There we are, all of us in Dali at the Three Pagodas, which is a classic Chinese preservation site. REALLY significant pagodas – the center one dates from the T’ang Dynasty – about 1200 years ago, and is quite similar to the Xiao Yan Ta (Lesser Wild Goose Pagoda) in Xi’an, which is visible in a post from last year. The flanking two pagodas are only a few hundred years old, but these things have survived the earthquakes that visit Yunnan and they are pilgrimage sites for not just tourists and architecture enthusiasts, but Buddhists as well.
So, in 2006 they opened a completely rebuilt Changsheng temple, replicating perhaps the temple that was situated behind the 3 pagodas 1200 years ago. They spent a few hundred million dollars, so think Millenium Park or Soldier Field, but unlike government projects in the U.S. they included a thousand or more 10-18 foot high gold religious icons. The place is endless and endlessly amazing, and it is of course not preservation but a recreation – largely conjectural.
There’s your 1000-armed Avalokiteshvara (Guanyin) and they have every other boddhisatva you could want as well as more arhats than you can count. It is a real Buddhist place now too, replete with attendant monks, but it is also a big tourist project, which, contrary to what I was saying at ICOMOS two years ago, is considered a bit of a financial letdown since tourism has not responded with the uptick they predicted.
I have noticed this tendency to create “fake antiques” not only in China and Vietnam but in the Ukraine. It was characteristic of our own preservation practice in the past, and still occurs at certain sites. The idea is straightforward – people want to see the thing – not a ruin, not a partial thing, not whatever the thing evolved into – so you build the thing, whether it exists or not. Whether you know what it looks like or not. This is straight out of P.T. Barnum and Marshall Field – give the punters what they are looking for. What they are willing to pay for.
Even in the 1980s when I got started in historic preservation, there was a lot of emphasis on heritage tourism. It is still a major part of what we do, and a significant piece of what we are doing in Weishan, the next valley over from Dali. But we have the one thing that preservation holds precious – authenticity. In this country we talk about integrity of physical fabric, but the international community talks about authenticity and that is a better word because it connotes more than simple a curatorial approach to historic fabric. It also allows for a consideration of cultural authenticity. On the one hand, you could say this justifies the “fake antiques” because they are authentic to the living historical culture. One the other hand, those decisions – like at Three Pagodas – seem less driven by local cultural expressions and more by a desire for tourism income. That impulse is not an authentic cultural expression as much as a calculated economic decision.
In Weishan, where the above image is from, our goal is to maintain authenticity. We discouraged the local government from rebuilding the entire city wall, lost hundreds of years ago. They are rebuilding a portion of it (when they get the money). And we did provide counsel – and funding – for the rebuilding of Dong Yue temple, which has been a very well-done project. They saved as much original fabric as possible and rebuilt only what they knew had been there.
The biggest challenge remains the two-headed demon of cultural tourism. Because as much as fancy graduate school types like me and perhaps you prefer the “authentic,” there are plenty of everyday punters born every minute who want the good story and the good-looking antique whether it is real or not. And those folks may well represent three out of four or even four out of five tourists. There is another site near Dali called Butterfly Spring, which has been in existence for less than a generation but tons of Chinese tourists flock to see the spring where some star-crossed lovers turned into butterflies. It is a lovely place, with all the authenticity – and drawing power – of Dollywood.
The success of places like Butterfly Spring inspired the investment that gave us Changsheng Temple, and it inspires those of us working in Weishan to urge – as we would say at the National Trust – that “real” places matter to real people. Some would argue that this is an elitist position – why not allow the average punter their fantasy in three dimensions? The problem, of course, is that tourism-driven decisions are economic decisions, and like Goldman-Sachs, they are notoriously short-term decisions whose bubble will burst within a year or three. In Yunnan, there are already examples of tourist sites that went whole hog for recreation and reorganization of the economy for tourism. And then came a change in fashion or taste or a threat like SARS or avian swine flu and it all blew up because all of the eggs had been put into a single, inauthentic basket.
The message for Weishan – and every other place that matters – is that preservation of authenticity works in the long term. It means the place works as a local economy as well as a tourist economy. That it works based on past stories as well as present stories. That it functions and has meaning and value both human and economic for those who live there whether or not anyone visits. It is real planning for the future because it recognizes that the future – like the past – is a very long time, and decisions we make won’t only affect us or our lifetimes.
China Again – Yunnan 2009