Posts Tagged ‘Yunnan; Weishan’

Yunnan Study Trip 2011

February 12, 2011

We are preparing for our fourth Study Trip to the Weishan Heritage Valley in Yunnan, China, this summer. Each trip has focused on preserving the historic resources of this unique city, which dates to the founding of the Nanzhao Empire in the 7th century, and which includes numerous landmarks from the last several hundred years, including the stunning North Gate, the second largest gate in China after Tien An Men. And it is older. Here is Felicity Rich’s 2006 photo of this national landmark.

The trip begins in Beijing, with visits to the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, and the Great Wall at Mutianyu.

We then fly to Xi’an to see the famous terra cotta army of Qinshihuangdi…

That amazing 1980s discovery is contained in 3 buildings and an expansive museum, but everyone forgets that Xi’an was the capital for several empires, including the golden age empire of the Han (roughly contemporaneous with the Roman Empire) and the T’ang (7-9th centuries when Europe was NADA). The city has a fabulous city wall, a stunning mosque

Xi’an city wall

this is a minaret

and two of the oldest pagodas in China, dating from the 8th century, known as the Da Y’an Ta (Great Wild Goose Pagoda) and Xiao Y’an Ta (Small Wild Goose Pagoda) and an excellent museum adjacent to the latter.

Da Yan Ta

Xiao Yan Ta

and then there are the famous dumplings, which tourists go nutty for, but to be honest, the food gets MUCH better down in Yunnan, where we head next, first to Dali, home city of the Bai people

Yunnan is unusual in that the minorities (Bai, Hui, Yi, Lisu, Miao, Dai, etc.) are actually a majority in comparison to the Han, a very rare situation in a Chinese province. Dali also has a nice architectural connection to Xi’an in the Three Pagodas, the oldest of which is probably by the same architect as the Xiao Yan Ta in Xi’an (I mean look at it, come on!) and is contemporaneous, roughly 9th century:

We then proceed to Weishan, that lovely town on the Southern Silk Road and the Tea Horse route (the one that brought the good Pu’er tea up from south Yunnan to Tinbet). Unlike Dali, which has gone all touristic in the center, or Lijiang, which did the same, Weishan has not been overrun by tourists. But it has been preserved.

The coffin makers and noodle makers and tailors and food shops still serve the local people from the valley. Tourists are very few and far between. The food is plucked off the mountainside in the morning and you eat it for lunch. No refrigerators to spoil the taste.

The other amazing thing about this trip – unlike most Study Trips – is that we spent a week to 10 days in Weishan and work with the local officials and people to actually do a project in the historic town. My colleague on all of the trips to Weishan (with students and without as consultants) has been Yunxia “Jingjing” Gao, and she has proved amazing at securing access to inaccessible sites as well as getting us INCREDIBLE value for money on every trip.

In 2004 we planned a restoration of the Dong Yue temple complex. in 2008 it was restored, largely according to our plan. In addition to our partners at the Center for US-China Arts Exchange at Columbia University, we have had support from SAIC’s Barry Maclean, who made the temple restoration possible.

Over 8 years, we have developed strong relationships with the local officials and a level of trust and cooperation that is unprecedented in other (more expensive) study trips. In 2006, we documented 16 buildings (12 courtyard houses and 4 temples) in Weishan with large format and digital photography. In 2009 we developed plans for modernizing courtyard houses because in cities like Lijiang, courtyard houses are preserved and empty, because they don’t have basic amenities like plumbing.

image by Racquel Davey

The project for 2011 is really exciting. We are going back to the Dong Yue temple and the adjacent Tai Bao palace, a century-old structure of pavilions and moon gates that we want to convert to a residential arts/scholarship center.

The government of Weishan has agreed to give SAIC the site and we are assembling support and partners to help make it happen. This type of project is not found in other student study trips.

We will present our project work and findings to the local officials, and then we will proceed to Shanghai, where I will do my famous tour of the Bund (it looks just like Michigan Avenue in Chicago) and we can marvel at the incomparable treasures of the Shanghai Museum.

The trip will leave Chicago May 31 and finish in Shanghai on June 21.

Curious? Email me at or visit the study trip webpage. My colleague and faculty expert on China, Yunxia “Jingjing” Gao is also available for consultation. Weishan has been one of the culminations and highlights of my preservation career, and I would be happy to share it with you.


Life and Death Heritage

January 14, 2011

On July 23, 1986 I attended the funeral procession/cremation of Tjokorda Gde Oka Sukawati, a prince and stepbrother to the last king of Ubud in Bali. I was traveling there (long story) and stumbled across the ceremony, which featured an amazing Pelebon procession in the Balinese Hindu tradition, including a bade, an 11-tiered pagoda tower used to carry the deceased to the cemetery,

A naga banda – basically a dragon vehicle, a lembu, the coffin in the shape of a bull (nandi), a swarm of people.

Now, the funeral tradition there and elsewhere is of course solemn, but it was also touristic. My camera lens caught the tourists lining up, even joining the procession, and local vendors using the occasion to sell t-shirts and the like.

When I lectured on Bali at the Field Museum in 1987 following the trip, I included my perceptions of the tourist side of the place, bolstered by an interview I had done there with Silvio Santosa, a native who had formed the Bina Wisata Foundation to help educate tourists about proper behavior, since they had a tendency to treat the place like Cancun during Spring Break.

Candi Dasa, Bali
What strikes me today is not the intangible heritage represented by the performance of the cremation ceremony or the challenges of keeping tourists from fornicating in ancient temples but the complex interweaving of tourism and heritage sites in general.

