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


The 'Tianjin Model' | China Heritage Quarterly

The ‘Tianjin Model’:
a view from the grassroots

Du Yu
Translated by Daniel Sanderson

Over the past two years a group called ‘Volunteers for the Protection of Tianjin’s Architectural Heritage’ has made numerous appearances in Tianjin and in the national media. The team is made up of retired workers, public servants, staff members of enterprises and institutions, media employees, students, self-employed individuals and other professionals. They are a group of ordinary citizens who have a deep attachment to the history and culture of their city. Their involvement in cultural heritage preservation has been dubbed the ‘Tianjin Model’ or the ‘Tianjin Experience’, one that combines ‘government direction, expert advice and public participation’.

Fig.1 The Volunteers walking in an old neighbourhood.

Having made initial contact through the Internet, on 11 November 2006 a group of like-minded volunteers met at Tianjin’s Huang Family Garden (Huangjia Huayuan 黄家花园), a historic area that was facing demolition. There they started out on the challenging process of recording, unearthing and lobbying for the preservation of Tianjin’s endangered architectural heritage. In the face of the destruction of the city’s cultural heritage, be it deliberate or inadvertent, as a result of rapid urban development they hoped to be able to preserve more historic buildings and historic districts thus leaving a valuable reminder of the more than six-hundred-year history of the city of Tianjin, while also ensuring, as far as possible, that future generations will be able to benefit from the city’s historical and cultural heritage.

By 2008, the activities of the Tianjin Volunteers had attracted attention within China’s cultural heritage protection specialists. They had taken successively two innovative and symbolic steps with respect to public participation in heritage preservation: In June of that year, the Team was presented with the first annual award for Outstanding Individual Contribution to China’s Cultural Heritage Preservation for the drafting and publication of the ‘Beijing Proposal’ for improving heritage preservation. In September 2008, the team organised the Tianjin Forum for China’s Cultural Heritage Preservation, which drafted and signed the ‘Tianjin Declaration’ calling for widespread public awareness and participation in cultural heritage preservation and stewardship. The Declaration has since been recognised as one of the three major symbolic moments in the journey of public participation in cultural heritage preservation from its spontaneous beginnings to the current state of self-awareness.

The success of the Tianjin Volunteers stems from their painstaking fundamental research and their fearless and wide-ranging advocacy. Over the past three years, the Volunteers have conducted on-the-spot surveys of all of the city’s historic districts and taken almost one million photographs in the process. They have visited over one hundred descendants of famous individuals and over 1000 original residents, amassing hundreds of hours of recorded materials. In the process, they have unearthed ‘identities’ for more than three hundred historic buildings. Their activities have featured in over one hundred articles across a variety of print media. More than thirty numbers of the group’s internal newsletter, ‘Tianjin Remembered’ (天津记忆), have appeared so far. The interviews and historical data collected have been organised and have attracted widespread attention, with libraries, archives and museums incorporating these materials into their collections. With ‘Tianjin Remembered’ and relevant historical buildings as a backdrop, the Team organised ‘Tianjin Talks Swordsplay’ (Jinmen Lunjian 津门论剑, see here), a series of scholarly meetings including the Colloquium on the Northern Style of Republican Popular [Martial Arts] Literature, the Gong Baiyu 宫白羽 Colloquium and the Symposium Commemorating the Sixtieth Anniversary of the Death of Liu Yunruo 刘云若. These events had a considerable impact across China’s scholarly and intellectual circles while at the same time furthering the preservation of the associated buildings (see also Chen Songchuan’s article in this section).

Fig.2 Doomed for demolition.

The past three years have seen the Volunteers submit more than ten sets of materials to government departments. They have reported and monitored illegal or inadvertent destruction of historical architecture. They have succeeded in having as many as one hundred historical buildings protected, including the former residence of [Qing-loyalist general] Zhang Xun 张勋 at No.100 Nanjing Road. The volunteers’ activities have also moved many of China’s top experts and academics, some of whom have taken up roles as advisers or otherwise assisting in the Volunteer’s work. When, in 2009, several historic buildings in the Five Road Area (Wudadao 五大道) area, Tianjin’s best known historic precinct, were threatened with demolition, the Volunteers lobbied widely through its lawyers and the media, eventually convincing the senior leadership to put an immediate halt to the proposed demolition. (See both Chen and Marinelli’s essays in this section.)

Over the same period the Volunteers have initiated more than ten dedicated investigations. They have written and tabled more than twenty reports on cultural heritage protection with relevant government departments, many of which were consulted in the policy-making process. Research results relating to more than 200 historic architectural sites have been incorporated into the current national census of cultural relics. Through thorough investigation, the Team succeeded in confirming the site at Majia Dian 马家店 where oracle bone script was first deciphered, cracking a long unsolved case in the history of oracle bone script in Tianjin. This discovery attracted the attention of the government and a preservation plan is now under consideration.

Fig.3 A meeting of the Volunteers.

The grassroots nature of the Volunteer’s membership has meant that they spend more time engaged in onsite investigation, taking an approach that is quite different from those of specialists working at the behest of various institutions. Within the Volunteers, the author is primarily responsible for the confirmation of the historical identity of buildings the related investigation of local culture and history. Through practice, I have developed a ‘threefold evidentiary method’ (sanchong zhenjufa 三重证据法) combining the identification of buildings through a matrix of information including street numbers and the comparative study of maps. Such techniques have been endorsed by scholars and by employing such methods, I have found more than 100 buildings associated with significant historical figures, including the former residences of the novelist Zhang Ailing 张爱玲 and that of [the Republican-era martial arts writer] Huanzhu Louzhu 还珠楼主. Through this work he has thus been able to play an important role in the preservation of historical architecture. Upon the discovery of their former occupants many obscure or unattractive historic buildings have joined the list of ‘cultural relics’.

Through its activities, the Volunteers have consistently upheld the participatory principles of legality, voluntarism and public welfare. Its senior members belong to associations such as the Chinese National Commission for the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and the China Cultural Relics Society and they have been a great support to the development of the our group’s preservation work.

27 January 2010

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