Saturday, 31 December 2011

China’s vanishing cultural heritage

A survey of China’s cultural heritage has revealed some rather shocking results – around 44,000 ancient sites have vanished, and around a quarter of the 700,000 remaining are in a poor state of repair.  The results have been out for a short while in China, but the BBC has just picked up on them here.

Although the figures are undeniably awful, and will no doubt be used by those who wish to bash China, I’d like to offer the following thoughts, which both applaud and condemn China’s cultural heritage management as I see it from afar (though I stress that I don’t claim to be an expert, more an interested observer):

1) The survey was carried out by the Chinese authorities, not an overseas organisation which is undoubtedly a positive first step in ensuring that the problems of the past are corrected.  This was the first such survey in 20 years, so the rate of deterioration cannot be determined.  It will only be through future surveys that more detailed data can be obtained.  A little birdy with some insider knowledge of how things work told me recently that a national database to keep track of heritage sites is currently being developed.

2) It is an obvious point, but China is huge.  The carrying out of such a survey is a mammoth task, and many heritage sites are in mountainous and desert areas which are very remote and difficult to reach.  Even recording the existence of the surviving heritage sites in such areas is an achievement in itself.

3) China is not devoid of law (despite what some seem to claim), and it has heritage legislation.  The problem here is not a lack of law, but a lack of understanding and education coupled with the lack of a solid, independent judicial system to punish those who break the laws.  Sadly, too many officials are able to put economic interests above other issues, and even if locals are proud of their heritage they are unable to voice their opposition to its destruction.  Roads, railways, mines and quarries are a national priority, and heritage usually comes last in the priority list.  That has to change if such shocking statistics are to be eradicated in future.

4) There is a problem in China with ‘fake heritage’.  Huge amounts of money have been spent creating heritage theme parks which distract people’s attention away from the needs and importance of the real heritage.  People are used to seeing shiny, restored heritage sites and massive reconstruction.  Heritage sites are of course not always like this (nor should we desire them to be), but the public perception can lead to them devaluing what we might term the ‘non-shiny’ heritage.  Which leads us on to...

5) China places too much emphasis on its major sites – the Forbidden Palaces, Great Walls, Terracotta Warriors and the like.  These are so closely associated with national prestige and cultural identity that they have become almost religious in their nature, and take focus away from other heritage sites.  Any heritage site not deemed worthy of making the highest grade (such as achieving the hallowed World Heritage Status) invariably falls by the wayside.  Of course, many such heritage sites are of immense local importance, but this is often not recognised.

In short, as with so many areas, China has a long way to go in cultural heritage management, but there are some signs that things are changing.  The hope is that in 20 years time a similar survey won’t have cause to make such shocking headlines.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Travels with Li Dongni – Xinjiang, China (October 2011), part 1

Museums, mummies and natural beauty

During our trip back to China in October, we decided to go and spend a week and a bit in Xinjiang, the mainly Muslim province at the far northwest of China – the tail of China’s chicken, as it were.

Xinjiang is one of China’s ‘Autonomous Regions’ (like Tibet), and is home to the Uyghur people (pronounced ‘wee-gur’), one of China’s 56 official ethnicities.  Sitting as is does on the silk road, Xinjiang has seen wealth and diversity throughout its history, and is culturally closely connected to the lands to its west – modern day countries such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan.

Xinjiang is growing as a tourist destination, though thankfully it is still very easy to avoid major tour parties.  Western tourism is still very small, and we represented a very rare and intriguing sight in some of the more rural areas we visited.  Interestingly, many Chinese seem to consider Xinjiang to be some lawless, violent place (there have been various incidents in the past few years, including the well-known Urumqi riots, and in the weeks before we went a police station was firebombed), but in reality we found it much the same as anywhere else in China, and certainly felt at far less risk of violence than we would late on a Saturday night in an average chav-filled English town...

Because we visited so many amazing places (we hired a car and driver so we could get off the beaten track), I’ve decided to split this travel blog up into three different parts to keep it manageable.  This part, as you may have already guessed, will look at museums and natural sites.  Part 2 will look at Ancient sites, and part 3 will look at Buddhist grottoes and other religious sites.

Oh, before I start I should put out a warning that there are pictures of mummified human remains in this post, so you might want to avoid the sections on Urumqi museum and Turpan (Tulufan) museum if you don’t want to see them.

Xinjiang Regional museum, Urumqi

The Xinjiang Regional museum is housed in an attractive building, built in 1953 but surely having seen a facelift since, considering how modern the architecture looks.  The museum only allows 2,000 visitors a day in, but as it was quiet when we went, we were in no danger of missing out.

Inside, visitors are greeted by the fantastically translated ‘Museum of Commodity department’.  Of course, what they really meant was ‘Carpet shop'.

The museum itself is divided into a number of large galleries, in a style reminiscent of many other similar regional museums in China.  As might be expected, these take you on a chronological tour through the region’s history, with some nice dioramas and geological models.  It was particularly nice to see artefacts from sites such as Gaochang, which we would see during the trip.  The displays aren’t earth-shatteringly modern, or interactive in any way, but they are neat and tidy, and the collections were very interesting indeed.

