Introducing the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center and its Cultural Trail Project
Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP) is located in Bolin Temple, west of Yonghe Gong in the north-east corner of the old Inner City of Beijing. With a stated mission 'to help community members protect their own cultural heritage', CHP is run with four full-time staff and one full-time intern. The organization was registered as an NGO with the Beijing municipal government in 2003.
The organization's major project is called Friends of Old Beijing (FoOB), which is undertaking a survey of the area of Beijing as it existed in late-dynastic, through Republican China and up to the present day. Our 100-some volunteers are currently doing research in groups of ten for a period of six months. A set of standardized forms are used to collect information such as basic facts, current conditions, and residents' opinions about living conditions in the old alleyways (hutong) of Beijing. The survey will be analyzed and written into a report to be submitted to the municipal government by China Heritage Day, June 2008.
While the volunteers are out conducting research, they hear stories about houses and structures, which provide resources for the Cultural Trail, a project within FoOB. Sites on the Cultural Trail for a Chinese-language version; or for an English version are chosen for their cultural, social, historical, and artistic significance. Some of the sites may be 'invisible' to people outside of the community, but we try to present these places with stories and narratives by collecting oral history. We believe that in order to fully understand the meaning of a place, we need to look at how it is used, not just how it was planned or designed.
While engaged in this project, we have learned that it takes time to understand the meaning behind words. That is because we are not always familiar with the background of the people we interview. For instance, while interviewing a secularized lama, we could not understand why he kept calling the courtyard he lived in his temple. After listening to the recording and reading the transcriptions many times, we eventually realized that, for lamas, even secularized lamas, their master was like their father. Even after he was secularized, his master still took care of him by providing a home in his temple for him and his wife and they took care of him until he passed away. To this day, he still considers the courtyard which he shares with ten other families 'his temple', even though it is now owned by the government. By telling the story of 'his temple', he has helped us understand what the term 'family' means to him.
Through the FoOB and the Cultural Trail projects, we aim to raise historic preservation awareness among the hutong residents and the general public. We also hope to bridge the government and communities by providing a report of the current hutong conditions as well as suggestions on how to better preserve the old town. We hope that by listening to what the residents in the hutong have to say, we inspire them to preserve their culture.