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Orientations:Saving Kashgar

More than anywhere else in the world, Kashgar’s Old City conjures up the exotic cosmopolitanism and mixing of races and cultures of the Silk Road. For centuries, the maze of alleys threading through the jumble of mudbrick houses, the markets filled with Central Asian merchandise and handicrafts, and the strikingly simple but elegant Muslim religious structures, have captured the imaginations of travellers from East and West.

But earlier this year, the authorities of Xinjiang shocked the world with the bland announcement that the Old City, almost in its entirety, was to be demolished and replaced by a faux old city that will be a sterilized and ‘improved’ imitation of the original. Most of the residents will apparently be moved to new apartment blocks of the sort that scar the urban skylines of China today. Some will be resettled in the new Old City so that this theme-park imitation of the real thing will have live natives to adorn it.

Veranda in Kashgar's Old City
Veranda in Kashgar’s Old City

Photo courtesy of WildChina

The occupants of the Old City are Uighurs, a Turkic people who are proud of their history in Xinjiang, dating back to at least the Tang period, when they were dominant along the Silk Road. It can only be imagined what these Uighur denizens must be thinking of the demolition of their community. But, as in the case of the destruction of historic quarters in other Chinese cities, whether the Qianmen district of Beijing, or the last remaining Qing period lanes of Nanjing, the opinions of the local residents do not weigh heavily in the setting of urban development policy.

It is not just the local Uighur population who are upset with the plan to demolish the community. The comment of George Michell et al, in their 2008 book, Kashgar: Oasis City on China’s Old Silk Road, shows the importance that scholars attach to Kashgar’s Old City: It is ‘an extraordinary example of a living, Islamic urban centre’ and ‘the best preserved example of a traditional Islamic city to be found anywhere in Central Asia’. Well-regarded archaeologists from around the world have put their signatures to a strongly worded letter to UNESCO, calling for the organization to appeal to the Chinese government for an immediate cessation to the destruction.

In its open letter to the government of China, the International Scientific Committee on Earthen Architectural Heritage (ISCEAH) cites several reasons why Kashgar ‘holds unquestionable universal value’, one of which is that the Old City is one of the largest groupings of historic mudbrick vernacular architecture in Central and East Asia, and probably the world. Do the Xinjiang authorities seriously in tend to replace architecture recognized as having ‘unquestionable universal value’ with a theme-park imitation and concrete apartment blocks? Has nothing been learned from the scorn generated both locally and internationally by last year’s destruction of Beijing’s Qianmen quarter?

The reason given for the planned destruction of the Old City is that it is unsafe in the event of earthquake damage. This is probably a valid concern, as Kashgar was struck by a major earthquake at the beginning of the 20th century; however, the extent of damage to the historic structures is unclear. Other cities do not react to earthquake threats by tearing down and rebuilding everything. The technology of seismic retrofitting is well advanced and accessible; a variety of techniques are available to make old dwellings safe. The members of ISCEAH, in their letter, offer to ‘provide the most up-to-date and highest quality methods for seismic analysis and retrofitting of earthen structures’, and point to examples from other countries where mudbrick construction has been made earth quake-safe through seismic retrofitting.

According to www.eartharchitecture.com, one third of all structures in the world are built of mudbrick or some other form of earthen construction; it has considerable ecological advantages, and older earthen structures have been adapted in many places around the world to meet modern standards of safety and comfort. As promised in their letter, ISCEAH and a number of other foreign architectural consultants, professionals with the required expertise, are ready to assist the Chinese government in developing means of making Kashgar’s Old City seismically safe, as well as modern in living standards.

Only two years ago, Kashgar’s local government commissioned a study on the conservation of the Old City but, as has happened in the case of Beijing and Nanjing, the published report of the experts was not heeded in the actual development of the urban areas. Kashgar’s Old City is valuable not just in and of itself as a major centre of Islamic civilization and of Central Asian Uighur culture, but also as a link in the ancient Silk Road, which crosses almost the entire Asian continent from central China to the shores of the Mediterranean.

China has expressed its intention to apply to UNESCO for nomination of the Chinese Silk Road as a World Heritage Site. How can that nomination be considered if Kashgar’s Old City, a jewel in the Silk Road and lynchpin in the trade route, is to be demolished? Has the Chinese government considered the plan for demolition from the viewpoint of meeting its obligations under the World Heritage Convention (WHC)? In the WHC’s tentative list, the nomination for the Chinese section of the Silk Road includes twelve specific sites within Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (see whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/5335/). Of those twelve, four are the remains of ancient cities, and the other eight are Buddhist grottoes or other religious sites. These twelve are all worthy of inclusion, but so certainly is a living example of a Silk Road community like Kashgar’s Old City.

