The Qing-era Lotus Garden is among many cultural heritage sites in China to have been seriously damaged by development projects. (Photo/CNS)
The extensive destruction of traditional Chinese cultural artifacts and notable ancient architecture to make way for economic and real-estate development has reinforced calls for tighter supervision and administration.
An investigative report by the state-run Xinhua news agency said many historic buildings across China have either been reduced in size or turned into profit-making ventures such as costly villas or upscale restaurants. Often willing to take controversial stances on such issues, Premier Wen Jiabao recently accused land developers of destroying China's traditional heritage to cash in on the country's construction boom.
The Lotus Garden, built centuries ago in Beijing, was cited as a typical case. The garden, located in the capital's Chaoyang district, used to encompass a sprawling area of 3,600 square meters and contain traditional entertainment corridors, flower halls, ponds, pavilions and artificial mountains. But Xinhua reporters discovered that the garden compound has shrunk to less than 500 square meters.
Amid ongoing construction work, piles of gravel and huge cement fill the garden's pond, now dried up. Ancient houses have been dismantled, a white jade sculpture disfigured and an ornamental mountain reduced to debris. Inside the garden stands a stone monument with an ironic inscription: "protected cultural heritage site."
Residents in the area said parts of the ancient garden have become private property. Bao Shixuan, a director on the board of a private literary association in Beijing, said he is heartbroken when visiting the dilapidated conditions of the private garden, a rarity in the older quarters of the city.
A similar story haunts Jiangjun mountain in Nanjing, The mountain carries special archaeological research value for the cluster of tombs it contains, belonging to a former general who helped found the Ming Dynasty. Reporters found that real estate developers had flattened the slopes and moved the tombstones to make room for villas. Most of tombs are now damaged beyond recognition.
The former residence of Liu Bocheng, one of the 10 field marshals of the People's Liberation Army, has had no better luck. To commemorate Liu's organizing of a Chongqing military committee for armed uprisings, authorities turned the compound where the committee was established into a cultural heritage site for protection and conservation. Like others before it, the site is now a "skeletal structure" surrounded by litter.
Experts said existing regulations allow "reasonable utilization" of heritage sites for business purposes but lack concrete criteria for their execution. Land developers who have taken control of the sites claim to have followed the rules by not inflicting damage to the original structures. Though structures may remain intact, developers said objects like sculptures, murals or stone monuments could be taken apart or replaced.
Xu Hupin, former curator at Nanjing Museum, said "reasonable utilization" should be a progressive guideline but has been frequently abused as cultural assets are turned into venues for private commercial operations. Echoing those views, Zhou Xueying, a history professor at Nanjing University, said transforming heritage sites into villas or restaurants revealed a contradiction between cultural conservation and commercial development as well as lax administration over the ancient facilities.
Deputy chief of the appraisal panel of the Chinese Heritage Association Zhang Ning said the problems are further complicated by fuzziness over who owns the historic sites. There are two major categories given to the sites: public and private. Facilities like the Palace Museum in Beijing belong to the government exclusively, while others are in the hands of private citizens. Private sites are mostly used by individuals or leased to enterprises, said Zhang.
Sun Hua, director at Peking University's Cultural Heritage Protection Research Center, urged authorities across China to conduct sweeping checks and register all heritage facilities, including those in the private sector, as early as possible. All structures deemed worthy should be placed under protection, he said.
Nonetheless, only a small number of local administrations have taken concrete action to better safeguard cultural heritage sites. The Beijing city government, a rare exception, launched a plan earlier this year to set aside 100 million yuan (US$15.66 million) each year over the next five years to set up a fund for protecting heritage sites on the east side of the ancient city.
Nanjing's government revised rules in 2010 to require the conduction of archaeological surveys before leasing land for construction projects. The city government also encourages "reasonable development" for private heritage sites with lower cultural value by offering preferential tax rates. Authorities still retain the right to take over the sites when owners and commercial developers are found to have damaged or changed ancient structures and facilities.
Owners and developers are also required to pay taxes in full when their privilege for preferential tax treatment is revoked, said officials.
Like many things in fast-developing China, the debate over cultural heritage sites reveals a line between old and new drawn with a thick, black brush.