The star of the show is the display of mummies from Xinjiang.  These preserved bodies are internationally famous, and fascinating to see in person.  The preservation is completely natural (and, one assumes, unintentional), as it is the desert conditions that preserved them rather than any deliberate act of embalming.  The most famous of all is the ‘Loulan Beauty’, but to our eternal regret she was on loan to another museum when we visited and we had to miss out on seeing her.  Disappointing as that was, the other mummies are still very special indeed.  They attract particular interest because they are clearly not all Chinese in appearance, and some DNA testing has suggested that some of them have European origins.  This jars somewhat with the current 'official' history of China, which tells of Xinjiang being Chinese for a long time, and non-Chinese scholars are now barred from studying the mummies.

Turpan (Tulufan) museum

Turpan museum is the second largest museum in Xinjiang, and is another relatively new institution, being built in 1990.  Sadly, despite its modernity and attractiveness, disabled access was far from the designer’s top priority - just look at those stairs!

Actually getting into the museum was a lesson in pointless bureaucracy, as we climbed the steps to the entrance, only be sent back down again to ‘register’ at a little office – registering requiring us to have our passport details recorded and receiving a little ticket for our trouble.

Once inside, the museum shows itself to be a little gem, and it has become one of my favourite museums in China.  The main chronological tour through local history is inside the ‘Unearthed Relics Exhibition Hall’.

The area is known for its paleontological discoveries, and the Hall dedicated to displaying the local dinosaurs is colourful, vibrant, and about as innovative as any Chinese museum display I’ve seen.

One of my favourite elements of the gallery were the little projected animations of dinosaurs and marine reptiles.  Although slightly crude in terms of technology, they are hugely endearing, and the image below really doesn't do them justice at all.

The main attraction is undoubtedly the mummified bodies, given their own gallery known as the ‘Unearthed Archaic Body Exhibition Hall’.  As with the mummies displayed in the Xinjiang Regional museum, these are naturally preserved bodies, and their display is both fascinating and sensitive.  The display of human remains is a challenge for any museum, and displaying such well-preserved ancient bodies is especially so.  The museum definitely deserves praise for the way it has arranged the gallery.

During our visit, there was also a temporary exhibition of Bronze Age bronze vessels from Henan Province.  Although a common feature of British museums, the idea of the touring exhibition seems less common in China, so it was a pleasant surprise, and a well constructed exhibition.

The Flaming mountains

The flaming mountains were one of the sights I was most excited about seeing before going to Xinjiang.  They are a range of sandstone hills sitting below the Heaven Mountains, which run across Xinjiang.  The flaming mountains acquired their name from their fiery colour, which is exaggerated in low light, making the mountains appear to shimmer as if burning.

Their main claim to fame is that they feature in the story of ‘The Journey to the West’ (known to most western audiences through the Japanese TV series Monkey).  This Chinese classic is incredibly accessible and enjoyable, and I’d recommend everyone to read it at some point.

According to the story, the flaming mountains were created when the Monkey King was causing trouble in Heaven, and kicked the Eight Trigrams Furnace over, spilling hot coals onto the earth below and setting fire to the mountains.  Later in the story, when the Monk Xuanzang and his followers need to cross the flaming mountains, the Monkey King needs to trick the Iron Fan Princess into giving him her fan so he can blow out the flames.

Taklamakan desert

We skirted the edge of the bleak Taklamakan desert quite a bit during our travels, and took some time to venture away from the roads into the dunes themselves.  The dead trees are particularly fascinating - locals say that the larger trees were about 300 hundred years old when they died, and that the dead trees can stay like this for a thousand years.

Lotus Lake (part of Bositeng hu)

I very much enjoyed my time in Xinjiang, but I have to confess that this was one of the low points – very rarely has a lake ever made me as angry as this one did!

Lotus Lake is one small part of the much larger lake known as Bositeng Hu (or Bosten Lake).  The entrance fee for this part of the lake is 45RMB (about £4.50) per person, which is a lot by Chinese standards.  Sadly, the site wasn’t anywhere near value for money, being very small and consisting only of a small bit of water and a reed bed with some very knackered buildings (I kid you not, one of them had a human poo on the viewing platform on the roof!)

I’m still not sure what annoyed me most – the rip-off entrance fee, or the fact that there was an entrance fee in the first place (considering there wasn’t anything there that needed maintaining, or any public services on offer).  Imagine having to pay a fiver to see a small stream a few miles away from Lake Windermere.  Would you pay?  Of course not.  Surely nature belongs to everyone?  If you ever find yourself in Xinjiang – save yourself the time and the money and give this one a miss.

Heaven Lake

Having had a poor experience at Lotus Lake, the trip to Heaven Lake almost didn’t happen.  Having seen beforehand that it would cost 100RMB entrance, 70RMB for the compulsory bus trip to the lake from the entrance and 45RMB for a boat trip (a total of £23 per person), fears were high that it would be another white elephant.  Thankfully we went, and not going would definitely have been a mistake, as Heaven Lake (mass tourist attraction that it is), was rather beautiful and second only to Sichuan’s Jiuzhaigou of the sites I have visited so far.

The compulsory bus ride turned out to be an hour trip up a steep and winding mountain road, with local villages (complete with yurts) and random wandering mountain goats aplenty.  At the top, a short walk past some obligatory gift shops brought us to the edge of the lake itself, some 2,000 metres above sea level.  We decided to go for the boat trip, on the ‘we might never get back here’ principle, which offered some closer views of the mountains, and was worth the money, despite being so unbelievably cold that I struggled to hold on to my camera!