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Uncertain Future for Architectural Treasures

Nestled between mountains and a winding river in a scenic corner of Shanxi province is Zhongyang County, the home of an exquisite Confucian temple built during the Ming dynasty.

The colorful wooden temple graced this idyllic valley for hundreds of years before a construction crew in October started clearing land for a twenty-six-story apartment building. Workers eventually dismantled and moved the temple piece by piece to a new site about a kilometer away.

The relocation and Zhongyang’s altered landscape are a microcosm of the wide scope of change affecting the Chinese world of ancient architectural jewels. It’s a world shaken for decades by economic development, urbanization, and sometimes sheer neglect.

And in recent years, it’s a world shaken up by commercial forces, as businesses catering to historic preservation expand around the country. Today, an entire industrial chain has formed to feed off demand for ancient architecture.

Indeed, business is booming for buyers, movers, rehabilitators, and sellers of old buildings. No data is available, but anecdotal evidence and business reports suggest increasing numbers of culturally significant structures in underdeveloped parts of the country are being sold and moved to wealthy cities. Other buildings, like the Confucian temple in Zhongyang, are being moved by developers so hungry for land that they’re willing to pay for a delicate relocation.

Many buildings cannot be moved legally. Under Chinese regulations, the central government can designate certain cultural structures state-owned and immovable. But ownership of anything not on the list is subject to local government control.

Zhongyang’s director of cultural tourism, Qiao Jinping, told Caixin the apartment building developer and local officials coordinated a “relocation-protection-style” project that combined support for economic growth with historic preservation.

“The developer bought the land (from the government) and paid a large sum of money that helped us resolve the funding problem,” Qiao said. “Rather than let the Confucian temple collapse, we elected to have it be reborn elsewhere.”

Cultural Decay

The interest in saving China’s cultural gems may have arrived too late for a large number of rare structures that once stood in Shanxi province. Today, though, the provincial Bureau of Cultural Relics says Shanxi is home to some 350 of China’s approximately 440 oldest wood-frame buildings.

Moreover, the bureau says, Shanxi has about 75 percent of the 160 wood-frame structures nationwide that are more than 1,000 years old, which means they were built during the Song, Liao, or Jin dynasties. And about eighty of these structures can be found in a southeast part of the province called Gushangdang.

Typically threatened is the Goddess Temple in the center of Zhuangzi Township. The wooden roof of the main hall, built during the Yuan dynasty, has started to cave in. A protruding roof beam is rotting, and experts say complete collapse may be imminent.

“There are a lot of such treasures in disrepair in Shanxi,” said Tang Dahua, a historic building enthusiast who has visited about 300 old wooden buildings around Shanxi over the past two years. He calls the province a treasure trove of rare buildings as well as the epitome of cultural neglect.

Economically underdeveloped areas of Shanxi and neighboring Shaanxi province should be targeted for preservation efforts before it’s too late, says Ruan Yisan, a professor at Shanghai’s Tongji University.

Ruan says Shanxi’s historic buildings are victims of “intentional destruction and passive damage,” often in areas that lack financial and human resources to support preservation. In his opinion, each structure deserves “to be saved without a second’s delay.”

Yet at many sites around the country, there’s nothing left to save.

More than 40,000 government-registered culturally important structures disappeared between 1989 and 2011, according to the Third National Survey of Cultural Relics, which was completed by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage about a year ago.

Because a considerable number of valuable temples, city gateways, and other centuries-old structures were never registered with the central government, the survey figure may represent only a fraction of the victims of economic development, urbanization, and inattention.

A separate report released in 2012 by the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development said that since 1978, nearly 20,000 of some 40,000 structures deemed nationally significant have been destroyed.

An official at the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, China’s historic sites supervisor, said natural disasters including landslides and earthquakes have claimed a number of structures. Others have fallen to urban sprawl and theft.

The nation’s Cultural Relics Protection Law says local governments are responsible for financing preservation and protection. And many have accepted the task.

Ruan said the city of Suzhou spent more than 1 billion yuan in 2011 to care for structures, while the city of Shaoxing spent some 700 million yuan. But these are relatively wealthy cities that, unlike many in Shanxi and other less-developed areas, can afford to save buildings.

The local government in charge of the Goddess Temple, for example, does not have the hundreds of thousands of yuan that would be needed for proper repairs, said Yan Zhen, director of the Jinzhong Prefecture’s Yuci District Office of Cultural Management.

A temporary structure to protect the temple from rain and snow would cost around 10,000 yuan, Yan said. But even a small expenditure “depends on how much funding higher authorities approve,” he said, and so far they’ve approved nothing.

Nor is anyone in Beijing pushing to preserve the temple.

“The State Administration of Cultural Relics is a weak department,” lamented Wang Qingfeng, director of the Changzhi Prefecture Suburban Cultural Heritage Tourism Bureau in Shanxi. “Cultural heritage is something you only see as an investment. You don’t see what it yields.

