Posts Tagged ‘China preservation; fake antiques; Dali; Weishan’


November 20, 2008

I gave a lecture at the Chicago Architecture Foundation today on Preservation in China, which was a compilation of observations from my last six trips there, notably the two SAIC student trips in 2004 and 2006. I broke it down into three basic challenges: 1. The challenge of fast-paced capitalist development combined with centralized planning control; 2. The challenge of intangible versus tangible heritage, i.e., a cultural bias against inhering cultural meaning primarily in tangible objects; and 3. The devastating effects of catastrophic tourist development, as evidenced in sites like Lijiang.
Here they tear down buildings in order to build brand new “antique” buildings.
In Dali (also in Yunnan province) the most extensive example of this occurred two years ago and our students saw it new: a couple dozen brand new massive buildings bursting with 12-foot high golden statues recreating a palace temple complex that existed under the first Nanzhao emperor more than 1200 years ago.
What drives these projects is catastrophic tourist development, which is what we have been struggling against – with some success – in Weishan, through the Center for US-China Arts Exchange of Columbia University. The basic premise of the student projects and our other efforts there has been to build a sustainable development model that doesn’t kick out local merchants and residents in favor of a tourist-only environment, as happened in Lijiang and, to a lesser extent, Dali.
I would like to focus on one of the three challenges, which is the cultural disconnect between our Western idea of authenticity and the concept in China that a brand new “antique” can serve just as well, and indeed, may be necessary to help tourists understand a place. They rebuilt the gate house for the first Han emperor’s tomb in Xi’an, so the tourists would have a sense of it, even as they see the actual excavations of the emperor’s doll-sized retinue (more reasonably scaled than the Qin Emperor’s more famous terra cotta army).
The idea of “fake antiques” makes some sense from an interpretive point of view, and if they are clearly marked so that you don’t get the wrong idea, then….oh, who are we kidding. Someone always gets the wrong idea. I remember seeing this in Ireland, where tourist-constructed mini-dolmens – actually archaeological vandalism – were misconstrued by other tourists as actual ancient monuments. In Weishan, they want to rebuild at least a portion of the old city wall, and they probably will, although the location will not be correct and the appearance fairly conjectural. And in time, people will see it as original. Arguably the same thing happened in European cathedrals throughout the late middle ages as locals desperate for tourist cash devised ways to beg, borrow, steal or fabricate religious relics to attract pilgrims. Dali has the stunning and authentic Three Pagodas – arguably among the dozen most important pagodas in China – and behind them is the ersatz Nanzhao temple, which is actually a real temple in that it has been consecrated by a bevy of Buddhist monks. Nearby there is another tourist site, the Butterfly Spring, which was crafted perhaps two decades ago out of a reasonably attractive park and basically follows an old romantic legend about two lovers who become butterflies.
So it is not real, at least on our terms. We could argue that it is a cultural bias, but I think that gives too much credit both to Self and Other. This is not unique to China, nor even to Asia, where the Japanese have built fully functional Belgian villages as tourist attractions and the Singaporeans have theme parks to rival Dollywood. The penchant for fake antiques which animated so many tourist development agencies in medieval Europe is alive and well in Eastern Europe, as I made clear in my Ukrainian blogs in November 2006. In China the commanding logic is tourism, and that tourism is not driven by international tourists: the vast majority of the market is Chinese (including overseas Chinese) tourists, and they are happy with the Nanzhao temples and the butterfly springs and they would likely help you rebuild the wall in Weishan.
But as Christina Heyniger pointed out during our Sustainability conference this summer in Dali, the tourist market is a dynamic thing. Yes, a certain segment wants Branson and Dollywood and the Butterfly Spring and brand-new thousand-armed Avalokiteshvara temple. But the domestic Chinese tourist market, like all markets, will mature. In a few years they will be demanding authenticity just like the international tourists do. And places like Lijiang that bet the farm on tourism to the point of empyting the town of any other economic function, may well suffer. It already happened in Yunnan in Shangri-La. I am amazed at how many times I have talked about the catastrophic tourist development in Lijiang – notably at the ICOMOS conference on Sustainable Development in April 2007 – and no one has ever challenged me or said that Lijiang isn’t somewhat ruined by tourism.
I was there this summer and it is a nice place. But it has lost its sense of authenticity – all you see are other tourists. Weishan has funerals and weddings and farmers and merchants and people buying string and hardware and teapots and water heaters. You don’t see that in Lijiang.
But seeing the funerals and the coffin makers and calligraphers and just the old guys playing checkers makes you realize the limitations of our own preconceptions too – there is a vital role for intangible culture. It isn’t just the buildings, it is the real life, and when I say real life I am not talking about romantic ideas of the Native Other or any colonial, post-colonial or even globalist expectations. Authentic reality is a malleable thing – never the Self or the Other, never a category but always a messy, contradictory thing. Having historic buildings and intangible heritage only makes it messier – and thus more real.
And that, in a sense, is what is wrong with the “fake antiques” and what Ada Louise Huxtable disliked about Williamsburg and our own fake antiques – it becomes a simple narrative, which is the opposite of history. Authenticity is about retaining the contradictions and complexities of life as it was and as it is, and seeing those complexities and contradictions over and across time and place.

Dong Yue Temple Four Years Later

July 6, 2008

dong yue0860

Originally uploaded by vincusses

Thanks to Barry Maclean, the restoration of the Dong Yue temple in Weishan, Yunnan province is well underway. In this picture you can actually see the qiuwen screen that we found on site in 2004 when our SAIC students produced measured plans and a re-use plan for the temple site, on the edge of historic Weishan city and just below Weibaoshan, one of the 13 sacred Taoist mountains of China. Kudos to Mr. Li who is directing the restoration. The missing qiuwen screen was replicated, but without the characters in the interstices, a wise move. The decorative plaster on the side walls was restored and/or replicated only as necessary. This is the second excellent restoration in Weishan, the other being the Chang Chun temple on Weibaoshan. Both projects have a steady understated approach, unlike the gaudy over-restoration that one often finds.

I hope that Karin, Natalia, Hans, Stacey, Andrea, Marty, Kim, Chrissie and Marilyn see this – it is very gratifying to see a project move forward after you have worked on it!

More on Weishan later – and then a report on my eye-opening visit to Pingyao with Global Heritage Fund….

Oh – just added – here is Jingjing and our old friend Charlie…

And the side walls with decorative plaster – one rehabbed, one restored – can you tell which?