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Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP) is a small grassroots, legally-registered NGO working to protect cultural heritage across China.

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Da Gao Xuan Temple is Disappearing

“You’re not allowed in! We’ve been watching your every step, and our surveillance camera has been aimed at you.” This was what the guard yelled at us when we tried to enter the compound of Da Gao Xuan Temple at 21-23 Jingshan Xi Street in Beijing’s Xicheng District to inspect its state of preservation. To be unable to enter this compound was not unusual– it is a military-restricted zone.
 
Da Gao Xuan Temple was built in 1542 and served the imperial households of the Ming and Qing Dynasties for their Daoist ceremonies. Located just north of the northwest corner tower of the Forbidden City, it occupies 13,000 square meters and is surrounded by four high walls. The principal buildings in the compound are the Da Gao Xuan Dian, the Altar of the Nine Heavens, and a two storey tall pavilion symbolizing the “Roundness of Heaven” and the “Square of Earth”, with a total built area of 1,600 square meters. Because of the extremely high historical and artistic value of the temple, in 1996, it was listed by the State Council as a priority cultural protection unit, accorded the highest protection under the law (see photo #1).
 
For government units to enter the temple compound to inspect the state of preservation is rather difficult. On several occasions we had contacted officials of the Xicheng District of Beijing and of the Beijing city government with regard to this issue, and the response had always been a resigned “It’s a military zone, we can’t go in.”
 
Of course, we can’t go forcing our way into a military zone, but we nonetheless have found ways to learn about the temple’s condition. First, we stood across the street from the main gate of #21 Jingshan Xi Street and photographed the two storey pavilion. It appeared to be used as a car garage and car repair facility. A flimsy grey brick building was next to the ancient pavilion. As a result of rebuilding, use, and lack of repair, it had entirely changed from its original appearance. Criss-crossing electrical lines added an element of fire risk (see photo #2). The other temple buildings in the compound should be to the south of the two storey pavilion, on the left of the inside of the main gate at #21 Jingshan Xi Street. We were unable to go inside to photograph, but under the pretext of asking a couple of young people for street directions, we were able to cast a quick glance in that direction and saw a red wall, but it was a scene of dilapidation and messiness. Clearly, Da Gao Xuan Temple is disappearing.
 
According to the requirements of the Cultural Protection Act, Beijing City government should set the boundary of the temple’s protected area, and within that no construction or engineering work would be permitted that was not related to preservation of the temple, nor would any activities be permitted that might impact on the preservation of the temple and its environment.
 
We have in fact found the relevant documents of the Beijing City government setting the protected area boundary.  Without a doubt, as is evidenced in photograph #2, there are illegal structures and illegal activities going on within the walls of the temple.
 
The fact that Da Gao Xuan Temple has been declared a national priority cultural protection unit means that it is a part of the national-level cultural heritage. It is located in the center of the Old City of Beijing, and is an important part of the old Imperial City. Since tourists constantly pass it, the site could hardly be considered a strategic outpost. The military should immediately vacate it and return it to the people and tourists. The illegal buildings and illegal activities should be dealt with in a set period of time, and the existing ancient buildings should be appropriately conserved and repaired, since this is what the law dictates as the government’s responsibility.
 
The preservation of the Old City of Beijing and of the Imperial City are receiving close attention from the entire nation, and indeed from the entire world. We believe that the problems contained within the walls of the temple are a gaping hole to be filled in the protection work of the Old City and the Imperial City.
 
The Communist Party of China and Government of China advocate “The Party stands for the people, the government rules for the people.” The present condition of Da Gao Xuan Dian is not only against the law, but it is against what the Party and the government advocate. So we must fill this gaping hole!

Erroneous Public Conception on the World Heritage

While the devastating Cultural Revolution was  unfolding in China, the international community had reached a very different consensus: the world’s cultural and natural heritage was suffering damage from human activities and this damage was putting the world heritage on the verge of severe degradation. The international community’s belief was that examples of the cultural and natural heritage of the world should be protected as part of mankind’s heritage. Therefore it was decided that the international society needed to work more closely together to protect this heritage from any possible damage.
 
The 17th conference of UNESCO passed the “Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage” in Paris on November 16, 1972. This convention urges each signatory to do all it can to protect its cultural and natural heritage, using as much resources of its own as possible, with the international society also shouldering responsibility for this work.
 