Not only does the proposed plan for demolition contravene China’s obligations under international convention, but it also violates China’s own legal requirements for protection of cultural heritage. The Chinese government as early as 1986 had already registered Kashgar as a national-level ‘historical and cultural famous city’. As such, it is legally protected by both China’s Law for Cultural Heritage Protection and Regulations on Historical and Cultural Cities, Towns, and Villages, with strict requirements for keeping the city’s authenticity in tact. There is no question that under these laws and regulations, Kashgar’s Old City is legally protected from demolition – the plan is therefore illegal.

Not only would the demolition destroy a part of humanity’s heritage and blatantly violate international obligations and domestic law, but it also makes no economic sense. Kashgar, situated as it is at the far western tip of China, has limited economic prospects for the foreseeable future. Tourism, however, can be a significant local industry providing employment to the Uighur community. A minority-group population that is gainfully employed and prosperous is much more likely to be content with its position in China than a community that feels it is economically disadvantaged and discriminated against.

A street with mudbrick dwellings in Kashgar's Old City
A street with mudbrick dwellings in Kashgar’s Old City

Photo courtesy of Chris Buckley [RugDogBlog]

The main attraction of Kashgar is its Uighur community, distinctive mudbrick architecture and traditional way of life. If this physical context is demolished, what will remain to attract tourists? There will still be the mosque and the livestock market, but they will be isolated remnants of a once vibrant culture, now surrounded by a theme park and rows of concrete apartment blocks. Of course, a few developers may make money in the short term from the construction of new housing, but in the long term the earning potential of Kashgar’s tourist industry will have been crippled.

There is also the larger issue of the city’s organic development. Urban planning for Chinese cities generally fails to take into account ‘roots’ and context, two factors that give a city its character and make it an agreeable place for people to live, as well as an attractive destination for visitors. The great cities of the world, whether large like London and New York, or small like Florence and Kyoto, have grown and adapted over the centuries, building on their history and culture, preserving the past while adding the new. Consequently, each of these urban centres has its own unique style, character and identity – in other words, they have ‘soul’.

But identity and soul does not emanate merely from a few well-preserved public monuments such as the Louvre in Paris or St Peter’s in Rome. Those great public monuments are all surrounded by residential and commercial neighbourhoods that possess an enduring charm and spirit, an embodiment of the communities and cultures which built them. In their rush to build so-called modern cities, the urban policy-makers of China are over looking the essential ingredients that help develop pride among the residents and win the affection of visitors.

Kashgar has for centuries played a vital role in Central Asian history. If developmental planning is properly handled, it can be a showcase for the government of China, demonstrating:

  • China’s commitment to meeting its international obligations under the WHC, implementing best international archaeological practices and enforcing its own laws and regulations on cultural heritage protection.
  • Enlightened treatment of a significant ethnic minority group and respect for its culture, consistent with the laws that China has enacted and policies that it has proclaimed for relations among the many ethnic groups that comprise the Chinese nation.
  • Far-sighted development of the city that provides a safe and modern lifestyle while preserving its character as a centre of Central Asian Islamic life and culture, thereby developing civic pride and establishing a firm foundation for the future growth of the tourism industry and related creative activities.

If this is done, Kashgar will have not only a glorious past but also a dynamic future as a prosperous, peaceful and charming city. We propose that the authorities consider the following:

  • Immediate suspension of the demolition plan and cessation of all demolition work.
  • The undertaking of a comprehensive archaeological survey and documentation of the entire Old City.
  • The addition of the residential and commercial sections of Kashgar’s Old City to the list of sites that comprise the Chinese application for nomination of the Silk Road to the World Heritage List.
  • An invitation to Chinese and ISCEAH or other international experts to propose ways in which the dwellings and shops of the old city can be retrofitted to make them seismically safe and equipped with modern sanitation and other attributes of modern housing.
  • A comparison of the cost of retrofitting with demolition and construction of new apartment blocks, and exploration of innovative means of financing the retrofitting, based on successful examples from other countries.
  • Strict implementation of the conservation plans that have been developed by experts for the preservation of Kashgar’s Old City.

The demolition of supposedly ‘unsafe’ buildings and the construction of new apartment blocks is easy and can be done by anyone (as indeed it has been throughout China, with tremendous intangible cost to its culture, its people and its character). The challenge for the leaders of Kashgar is to develop and implement an urban development plan for a modern dynamic and prosperous city that respects the past and preserves its ‘unquestionable universal value’. Successful examples of such enlightened urban development can be found throughout Europe, the Americas and Asia. We hope that Kashgar will follow in their footsteps, rather than become a soulless city with memories of a once beautiful past.

This commentary was written by He Shuzhong and James Stent. He Shuzhong is Founder and Chairman of Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP) and Stent is a member of its Board of Directors and an adviser to the Center. CHP is an independent Chinese non-profit organization registered in Beijing, with a mission to support communities to protect their cultural heritage throughout China (www.bjchp.org). CHP works with a small professional staff and a large number of volunteers to fight for protection of China’s tangible and intangible cultural heritage in a time of rapid economic development and social change.

First published in the October 2009 issue (pp.101-102) of Orientations, the Hong Kong-based Asian art magazine.

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