“Only leaders who truly understand this are willing to allocate funds.”

Preserve and Profit

Business interests that jumped on the historic preservation bandwagon, meanwhile, have found ways to leap barriers posed by the financial constraints of local governments.

The solution to Zhongyang’s Confucian temple conundrum, for example, balanced new property development and preserving the old for future tourism growth.

The Zhongyang government decided the best way to protect the cultural structure and retain its highest value was to harness its full commercial value. With that in mind, the temple was moved to a scenic area that the government designated as a moneymaking tourist destination. In the future, it will be joined be new buildings decorated with features of ancient architectural design.

In Suzhou, old courtyard homes have been restored along historic Pinjiang Road and are now used for luxury clubs.

Indeed, many preservation proponents argue that saving an ancient structure should not mean locking it in a glass museum case.

“A big principle for cultural heritage plans that must be grasped is that the results of cultural heritage protection should benefit the people as much as possible,” said Tan Yufeng, deputy chief engineer at the Shanghai Municipal Bureau of Cultural Relics. Ancient buildings “should be used for education, like museums and exhibition centers.”

Tan prefers on-site restoration of a structure over Zhongyang’s relocation-protection technique. “Protecting the original site is the best way to protect a cultural relic,” he said. “The value of a cultural relic is reflected in its countless, complicated links with a surrounding environment.”

But wealthy buyers of ancient structures often prefer dismantling and moving, a technique dating to the 1980s, when rich Hong Kongers scoured the mainland for valuable buildings and moved them to adorn Hong Kong property developments.

More recently, major mainland developers have followed in their footsteps. In Shenzhen, for example, two residential complexes built by China Vanke Co. feature ancient buildings bought and shipped to the site from Anhui and Jiangsu provinces.

Among those who profit from demand for historic buildings are researchers who gather field data, as well as specialists engaged in dismantling, repairing, and rehabilitation.

A businessman surnamed Chai said his company in Jinghai, Zhejiang province, can be hired to buy, take down, ship, and rebuild a structure. Most buildings his company handles are in Jiangxi, Zhejiang, and Anhui provinces. They include those built in the Huizhou architectural style, as well as Fujian-type houses.

Chai said he charges about 1 million yuan for a genuine 200-square-meter historic building. His company also builds replicas for 500,000 yuan apiece.

The booming market in Suzhou is served by a website run by the Suzhou Ancient Building Network. Its founder, Zheng Zhiran, says the group promotes the protection of ancient buildings by posting information about building transactions.

Real estate agents, individuals, and groups can participate in the ancient building trade. Some see a building as an investment, while others act as brokers working for commission, usually 3 to 5 percent of a transaction price.

Zheng told Caixin his company, in business since 2007, buys about five buildings every year and sells two or three. He’s optimistic about the market: His company posted 3 million yuan in revenues in 2012, and is likely to collect 30 million yuan in 2013.

It’s not all smooth sailing for the preservation profiteers, such as the owner of a garment factory in Shanghai’s Qingpu District. He bought nine Qing- and Ming-era buildings and moved them from Anhui and Jiangxi in 2009, only to be told recently by the local government’s urban development department that the reconstruction was illegal.

Soon after demolitions started, the Shanghai Cultural Relics Bureau stepped in and ordered an emergency halt to the work, citing the buildings’ cultural value.

Yet legal loopholes often let moneymaking trump historic preservation, said Cui Biao, who works for the Zhejiang culture relics bureau. Since unprofessional dismantling and rebuilding can ruin a structure, he said, laws are needed to restrict the practice.

Opinions such as Cui’s are winning support among a growing number of historic preservation enthusiasts. Some have looked to Europe for guidance, since many European countries protect their cultural heritage sites with private funds.

But the European model may not transfer to China. Li Xin, a deputy director at the UNESCO World Heritage Institute of Training and Research for Asia Pacific, said Europe’s “private protection model … can only be drawn from slightly at China’s current stage because the property rights relationships of heritage buildings in China are more complex.”

Since government culture departments oversee protection and preservation efforts, the Chinese system would have to be adjusted to allow private financial participation. Moreover, experts such as Cao Yongkang, an expert in renovating ancient buildings, said commercial interests should not have precedent over the kind of historic preservation that’s in the public interest.

“Money spent on restoring ancient buildings is often out of sight,” said building enthusiast Tang. “From a layman’s point of view, spending hundreds of thousands of yuan to restore a building is inconceivable. So how could you convince investors to do it?”

Li suggests China draw up a system following the French heritage model, which relies on volunteers who participate in restorations. Such a system, he said, would promote public awareness as well as protect buildings.

Caixin Media Company Limited is a media group dedicated to providing high-quality and authoritative financial and business news and information. Through periodicals, online content, mobile apps,...

By Caixin staff reporters Wang Xiaoqing and Zhou Qun. This story originally appeared at Caixin on December 28, 2012.

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