Another three weeks in China: Weishan 2012

June 10, 2012 China Preservation Comments (0) 149

Another three weeks in China, my third trip in a year, with eight SAIC students who did a great job refining the SAIC plan for the Weishan International Arts Center at the Dong Yue Temple complex, which we first got involved with back in 2004.

The Dong Yue temple itself was restored in 2008, and the plan we developed last year is to convert the adjacent Tai Bao and Shi Wang Palaces as an arts center, restoring the buildings themselves as historic monuments while integrating new arts uses around them, including artist-in-residence studios, kilns and wheels for ceramics, printmaking, forms and machines for fashion, easels and stands for painting and sculpture; facilities for photography and looms for fiber.

Great rendering of the complex by Tony

Nice overlay sketch of Tai Bao Palace by Beatrice

The great advantage of our group this year – our fourth SAIC Study Trip to the Weishan Heritage Valley – was the breadth of arts experience our students had, which allowed them to SEE the site in this multivalent way.  This would not be SAIC’s exclusive domain, by any stretch.  In addition to other universities in China and abroad, the facility has community uses.

Adam and Liza’s drawing of the complex

Kudos to students Anthony Wasmund, Megan Tyndall, Grace Ann Watson, Emma Weber, Beatrice Collier, Michelle O’Young, Adam Garcia and Liza Poupon.  They were fabulous, and fun to be with.  Kudos also to my fellow faculty member Stanley Murashige and Han Li, whose involvement was invaluable and toured us around the wonderful restored courtyards up in Pingyao, Shanxi.

Is that a yaodong or is that a yaodong?  Really!

I go to China to see the past and the future, and no country in the world has more of either.  From ceramics and oracle bones and a writing system stretching back five millennia to more megalopoli and highrises than anywhere in the world.

tons of old

and tons of new

From the thousands of over-life-sized soldiers of QinShiHuangDi to the thousands of highrises that sprawl across Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and a dozen other massive cities, the past and future are both bigger and vaster in China.

The myth that the Great Wall is the only man-made object visible from outer space is like all myths, a untruth that contains a true insight: we need to believe it because China’s impact on the planet has always been outsized.

The byword in China for some time has been “social harmony” which is both an ancient Confucian concept and a concern of the ruling CCP, what with the rise of the middle class.  We all know that China makes all of our stuff and also owns all of our debt; what is less obvious to those who don’t visit is the fact that we have exported our middle class there.

This is actually quite relevant to the Weishan Heritage Valley project I have been working on the last 9 years, and the Global Heritage Fund project in Pingyao I have been involved with the last 4 years.  In both cases, we pursue modern conservation science in an effort to preserve architectural and cultural authenticity, and thus provide an attraction to those international tourists who seek out such authenticity.

The limits to that approach are now apparent as the international tourist is well nigh irrelevant in a nation with the world’s largest middle class.  The tourists in Pingyao and Weishan are overwhelmingly Chinese.  What both the Weishan Heritage Valley and the Pingyao project have had to do is adjust to this reality.  Part of my work in both places has been to insure that conservation is serving the local population, with or without tourists, whether domestic or international.

Dali’s main drag is an endless parade of the same five tourist shop types

This is actually better for heritage conservation planning because it insures that historic buildings and intangible heritage are conserved not simply as tourist sites, subject to the whims of a singular economy, but as vital elements of the indigenous and contemporary everyday.  This is a more sustainable model.  It also acknowledges the value of culture as a driver of development in the largest sense: place-based assets that inspire continued human and financial investment in place.

The primary economy of this town is driven by those who live in the area

As I have said over and over, modern heritage conservation is a decision about the future, even if its raw materials are of the past.  Modern conservation incorporates economic and community development and partnerships between various public and private entities.   This is the idea of heritage areas since they were first created in 1984, and it is the idea behind Global Heritage Fund, whose projects require partnerships and community development as fundamental components.

It is a lesson in how heritage conservation works that is not understood by all.  But it was exquisitely and creatively understood by our students in China this summer, who envisioned a rich future for a rich historic site.

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