The Conservation of Chinese Historic Cities

By Yisan, Ruan | Antiquity, December 1993 | Go to article overview

The Conservation of Chinese Historic Cities


Yisan, Ruan, Antiquity


The modernizing of China brings up once more the twin needs to sweep away that which is old and bad, and to hold on to that which is old and good. A report illustrates the particular issues and some outcomes.

China, with such a long history, has many cultural relics. Its historic cities, numbering as many as 2000, and the diversity of their historic features, are famous world wide. With their beautiful natural environment, scenic spots and historic relics as well as their vernacular buildings, the cities reflect a brilliant Chinese history and culture.

In ancient times, little attention was paid to those cities as it was the custom for a new dynasty to sweep away everything from the former dynasty, 'destroying the old to establish the new'. When the Qin Dynasty conquered the six states of the Warring States Period, it destroyed their capital cities and all their palaces. In the northern suburbs of Xian Yang, the imposing and vast E'Pang Palace was built, with materials taken from the destroyed capitals and palaces of the six conquered states. During the late rule of the Qin Dynasty, the insurrectionary army conquered Xian Yang; they set the whole capital on fire and the fire lasted for three months. When the Jin Dynasty conquered the Song Dynasty, the Jin army captured Dong Jing, capital of the Song Dynasty and the present Kai Feng. All important buildings in Dong Jing were pulled down and the building materials transported to Jin Zhong Du, the Jin Dynasty capital, for new palaces. Jin Zhong Du, in turn, was destroyed by the Yuan Dynasty. In this way, many elegant and imposing capital cities were destroyed in a moment as a result of the alternation of dynasties; so the historic cities in China that are well preserved to the present are even more precious. From the 'Salvation Society' to the 1980s

Only in modern times did people begin to have a better understanding of the importance and functions of historic culture. They came to realize that cities are the meeting places for many historic and cultural relics, where palaces, temples, abbeys, residences, gardens, streets, vernacular houses and bridges are of great value. They are reflections of both national and local culture of long history, and the cultural and scientific achievements of mankind. In modern times, the European regard for historic culture has had great influence upon Chinese people. In the 1930s, a group of Chinese intellectuals set up the 'Salvation Society', whose purpose was to search for and rescue ancient buildings and cities. The society was a protector of relics and a reminder of the importance of their conservation. But further work was impossible as a result of poor government funding. Its achievements laid the necessary foundation and helped to train a group of technical workers, who were to give excellent performances in several conservation cases during the 1940s and '50s. During the summer of 1944, the Pacific War entered a new phase; Liang Sicheng -- then a member of the 'Salvation Society' in Chongqing, later a professor in Qinghua University -- together with his student, Luo Zhewen and other fellows, put forward a suggestion. Many Chinese historic cities and ancient buildings, then under the control of Japanese armies, were the common wealth of human civilization, and so were those in Japan; it was suggested they be spared from American bombing. American military headquarters, adopting Mr Liang's suggestion, invited some Chinese scholars to assist in the work in the headquarters. After three months in the headquarters, Luo Zhewen and his fellow workers had specified many ancient cities and buildings on military maps. As these maps were taken note of, ancient cities in Japan such as Kyoto and Nara did not undergo heavy bombing. Likewise, few ancient cities in China were subject to destructive military attacks. During the Liberation War in 1948, just before the Liberation Army launched an attack on Beijing, Mr Liang and his fellows suggested the city and its cultural relics be spared and that further protective measures be taken after the city's capture. …

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