2010/06/02

One man's battle to save China's ancient architecture - Interview

BEIJING, June  2, 2010 (AFP) - Every week, He Shuzhong receives dozens of phone calls, emails and letters from people across China warning him that another piece of ancient architecture is about to be bulldozed.

The former university professor has spent nearly three decades battling to save traditional hutongs (alleys formed by lines of courtyard houses) and temples, some dating back hundreds of years, from the wrecking ball.

Thousands of historic buildings have been lost, but He said he takes comfort from the growing number of people joining the fight to preserve what is left.

"Destruction takes place every day," He, 48, the founder of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre, said in an interview with AFP.

"The more phone calls we get the more excited I become because it shows more and more people care about the issue."

Since China embarked on economic reforms 30 years ago, many of the country's historic sites and districts have been forcibly demolished to make way for apartment blocks, office buildings and roads.

He said strict laws protecting traditional architecture from demolition are often steamrollered by crooked local officials and powerful property developers looking to make a profit.

"If you look at the laws and Communist Party documents, you would think China was the most determined country in the world to protect its culture," he said.

"But enforcement is bad due to powerful interests and government corruption."

Since his university days in Shanghai in the early 1980s, He has been campaigning against rampant destruction of historic buildings and trying to raise the awareness of Chinese people about their heritage.

"(In the 1980s) even in the most advanced cities of Beijing and Shanghai, most people had little respect for tradition and culture," said He.

"Maybe it was because we were poor for so long and we were lagging so far behind that we didn't have the time and energy to think about this problem."

In 2003, He set up the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre to advise communities nationwide on how to protect important buildings and to educate people and officials about the importance of preserving historic sites.

"I don't wish everybody to go back to the ancient era, wearing long robes and so on, but everybody should have a minimum level of respect," He said.

"I want to make Chinese people understand, respect and protect their cultural heritage and through this process they will become more responsible, civilised and well-mannered."

With the help of thousands of volunteers spread across the country, the centre has waged dozens of battles against proposed developments, with mixed results.

Early this year, the group stopped a real estate developer from destroying the former Beijing home of architects Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin, a married couple famous for their work last century.

Less successful has been their campaign to save the old city of Kashgar, an ancient Silk Road outpost in the far-western Xinjiang region.

Local authorities are bulldozing the maze of alleyways and mud-brick buildings and relocating residents to modern apartments, and the centre's battle appears to be lost.

Now He and his volunteers are trying to stop authorities from redeveloping the streets surrounding the Drum and Bell Towers in Beijing, which were used to tell the time from the 13th century Yuan dynasty until the 1920s.

The five-billion-yuan (732-million-dollar) redevelopment project plans to turn the district into a "Beijing Time Cultural City" with shopping malls and car parks.

"The district is very rare in Beijing and even in the country and should be preserved as it is and in its entirety," said He.

Despite the loss of so many historically important buildings and areas, He remains optimistic.
The pace of demolition has slowed in the past decade as more Chinese people join the campaign to safeguard the nation's past.

"The destruction of buildings is still very serious but 10 years ago it was even worse," He said.

"Ten years ago when I gave a speech to a room big enough to hold 200-300 people it was very common to see only two or three people in the audience.

"Now it is packed."

He -- who also works at the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, an agency under the culture ministry -- said he has no plans to stop fighting to save what is left of China's classic architecture.

"I will do what I feel is most needed, most valuable and what I am best at," said He.
"I have no interest in doing other things."