesitant about leading the fight for the protection of Liang and Lin’s former residence. In this confusing situation, competing pressures meant that no party was wholly right or wrong. There were simply too many passive actors unwilling to engage in the necessary dialogue for the most viable solution to be obtained.

The difficulty of engaging active public participation in decisions concerning the protection of our cultural heritage is deeply embedded in Chinese society. One origin of this difficulty is the indifference of local government officials. Social issues in China, especially the issue of protection of cultural heritage, are almost always decided by the government. Officials discover, analyze, and settle problems according to their standpoints and ways of thinking. The issues of “acting on one’s own,” refusing to engage the public for fear of “external” influence are a visible problem. There are basic stipulations under law for openness of government information, reception of the public and administrative reconsideration in heritage issues, but this appears to be largely lip service. Once there is a 1% increase in officials’ indifference; there will be a 10% increase in the difficulty of public participation. It is extremely difficult to have a genuine, transparent discussion with officials to know the whole picture.

Chinese society should have a role to play in the protection of local heritage like Liang and Lin’s former residence protection, but community influence remains comparatively weak. Several cultural heritage organizations, including China Cultural Relics Society, are funded by the government and consequently they did not stand up to fight for this protection issue. CHP was the most active NGO in raising awareness of this demolition threat; yet its capacity for influence remained limited. As a local grassroots NGO, CHP was not treated as an equal party in the dialog, which occurred between the government and corporate real estate developers.

The road to the full protection of Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin’s former residence remains a long one, but public participation is a necessary component in achieving it. While NGOs like CHP have an important role to play, they cannot fight this battle alone and need the support of the local community to achieve their goals of heritage protection for Chinese society. Local citizens should be mindful of this and as far as possible, aim to have some voice in the decisions that concern their future.

*The Provisional Regulations Governing the Management of the Designation of Cultural Relics allows local citizens to submit a formal request to the local government’s cultural protection department if they want to recognize an object or a location as a cultural relic or raise the status of a cultural relic.

CHP would like to thank our volunteer proofreader, Carla Nayton, for her outstanding translation of this article.

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