In order to reach the goal set forth in the convention, UNESCO founded the World Heritage Committee, whose main responsibility is to compile, update and publish the World Heritage List, covering the “most valuable and representative heritage”. This heritage is the key protection objective of the signatory states and the international society and any heritage that has been listed in the World Heritage List is regarded as world heritage. According to the convention, a World Heritage Site should fulfill the following criteria: it is unique, the site is severely endangered, the home country takes full ownership of site protection, and international community shoulders responsibility at the same time.
 
On November 22, 1985, the Standing Committee of the Chinese National People’s Congress ratified this convention, and China formally became a signatory state. But twenty years after the convention was ratified in China, public understanding of China’s World Heritage Sites is at odds with the spirit of the convention. The widespread perception does recognize the historical significance of these heritage sites, but more as evidence proving the historical and cultural standing of China. Instead of considering these heritage sites as seriously endangered, the concern is that they have not been fully developed and utilized. It does consider the protection of these heritage sites necessary, but is not willing to take such responsibility, as “those who invest will benefit”, so “those who develop should protect”. Another belief is also that the international community should be responsible for the protection of these heritage sites, but only as a way of winning the application for new sites to be granted World Heritage status, and for gaining funding support. In fact, the World Heritage Sites in China ares now becoming a synonym as a world-class travel attraction.
 
This kind of erroneous conception has arisen for three reasons:
1. Many top officials regard the sites as inheritance from our ancestors, and that they should serve economic development rather than being concerned only with protection.
2. Local officials’ job performance is evaluated principally based on economic development criteria, and not by the protection of the cultural or natural heritage.
3. Corruption in the field of public resources management, which has not been adequately addressed. 
 
The convention has been implemented for twenty years, and the World Heritage Application process has been undertaken with great success. At this time, there are over 31 Chinese heritage sites on the World Heritage List. But given the widespread misunderstanding, the protection afforded to these 31 heritage sites is dubious, and some are already in desperate condition. The convention has emphasized that each state should spare no effort to protect their heritage sites, and the international community should take responsibility. If the Chinese government would like to keep its commitment to the convention, then it should educate its high officials, make this as an essential part of their administrative performance evaluation, and take effective action in stopping the corruption. The international community should take the responsibility of heritage protection, and should be more proactive. The eleventh clause in the convention regarding the List of World Heritage in Danger should be a warning to those countries with poor performance in heritage site protection. Some of China’s world heritage, including the Great Wall, have been altered almost beyond recognition, and are more endangered than most heritage sites listed in the List of World Heritage in Danger, but does not appear on that list? Should not UNESCO and the World Heritage Committee be more proactive?

Tomb Robberies in China: Not Effectively Prohibited after a Decade, Nor Enough Attention Given

Starting from the early 1990s, robberies of ancient Chinese cultural relic remains and tombs became more and more rampant. By the end of the 1990s, Chinese archeologists couldn’t find tombs or cemeteries that were fully intact. As a result of the frenzied plunder, significant details about important historical eras, such as the Liao Dynasty founded in northern China, can only be speculated upon. 
 
Presently, tomb robbers are targeting shipwrecks in addition to the tombs. What is the situation like now? No one can tell. What we know is that this issue is not receiving the attention it should. Guardians of cultural relic sites in Shaanxi have not recovered from their wounds inflicted by robbers. After that, a Qing Dynasty wrecked ship was ransacked again, losing over 10,000 pieces of the blue and white porcelain of the Kangxi reign. When cultural relic collectors and dealers direct laborers to rob the porcelains in the sea, they rarely fear being punished by the law or government authorities, because past experience tells them that the law enforcement sectors of the government will not show up promptly.
 
Law legislators have obviously noticed the existence of the problem. A search of the relevant regulations shows that the legal protection afforded to underground cultural relics is very strict, and punishment of tomb robbers is very severe. The regulations on the collection, trade and traffic of cultural relics in China are similar to those of the developed world. According to foreign media, the domestic cultural relic protection administrative is working closely and actively with a few foreign countries, including the United States, to draft a bilateral agreement to jointly crack down on and prevent cultural relic smuggling. No doubt, the bias of the law is positive and clear, and the government’s approach is becoming more proactive than before.
 
