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Protection of Cultural Heritage in China

Ministry of Culture

May 25, 2006


China enjoys a world-acclaimed ancient civilization. Over the sweep of history, Chinese people of all ethnic groups have jointly created valuable cultural heritage resources with such a multitude of types, diverse forms and rich contents that are exceptional in the world. China's cultural heritage reflects unique spirits, values, ways of thinking and imagination and embodies vitality and creativity of the Chinese nation, thus being cherished as treasures of human civilization. Cultural heritage, in a unique role, has invisibly influenced the Chinese people's ideas and concepts and made special and important contribution to the continuation and evolution of the Chinese civilization.

The Chinese Government has always attached great importance to the protection of cultural heritage and drawn up a series of major policies and plans. In the Law of the People's Republic of China on the Protection of Cultural Relics, a protection guideline is prescribed featuring "emphasis on protection, rescue first, reasonable utilization and reinforced administration". In December 2005, the State Council issued the Circular on Strengthening the Protection of Cultural Heritage, stipulating that people's governments at all levels and relevant departments, with a strong sense of responsibility to the nation and history and from a perspective of safeguarding cultural safety of the nation, should fully recognize importance of protecting cultural heritage, further enhance their sense of responsibility and urgency and work hard to better protect cultural heritage. It is also stipulated in the Circular that the second Saturday of June is designated as the National Cultural Heritage Day since 2006.

Cultural heritage resources in China

China's cultural heritage consists of both tangible and intangible cultural heritage. Tangible cultural heritage refers to cultural relics with historical, artistic and scientific values, including movable and unmovable cultural relics.

1. Movable cultural relics include ancient cultural remains, ancient tombs, ancient architectures, grotto temples, stone carvings, murals, and important remains and representative buildings in the history of modern China.

There are nearly 400,000 registered sites of unmovable cultural relics in mainland China so far. Administration by levels is exercised on the protection of unmovable cultural relics in China. Important unmovable cultural relics are classified as sites under protection at county & municipal, provincial or state levels. In China, there are so far 2352 sites under the state-level protection, 9396 sites under the provincial-level protection and 58,300 sites under the county or municipal-level protection. Moreover, 103 cities are designated as "Historically and Culturally Famous City".

Since 1985 when China joined the Convention Concerning the Protection of the Cultural and Natural Heritage, 31 cultural and natural heritage sites in China have been inscribed in the World Heritage List, among which there are four natural heritage sites, four cultural & natural heritage sites, one cultural landscape and 22 cultural heritage sites.

2. Movable cultural relics refer to important artifacts, artworks, documents, manuscripts, publication materials and representative artifacts of different historical periods which are categorized into valuable cultural relics and common cultural relics. Valuable cultural relics are classified as first-class, second-class or third-class. So far, a total of some 20 million pieces or sets of movable cultural relics are collected in museums of mainland China.

China's achievements in the protection of cultural relics

Since the founding of new China in 1949, especially since the policy of reform and opening up was launched, remarkable achievements have been scored in the protection of cultural relics in China. Since the Ninth Five-Year Plan was implemented, as the country's economic power and comprehensive national strength has been substantially enhanced, China's cultural relics undertaking has embraced a brand new era of development and new accomplishments have been achieved as follows:

Legal system building has been constantly improved and a system of laws and regulations on cultural relics protection has been basically developed. In 1982, China issued the Law of the People's Republic of China on the Protection of Cultural Relics, the country's first law in the field of cultural relics. The Law was revised in October 2002. Within the framework of the Law, the Ministry of Culture and the State Administration of Cultural Heritage have drawn up some 30 regulatory documents and administration regulations, and a number of local regulations have been released. In addition, China has joined the four international conventions concerning the protection of cultural heritage, including Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (1970).

Local governments at all levels put much value on cultural heritage undertakings. In accordance with the planning of the central government, local governments at all levels have integrated cultural relics protection into their economic and social development plans and constantly upgraded social status and overall levels of cultural heritage undertakings. As a result, expenditures on cultural relics protection have been substantially increased; the special fund for cultural relics protection earmarked from the centrally controlled state revenue increased from 129 million yuan in 1994 to 534 million yuan in 2005. Since 2005, the Government of Beijing Municipality has invested 120 million yuan annually in the protection of cultural relics. Moreover, some provinces and cities have reinforced the building of administration authorities and law enforcement personnel involved with cultural heritage.

Remarkable achievements have been scored in the surveying and inventory building of cultural relics resources in China. Key projects such as the building of inventories for key state-level protection sites and first-class museum collections of cultural relics have been launched. The country's cultural relics resources have been initially ascertained and information on quantity, quality, distribution and protection of state-owned unmovable cultural relics and museum collections of moveable cultural relics have been basically acquired.

Basic work on the protection of cultural relics has been further speeded up. The State Administration of Cultural Heritage has conducted surveys on basic conditions of the country's protection organizations and museums. Priorities have been given to projects for the restoration and protection of key state-level protection sites such as the Potala Palace in Tibet and the Forbidden City in Beijing and a large number of other key state-level protection sites. As a result, key state-level protection sites have been basically lifted out of threats of serious accidents.

A protection and planning system for large-scale remains has been initially established. The state has earmarked a special fund for the protection of large-scale remains, which has remarkably facilitated the establishment of regulations on and protection projects, facilities and display areas of large-scale remain sites. Protection facilities for the Emperor Qin's Mausoleum Remains and the Daming Palace Remains in Shaanxi and Koguryo Remains in Jilin and Liaoning have taken shape, which have provided examples for large-scale rescue, protection and utilization of other large-scale remains.

