Reflection on Cultural Significance

On the website of Global Heritage Fund, when I read a news article about GHF’s preservation project of Pingyao, which is a small city in the middle of China and famous for its well-preserved ancient wall and city layout, my first response was to ask why is it always Pingyao that is preserved? Compared with those nearby cities, such as Taigu and Qixian that have rich cultural value but received little care, Pingyao has been given so much attention, far more than it is deserved.

Maps of places in the blog

Undoubtedly, those cities in its vicinity of Pingyao have more cultural significance, even if we ignore the truth that they also kept their city fabric intact except for walls. In the modern history of China, a group of merchants from the Shanxi province had built a powerful commercial empire: they founded the first modern bank in China and their economic network spread almost across the world. Taigu, as the richest city in the Shanxi province at that time, had once been the financial capital of China. In addition, it is Taigu that raised Kong xiangxi, a prominent banker and politician of modern China. As for Qixian, for thousands of years, the place of its city has not ever been moved and its planning provides an excellent reference of the evolution of Chinese cities during a very long period. Moreover, Qixian is also among the list of the National Famous Historical and Cultural Cities. In fact, the primary reason that Pingyao didn’t tear down its wall is just because it was less developed back to then, which means it bore less cultural accumulation in comparison with cities that bulldozed their walls for economic development. As a saying prevails around this area: “golden Taigu, silver Qixian, copper Pingyao”, the rank of their culture significance is self-evident.

However, it seems that cultural value is not valuable at all. Nobody cares these wonderful legend and fantastic tradition of Taigu and Qixian as if they have not existed. Few funds were supplied, which are even not enough to support the basic maintenance of their ancient city. A few years ago, I made a field trip among those counties. During my trip, I was impressive with the drum-tower in Taigu, which represents the typical style of drum-tower in ancient northern China and stands for almost five hundred years. But it was suffering from deterioration and there was not any protection measure to preserve it. Similarly, I was obsessed with the grid form of Qixian’s old streets and lanes, but the administration of them were in a terrible mess. I still remember how embarrassed I was after I searched around the whole city as thoroughly as I could but did not find any public restroom.

Furthermore, the unequal stress on physical preservation brings undesired effects to those cities with excessive attention. We do not need to discuss the counterfeits that was made when Pingyao’s ancient wall and buildings were repaired, just consider the commercial spots spread all over the city, such as coffee shops with western decorations, bars playing rushing rock music, venders puffing their inferior but expensive commodities… none of which could make you connect what you saw to an ancient Chinese city. Unfortunately, this phenomenon is very common around China. Those old cities and towns, such as Lijiang, Fenghuang, Zhouzhuang, Xitang, have almost become crowded market of tourists. Nevertheless, they are originally supposed to the excellent representatives of traditional Chinese cities and bear the mission of promoting Chinese culture.

As we have discussed in the class, culture significance is a vital part of value in the assessing of preservation project, “The lens of cultural value multiplies the aspects of a place’s value” (Randy), it might be wise for local government to make a culture-considered plan for historic preservation.

Drum-tower in Taigu                                                    Drum-tower in Taigu (Source:wiki-Taigu)

Streets view of QixianStreets view in Qixian (Source:wiki-Qixian)

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