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Bringing History to Life
The Forbidden City offers an example of balancing heritage preservation and economic development
By Tang Yuankai | NO. 19 MAY 12, 2016


Shan Jixiang, Curator of the Palace Museum, tells stories about the museum to an audience in Hong Kong Central Library on March 16 (XINHUA)

Residing in a Beijing courtyard for a long time, Shan Jixiang, curator of the Palace Museum, has been familiar with the city's ancient architecture since childhood. Back then he never imagined he would grow up to work in one of the world's grandest and the world's most visited museum.

With almost 600 years of history and numerous treasures, the Palace Museum, also called the Forbidden City, was inscribed on the UNESCO's world heritage list in 1987.

According to the Principles for the Conservation of Heritage Sites in China, issued by the China International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), "The aim of conservation is to preserve the authenticity of all the elements of the entire heritage site and to retain for the future its historic information and all its values."

To do this, Shan said we should not alter historical information conveyed by cultural heritage. And to uphold integrity, cultural relics should be regarded as in their entirety, and both movable and immovable relics should be protected.

Following these two principles, he began to dismantle temporary structures that were not historically part of the Forbidden City.

Despite being a curator, Shan modestly calls himself a gatekeeper. Since assuming office in January 2012, he began visiting the site's 9,000 plus rooms one by one. This took five months and required him to wear more than 20 pairs of cloth shoes.

Conservation vs. development 

Shan is also a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, China's top political advisory body, where he has put forward numerous suggestions on heritage restoration.

Shan observed that some local officials, ignorant of cultural value and hungry for short-term economic and political benefits, allowed historic streets to be sold to property developers. Thus, traditional buildings were destroyed and intangible benefits were lost forever.

During China's rapid urbanization process, the conflict between heritage protection and development has become salient. The third nationwide cultural relics survey, which lasted from April 2007 to December 2011, revealed that 44,000 non-movable relics had disappeared, half of which were lost to commercial development projects such as highway and railway expansions.

Data released in 2015 from the State Administration of Cultural Heritage indicate that damage was mostly committed by organizations rather than individuals; the core reason for these violations was to make way for local economic development.

"Cultural heritage is non-renewable and has rare value. As such, it should be properly protected, while its economic potential can be reasonably utilized," Shan wrote in his 2009 book on cultural heritage.

Using London as an example, he explained that heritage preservation and economic development are not necessarily mutually exclusive. "Currently, the most attractive places in London, the places where people like to live, work and visit the most are those with the best preserved historical environment," He added that, "A city should not only provide a good physical environment for citizens, but also a noble cultural space."

Such is the importance of cultural preservation that even President Xi Jinping has addressed the issue. In a written instruction to a national meeting on heritage protection held on April 12, Xi urged the government to balance heritage protection and economic development. He said that cultural relics are "a valuable legacy from our ancestors" and heritage conservation will benefit future generations.

Xi reiterated the principle of "prioritizing protection and rescue, reasonable utilization and strengthening management" enshrined in China's cultural heritage protection law amended in October 2002.

Premier Li Keqiang also signed a guideline by the State Council this March on protecting cultural heritage. It includes ideas to open more museums to the public for free and promote the creative culture industry.


A section of the wall between Donghua Gate and Wumen Gate in the Palace Museum (XINHUA) 

Restoring heritage 

As curator, Shan's biggest wish is to restore the Palace Museum to its past glory. Shan believes to a large extent that the museum's vitality lies in the number of visitors who recognize its value.

To make it even more appealing, the museum has hosted various exhibitions and opened more areas to the general public. According to Shan, its open area has increased substantially from 48 percent in 2012 to 76 percent today.

Digital products, including an app named An Emperor's Day and animated webpages, have also been developed to attract the interest of young children.

Data from the museum show that by the end of last year, it had developed 8,683 art products and sales have surged from just over 600 million yuan ($92.3 million) in 2013 to nearly 1 billion yuan ($153.8 million) today.

Shan welcomes visitors, yet he understands that there are limits. Between 2002 and 2012, the number of visitors more than doubled to exceed a staggering 15 million annually. During the peak season, overcrowding can become a severe problem, leading to a policy created last June to restrict the daily number of visitors to 80,000.

Innovations in the Forbidden City have been promoted to other museums such as the National Museum of China (NMC), which has developed more than 2,000 creative products in recent years.

Along with the Palace Museum, the NMC is also located in the heart of Beijing; on the eastern side of the Tian'anmen Square, opposite the Great Hall of the People. It was founded in 2003 by merging the National Museum of Chinese History and the Museum of the Chinese Revolution. It collects cultural relics and artwork and features exhibitions on ancient China and the country's reform and opening-up drive.

The rational utilization of cultural relics both in and outside museums is to bring them to life, said Cultural Minister Luo Shugang. To revive cultural heritage is not to overexploit it but to make it educational and popular with people.

Liu Yuzhu, head of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, said that during the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20) period, a project to encourage museums and various market players to develop and promote more cultural products and services will be launched.

The Palace Museum has also presented China's vast and unique culture to the world. It organizes exhibitions overseas and is working with the Ministry of Culture to install 3D touch screens.

China's long and illustrious history is captured by what remains of its traditional buildings and heritage sites. Maintaining a sustainable balance between economic development and cultural preservation is of great importance.

Copyedited by Dominic James Madar 

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