CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 21, March 2010


Between Development and Heritage | China Heritage Quarterly

Between Development and Heritage:
The Activities of the Tianjin University International Research Centre for Chinese Cultural Heritage Conservation

Aoki Nobuo 青木信夫 (Director) and Xu Subin 徐蘇斌 (Deputy-Director)
Translated by Duncan Campbell

Fig.1 Overview of the former concessions of Tianjin.

Much international attention is now paid to cultural heritage conservation in China. For its part, China seeks to accord with international standards while at the same time research and educational institutions throughout the world, in keeping with this intense interest in China’s heritage, explore practical opportunities for co-operation. Furthermore, the various issues that are faced by cultural heritage cannot be resolved in anything less than a multidisciplinary approach.

In response, in September 2008 we established a new research and educational institute: the Tianjin University International Research Centre for Chinese Cultural Heritage Conservation. This centre is committed to both internationalisation and cross-disciplinarity. The creation of this centre also accords with the policy of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) to promote the conservation of cultural heritage; we also believe also that our centre will point the way for the development of similar institutions elsewhere in China.

Fig.2 The Garden of Quietude (Jing Yuan 静园), former residence of the dethroned last emperor of the Qing dynasty, Henry Puyi (爱新觉罗溥仪) in the former Japanese Concession, restored 2005-2006.

As the new Centre’s core research activity the authors are promoting ‘An International Strategic Collaboration Project for Cultural Heritage Conservation and Area Activation in the Forefront of a Developing Area: Emergency Urban Conservation Planning and the Formation of a Study Base in Tianjin, the Northern Economic Centre of China’, funded by The Toyota Foundation and under the direction of the Project Leader Aoki Nobuo. Since November 2009, the Centre has initiated an international collaborative project with Université de Paris I, in the belief that such a project will further promote the activities of the Centre.

There is no doubt as to China’s commitment to the conservation of her ancient cultural heritage. But the concept of cultural heritage extends beyond antiquity to include the heritage of the early modern period [1840-1949] as well, a heritage that is both more proximate to our everyday lives and which has left an indelible imprint in our memories. And yet, throughout the Asian region, the cultural heritage that faces the greatest crisis is precisely that of the early modern period. Or, expressed more pointedly, the cultural heritage of the early modern period has already become the target of development.

The approval in 2006 by the State Council for Tianjin to become the Northern Economic Centre implied the development and reconstruction of the entire region, including that of the Economic Development Sector. Construction sites are now to be seen everywhere, engendering a scene of extraordinary prosperity. But at the same time a crisis of enormous proportions stalks the city: the old city quarters, once the traditional symbol of Tianjin, have been swallowed up by development, as if by a flood, and apart from the old concession areas, all other districts of the city have come to resemble each other, thus serving to destroy the particular and individual nature of the city itself.

Development predicated on such blind and mindless destruction can easily result in both the complete eradication of fundamental aspects of a way of life and culture that people have relied upon for many generations and the formation of an unassailable but single-minded sense of values. Development may well produce an air of prosperity, but we are not at all sure how long such prosperity can last. Unless a more pluralistic way of life can also be preserved, then an enormous price will need to be paid. In this respect, sustainable development rooted in the local is an issue that will repay serious consideration.

Bohai Morning News (Bohai zaobao 渤海早报), 3 December 2008, p.17.

In the light of the above considerations, the Centre will undertake the following activities:

1. A redefinition of the relationships between national statutes on the conservation of cultural heritage and local-level rules and regulations:
Within the city economy, the central government has delegated power to the local level and has reduced its involvement. This devolution has resulted in a complex system of cultural heritage conservation on the local level, which requires alignment with central government policy. The crux of future cultural heritage conservation is to be found in the maintenance of central government directives at the local level.

2. Applications for the status of National Key Cultural Relic Protection Unit (Quanguo zhongdian wenwu baohu danwei 全国重点文物保护单位):
The relative chances of a building being preserved are raised when it is granted this status. Relatively few sites in Tianjin are presently so designated, whereas development is evident everywhere. To this end, we will cooperate with local cultural bodies to expedite such applications.

3. Raising of the level of social responsibility of the city’s development enterprises:
To provide developers with the best possible development circumstances whereby cultural heritage is both conserved and made use of, by way of compensation, the implementation of tax reduction and plot ratio measures are the most effective, and are also in keeping with the United Nation’s Global Compact.

4. The creation of cultural heritage focused street precincts:
With the development of prosperous social stratum, domestic tourism has increased. At the same time, the practical requirements of tourism resource management have also been raised. In other words, the commercial practices of the past have been set aside and the replication of traditional buildings finds little acceptance nowadays. The crux has now become the authenticity or otherwise of a cultural heritage site, the manner in which it has been preserved and given new life. The promotion local activism with respect to cultural heritage has thereby become a possibility.

5. Capacity building:
Under present circumstances, the cultural heritage conservation enterprise impinges on many aspects, from the systemic to the technical (the repair and restoration of buildings), initially, and including the advantages and disadvantages and the opposing interests of the various relevant bodies (Planning Bureau, Cultural Bureau and so on), the disconnect between central and local government structures, along with the maintenance of livelihoods of local entrepreneurs under the market economy, and the use of cultural heritage by the tourism industry and so on. At present, we lack the human capacity to undertake work on all these levels, and the building of such capacity will be one of the important tasks of the Centre.