Old China is not as old as it seems

Historians say that historic buildings are being robbed of their original character in a relentless recognition drive to attract tourists.

Most of the monuments tourists flock to see have been rebuilt from ruins. Above, a rebuilt area in the city of Shanhaiguan.
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SHANHAIGUAN, CHINA // Few would deny the walls and gates surrounding this city near China's east coast have a certain magnificence. Towering above the streets below, metres wide and in parts painted in bright colours, they recall the city's heritage as a 14th century garrison town.

While the walls and gates echo the past, most of what tourists flock to see has been rebuilt from ruins, bringing into focus concerns among some Chinese that overly fastidious restorations actually detract from, rather than enhance, the Chinese heritage they aim to celebrate. While campaigners have been angered by the destruction of historical buildings in many cities to make way for modern developments, complaints are also being made about a series of schemes some believe involve excessive rebuilding or alterations to ancient structures.

In Xi'an, a capital of China under many dynasties, about 12 billion yuan (Dh6.5bn) is being spent rebuilding the city walls and turning four of the city gates into museums, each representing a particular dynasty. One angry internet post has likened the project to rebuilding the pyramids in Egypt and the Colosseum in Rome. Meanwhile, it has been reported that the Great Wall at Simatai, 110km from the capital Beijing, will be restored as part of a project that will also include the construction of a golf course and a spa.

In Shanhaiguan itself, many of the old buildings on the city's two main streets have been demolished and replaced by shops that mimic a traditional style but are unmistakably new. He Shuzhong, the founder and chairman of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre, said these types of projects were "not protection at all ... it's destruction". Under these schemes, the original loses "its original character completely", Mr He said. "These cases are becoming more and more common in China".

Mr He noted that rebuilding often takes place at the behest of local officials keen on "signature projects" that will transform an area's historical buildings and generate revenue. "That's why they are so eager to make these changes, so it will boost tourism and enhance their political standing at a local level. The power of these local governments is so unrestricted," he said. In Beijing, a proposed redevelopment of the historical drum-and-bell-tower area north of the city centre is causing controversy because it will involve demolishing and then rebuilding many traditional structures. Mr He described a similar project already completed in the Qianmen area south of Tiananmen Square, in which a street full of shops built in traditional styles has replaced a historical neighbourhood, as a "lousing up job".

Visitors to Shanhaiguan, which was invaded by the Manchu army in the 17th century, are divided over the merits of restoring China's heritage in so polished a fashion. Qiu Ting, 21, a student visiting from Shijiazhuang, a city south-west of Beijing, said the walls and gates should have been left as ruins. "It's more real and has a sense of history. You have to imagine what the original gate was like because this is absolutely not genuine," she said, standing in the shadow of a rebuilt gate.

Her friend Zheng Hejun, 21, a student from Qinhuangdao along the coast from Shanhaiguan, said there were "cultural differences" between countries in how they preserved their heritage. "If you didn't restore it, it would vanish because of neglect," he said. "Later generations wouldn't have a chance to see it." According to Wang Li, a curator of the First Pass Under Heaven, a watchtower on the Shanhaiguan town wall, if the ruins had been left as they were rather than largely rebuilt in the mid- to late-1980s, they would not "display the greatness of their historical significance".

He acknowledged concerns over whether rebuilt gates and walls stayed true to the original designs, but said it was "what we do to recreate the city". "The European countries have their ruins just like ruins. Here it's different," he said. "The government recreated the city gates and the city walls so people can get a sense of what the city was like." He insisted the current scheme to demolish and rebuild parts of the old centre within the city walls was "a good thing" to stop the town "looking like a mess".

But preserving ancient areas or sights should never involve their complete rebuilding, Mr He said. The country had to "cultivate a sense of respect among people" for old buildings and structures as they were, he insisted. "The Chinese people deeply lack the willingness and interest to appreciate ruins," he said. "They like something new and glamorous, but not something that has a historical melancholy."

China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage, the government agency responsible for protecting China's cultural relics, did not respond to a request for an interview. dbardsley@thenational.ae