To discuss this issue today, we must make two important facts clear. Firstly, the aforementioned laws are not being properly implemented. When we compare in accordance to the “Law of Cultural Relic Protection”, “Implementation Regulation of the Law of Cultural Relic Protection” and the “Criminal Law”, we find that there is still much room for the government to improve. Many practices that we witness every day are in fact strictly prohibited by the law. Secondly, the regulation of law has not been implemented largely because the relevant cultural relic administrative departments have no such capability. We can say with certainty that our cultural relic administrative departments, the main law enforcement party, lose points in all aspects from the number of staff, financial and equipment support to technology support. Ten years ago, the cultural relic robbers were able to exploit a wrecked ship of the Song Dynasty, but even now, there is not even one single boat dedicated to the protection of the underwater cultural relics all over China. The lack of competence of the cultural relic administrative departments also reflects in the area of the setup of the administrative organs. For example, the responsibilities of a few law enforcement institutions have been clearly stated in a law approved a few decades ago, but these institutions are still not in existence even today. This sort of thing looks like a joke, but is harsh reality.
 
It is a very difficult mission to completely stamp out the criminals robbing Chinese ancient cultural relic remains, the ancient tombs and cemeteries. However, if the law is not enforced, the responsibilities of the government as provided by law are not fulfilled, and the capability of the cultural relic administrative departments are not improved, then tomb robbery practice can hardly be effectively prevented. Everyone agrees that the history of China is an uninterrupted one, but due to the unbridled tomb robberies, this continuity is now disappearing. Who should then be responsible?

How to Oppose the APP Yunnan Project

In our last update we discussed how the Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) project of planting eucalyptus plantations in Yunnan will doom the rich ethnic cultures of the region. To oppose this terrible project, we propose three tactics:
 
The first is to call upon everyone to cease buying APP’s products. APP manufactures paper products, with the brands Asia Pulp and Paper and APP, on sale throughout China. We should use every channel of communication to let consumers know that APP’s ill-gotten wealth is accumulated at the expense of destroying the natural environment and cultural heritage. To buy APP’s products is to support the destructive activities of APP. Government entities, educational institutions, the media, hotels and restaurants are the big consumers of paper products, so we propose writing to the managers and procurement officers of these institutions to ask them to boycott APP products. We should also write to commercial associations, urging them to also boycott APP products.
 
The second is to rally as many people and organizations as possible to put pressure on the Yunnan provincial authorities to cease their cooperation with APP. Without the support and approval of the Yunnan government, the APP project cannot go forward. We should lobby the Yunnan provincial government, the Yunnan Development and Reform Commission, the Yunnan Forestry Bureau, the Yunnan Economic Commission to demand that they cease support and approval of the project. At the same time, we should lobby the Ethnic Minorities Commission, the Labor Commission, the Soil Resources Bureau, The Cultural Affairs Bureau, the Environmental Protection Bureau, and the Provincial Tourism Authority to do something concrete to stop the project. Corrupt officials are the same as avaricious businessmen—timid and anxious to please foreigners, so any international organizations or financial institutions working in Yunnan can play an important positive role.
 
The third route is to bring legal action. The APP eucalyptus plantation project in Yunnan violates the law in several areas. According to the 32nd clause of the Forestry Act, the harvesting of trees from a forest must be authorized by permit, and conducted within the limits authorized by the permit. But APP has been felling trees without permit in many places. According to the Environmental Impact Assessment Act, an environmental impact assessment should be conducted on the project, and there must be provisions for mitigating or preventing any negative environmental consequences of a project. Such environmental impact assessment has not been conducted on the APP project, so the project should be immediately halted. Due to the illegal cutting, and to the lack of action on the part of the authorities, forest resources have been destroyed, the ecology and ethnic culture have been damaged, and the rights and livelihood of the people in the area have been violated. In bringing suit, the initiators should be those people and legal entities whose rights have been violated, and the accused should be the legal representative of the project, plus all Yunnan provincial government organizations that have had a hand in it. The action can be brought in the Yunnan courts.
 