Construction of museums has been constantly speeded up. A total of some 2300 museums have been set up nationwide, which present nearly 10,000 displays and exhibitions and receive about 150 million visitors from home and abroad annually. The renovation and expansion project for the National Museum of China has been launched and a number of large-scale museums have been completed and open to public. Large-scale museums such as Shanghai Museum, Capital Museum and China Science Museum have undergone rapid upgrading in infrastructure, research and display, management and operation, and service for the general public, thus reaching or approaching levels of advanced museums abroad.

Exchange and cooperation with other countries and regions in the field of cultural relics have maintained a good momentum. Some 60 exhibitions on cultural relics are organized abroad annually and active exchange and cooperation have been conducted in archeological survey and excavation, cultural relics protection, personnel training and academic intercourse. China has actively participated in and offered aids to the protection and restoration of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the Bogd Khan Palace in Mongolia, and successfully hosted the 28th World Heritage Conference and the 15th ICOMOS General Assembly.

Local economic and cultural development has been increasingly benefited from endeavors for the protection of cultural heritage. In areas with rich cultural heritage resources such as Beijing, Xi'an, Chengde, Qufu, Pingyao and Lijiang, some of their heritage sites and museums have become world-famous tourist destinations—the Forbidden City, Dunhuang Research Institute and Emperor's Qing's Terra-cotta Warriors and Horses Museum, to name a few. More and more heritage sites and museums have been regarded by general public as ideal venues for knowledge learning, leisure and traveling.

Challenges facing the protection of cultural heritage in China

The protection of cultural heritage in China is now in a critical stage, facing the growing trend of urbanization and tremendous challenges and pressures posed by the construction of large-scale infrastructure projects. It is a significant challenge to guarantee the smooth construction of the country's key large-scale infrastructure projects while putting cultural relics under good protection

1. The Chinese Government attaches vital importance to the protection of cultural heritage in the construction of infrastructures and demands that surveys by cultural heritage administrations be conducted before a construction project is launched and the project bypass verified unmovable cultural relics as possible as it can. If unmovable cultural relics are discovered in areas that an infrastructure project has to go through, cultural heritage administrations must decide to protect them in their original sites or conduct rescue excavation for the convenience of the project construction. Over the past decade, Chinese archeological professionals have conducted successful rescue excavations involved with the construction of a number of large or medium-scale infrastructure projects, including the Xiaolangdi Reservoir over the Yellow River, the Three Gorges Dam over the Yangtze River, the transmission of natural gas from west to east China, the Qinghai-Tibet Railway and the double-tracking railway between Langzhou and Baoji.

During the construction of the Three Gorges Dam project, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage mobilized some sixty institutes, organizations and universities specialized in the field of archeological studies, restoration of ancient architectures and cultural heritage protection to conduct rescue investigations, surveys, excavations and conservations. As a result, 1087 sites of unmovable cultural relics were discovered in the inundated area. Before the water storage project was launched, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage organized large-scale excavations in the inundated area, achieving a number of significant archeological discoveries and unearthing a multitude of samples and exquisite artifacts with high research values.

Rescue and protection of cultural heritage involved with the project of water diversion from south to north China will be a key priority in the protection of cultural relics in China in years to come. The State Administration of Cultural Heritage has already mobilized professionals throughout the country to conduct surveys and protection prior to the construction. Along the middle and east routes of the project which go through seven provinces and municipalities under the administration of the central government, a total of 710 heritage sites are involved in the project's first-phase construction. After repeated coordinations with water conservancy departments, most important unmovable cultural relics have been bypassed in the planning of the project and proper measures have been adopted to better protect ground cultural relics. On the basis of comprehensive surveys of underground cultural relics, archeological excavation will be conducted in planned scales. It is planned to excavate an area of nearly 1.7 million square meters, with an estimated expenditure of 1 billion yuan.

2. To improve people's living quality while protecting historical cities in the accelerated process of urbanization is an issue that the Chinese Government determines to properly deal with.

The Chinese Government has continued to reinforce the protection of cultural relics in the process of urbanization and has taken a series of measures to establish protective areas, buffer zones or controlled belts in the neighborhood of significant historical buildings, sites and monuments. As a result, initial achievements have been made in protecting cultural heritage itself and its surroundings. In addition, major explorations have been conducted in the following three aspects:

A) Improve the legal system concerning the protection of cultural relics and their surroundings, continue to strengthen the law enforcement and further speed up theoretical studies so as to make sure that legal means and theoretical studies will play a bigger role in the protection of cultural relics. Meanwhile, more efforts need to be made in working out national standards and technical specifications concerning the protection of cultural relics and their surroundings.

B) Speed up the compilation of plans for the protection of cultural relics so that they can be given proper protection under the guidance of protection plans. Meanwhile, more efforts should be made in facilitating protection plans to be integrated into overall urban development plans, urban system plans and economic and social development plans, and in working out measures to implement protection plans on the dimension of country administration. Those efforts aim to achieve effective, scientific, reasonable and well-planned coordination between cultural relics protection and local economic and social development, thus realizing integral protection of values of cultural relics.

C) Try our utmost to guarantee the implementation of significant protection projects such as large-scale remains in cities, complete a number of model projects for the protection of key heritage sites, gradually develop a good natural, cultural and ecological environment for the protection of cultural relics, achieve harmonious and sustainable development of local communities and natural environment and upgrade living standards of local people.

(China Development Gateway May 25, 2006)



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