Lijiang, Yunnan, China, 2008
I have the good fortune of serving on the Senior Advisory Board of the Global Heritage Fund, which recently released a report “Saving Our Vanishing Heritage” which details not only GHF’s efforts to preserve World Heritage Sites in the developing world, but also the complex layering of tourism, economics and heritage conservation that can save – or destroy – such sites.

Angkor Wat, 3rd gallery, 2001
When I began in this field in the 1980s, heritage tourism was the latest and greatest idea: get people to come see history – built, living, or otherwise – and they will pay for the experience, generating the income sites need to survive. I saw Arthur Frommer speak about how heritage tourists avoid places that don’t preserve their history and how heritage tourists spend more than other tourists. We used lots of oversimplified multipliers in those days to calculate the economic benefits of preserving historic sites for tourism.

Tien An Men, 2009
But in the last decade we have seen the effects of too much tourism. I spoke at an ICOMOS conference on tourism in the Pacific Rim in San Francisco in 2007, and that conference was inspired in part by the overabundance of tourism and the attendant wear-and-tear on historic sites, like the great temples of Angkor in Cambodia, which survived in the jungles for centuries and even the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s but are now beset by tourist numbers which exceed 2 million per year and looting of the more remote sites for the international art market. When I last saw Angkor 10 years ago the number was less than half that.

Angkor Wat 2001
Many of the challenges that Global Heritage Fund addresses as it seeks to build capacity for conservation are external to the heritage tourism economy: war, looting, and even the depredations of nature and climate.

Ta Prohm, Angkor, 2001
But many of the largest challenges are the tourists themselves. Macchu Picchu in Peru has gone from 420,000 visitors in 2000 to 2.4 million in 2009. Petra in Jordan has almost tripled to 900,000 in the last decade. Yet, at the same time, heritage tourism still represents a major economic engine for the developing world. The GHF report notes the dilemma: if the sites are simply exploited, they will be destroyed and cease to draw tourists. Macchu Picchu accounts for 90 percent of Peru’s tourism revenue. Part of the problem is sustainability planning: Peru has many other valuable heritage sites, but these have not been marketed, managed or developed. Planning at Angkor in the 1990s directed development to the outskirts of the site, but lack of controls has placed much private development in more sensitive areas. Moreover, despite the incredible value in heritage sites – GHF estimates $20-30 billion for the top 500 heritage sites – only a fraction of that revenue, $400-500 million, or 2-3 percent, is spent on the sites.

Coba, Mexico, 2006
The best projects work to train local officials, planners, developers and others in sustainable management and development practices. GHF’s project in the walled city of Pingyao, Shaanxi, China, is emblematic, and I had the opportunity to visit that site in 2008.

GHF has also worked to help Lijiang in China, which I cited as a bad example in my 2007 presentation, since the city was stripped of local authentic culture after becoming a world heritage site: the city’s buildings were preserved, but it became an ersatz tourist town: local businesses replaced by tourism shops, homes replaced by hotels. I called this catastrophic tourist development, since it replaces a sustainable and diverse local economy with a dangerously unbalanced economic monoculture.

Lijiang, 2008
Our work in Weishan, Yunnan, China over the last seven years with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Center for US-China Arts Exchange is focused on just this complex intersection: Heritage tourists want an authentic experience, not a commercialized stage set, which is what Lijiang is very like. Weishan has done a great job of preserving the real, everyday businesses along the Southern Silk Road that passes through the great 1390 North Gate and the Drum Tower. You can still see locals shopping for clothes, rice noodles drying on streetside racks, birds and jellies and coffins and shoes for sale, along with some antique shops and food stalls. The final chapter on Weishan is not written, but in 2007 and 2010 it is a model of sustainable development.

Weishan, 2009

Weishan noodle shop, 2006. Photo copyright Felicity Rich

noodles drying, Weishan 2006. Photo copyright Felicity Rich
Huge challenges remain: The international tourist market that appreciates authenticity is actually dwarfed by a domestic tourist market that is happy to visit the Chinese versions of Branson: artificially constructed sites with artificial histories and happy Happy entertainment. Authenticity is a challenging concept for most tourists, something I recall even when we used to work in Ireland in the Burren, where the great portal dolmen of Poulnabrone was surrounded by little tiny dolmens, built by tourists in acts of pure vandalism, destroying the delicate limestone pavement ecosystem to build little stonehenges that would fool the next tourist into thinking they were seeing a thousands-years-old structure.

Poulnabrone, Burren, Clare, Ireland, 2002
Again, my interest today is not in the misbehaving tourist as much as the economic context: heritage tourism is a boon AND a bust for historic sites and places seeking economic uplift. Heritage conservation is a huge expense AND a huge revenue source for countries at all levels of development. Economic development is a threat AND an opportunity – if done with long-term returns in mind for historic sites worldwide. It is not (I am tempted to say NEVER) an “EITHER OR” proposition but a “BOTH AND” proposition. The advantage the heritage conservationist brings to this challenge is quite simply the long view: we are not about the quick buck or the quick fix. We want to keep BOTH historic sites AND a productive local society for as long as we can.

Cashel, Ireland, 2002

China Again – Yunnan 2009

July 4, 2009

saic at 3 pagodas
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.
3pag changsheng downe
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.
3pag changsheng ava1000
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.
3pag changsheng ava
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.
3pag changsheng burn
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.
66 old ladies
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.
dong yue side fixed
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.
street view
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.