The Communist Party and the government of China stress that China must pursue a road of sustainable development, and that the country must strengthen the use of the rule of law in the governance and administration of the country. That is an entirely correct policy that receives the enthusiastic support of the entire people of the country. The three methods we propose for opposing the APP project are designed to protect the rich ethnic cultures of the people of Yunnan and also to support the rule of law policies of the Communist Party and the government of China.

Eucalyptus Plantations: the Threat to Yunnanese Ethnic Groups

Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) is one of the world’s largest producers of pulp and paper. According to Friends of the Earth’s website, this Indonesian company “is responsible for destroying a large area of Indonesia’s rainforest.” Since August of 2002, with the support of some departments of the provincial government, APP has taken control of 27.5 million mu of land in Wen Shan, Lin Cang, and Si Mao districts of the province and used the land to start eucalyptus plantations for use in the first stage of its integrated pulp and paper operations.
 
We believe that if this APP project is not stopped, not only will there be clear deterioration in the natural environment, but the richness of southern Yunnan’s minority group ethnic group cultures will remain in name only.
 
Southern Yunnan is an area of concentration for minority groups. Their way of life and culture are inextricably tied up with the forests and streams of their habitat. When the Dai people describe their villages, they often emphasize “In the front of the village we fish, behind the village we hunt, so we build our villages facing water with hills behind us”. The sacred trees in the distant peaks are their spiritual refuge; their favorite delicacies are plucked from the forests and streams; the mountain streams flow into village ponds in which the villagers bathe and wash their clothes, exchange gossip, and pass on the stories of their forebears. Fast flowing streams surround the villages, the elders exchange courteous greetings, and  the cries of children at play mix with the clip-clop of the oxen hoofs on the stone flagging of the village streets—thus life passes tranquilly and peacefully in the villages of the mountain valleys.
 
Each village is a culture unto itself. The large and small villages of the minority peoples are scattered about the mountains of southern Yunnan and their lives are in harmony with the primeval forests where waterfalls, connected one to the next by clear streams, are accent to the landscape, forming one of the most gorgeous cultural landscapes in the world.
 
From the perspective of preserving minority cultures, the APP eucalyptus plantation project is wrong for at least two reasons. First, eucalyptus is a fast growing imported species, with a history of planting in China of less than 120 years. The principal characteristic of eucalyptus is that it has an extraordinary capacity to consume the fertility and moisture content of the soil in which it grows. Experts compare a eucalyptus tree to a water pump; eucalyptus trees do not coexist with streams.
 
Second, the eucalyptus plantation plan covers a huge area: in Wen Shan Prefecture, 5.5 million mu, in Lin Cang 10 million mu, and in Si Mao Township 12 million mu. APP considers the land that is to be used for the plantations to be hilltop waste land. The mountains that have given rise to one of the world’s loveliest cultural landscapes is waste land in the eyes of APP! This land is to be stripped of its spirit, and its trees are to be consigned to the soulless timber factories. The streams will dry up, the forests will disappear and the villages, now so full of life, will face death while their inhabitants, now rendered poor and without hope, will have no choice but to become environmental refugees.
 
With the ever increasing speed of urbanization, and the accompanying destruction of forest resources, the number of villages of the minority groups in southern Yunnan has already greatly decreased, and many unique cultural traditions have already vanished. At this time, the Chinese Communist Party and the government of China have clearly recognized that economic development must rest on a foundation of environmental conservation and cultural heritage preservation, and they have clearly put forward a policy of “advance on a sustainable path of development”.
 
The wealth of flow from APP’s plantation project is ill-gotten gains, acquired at the expense of destruction of the environment and destruction of cultural heritage. A small group of people in Yunnan have conspired with this Indonesian pulp and paper behemoth to seek financial gains at the expense of the common good. We hope that everyone will resist this plantation project, and will exhaust every remedy to exhort those few Chinese in Yunnan to cease abetting this foreign company in carrying out its destructive activities.
 
We also propose that everyone demonstrate wisdom in assisting minority peoples to build prosperous lives in their villages, so that they do not become environmental refugees adding to the flow of immigrants into China’s already over-packed cities. Each village has its own indigenous handicrafts. If only we would help them to package and market these handicrafts, the protection and promotion of indigenous cultures can be a basis for village economic development.
 
Note: one mu equals 1/15 hectares
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