Cultural relics in danger of commercialization

BEIJING, May 19 — China’s preservation of its cultural relics has come under fire by the public in the wake of a recent theft at a museum in Beijing’s Forbidden City and other misappropriations of China’s cultural heritage.

On May 9, several works of art on loan from a Hong Kong collector, which were valued at 10 million yuan (1.54 million U.S. dollars), went missing from an exhibition in the Forbidden City’s historic Palace Museum. Police recovered several of the items, but not before Chinese citizens expressed shock and outrage over lax security in the Forbidden City.

Several days later, news about the existence of an exclusive club for wealthy people in the Forbidden City’s Jianfu Palace stirred up fierce objections by Chinese Internet users. Memberships for the club were said to cost 1 million yuan.

However, the inappropriate use of cultural relics does not seem to be confined to the Forbidden City.

The villa residence of Soong May-ling (wife of Chiang Kai-shek, the late leader of China’s Nationalist Party) in Nanjing, which was listed as a historical and cultural site under state protection in 2001, has reportedly been turned into a high-end restaurant for the purpose of hosting wedding banquets.

While these high-profile incidents have triggered widespread outcry from the Chinese public, many are worried about the state of China’s cultural relics at a time when commercial profits are being courted more than ever.

“It is undeniable that the current system for the preservation of cultural relics has several loopholes,” says Gao Guoxi, a professor from the social science department of Shanghai’s Fudan University.

Gao says that in China, it is not rare to see ancient relics exploited for commercial gain, as many have sought to capitalize on the historic and cultural value of China’s heritage.

However, land development seems to be an even bigger problem for the preservation of China’s cultural relics.

In the city of Hangzhou in east China’s Zhejiang Province, the development of an area of land where the remains of a Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) imperial city once stood has gone on without approval for over a year.

The area was listed as a historical and cultural site under state protection in 2001 and was also listed as one of China’s most important protected relics during the country’s 11th Five-year (2006-2010) Plan period.

Liang Baiquan, former director of the Nanjing Museum, says that these cases are symptoms of declining morality.

“The precious cultural resources of the common people were hijacked by the privileged class. This shows that society is courting quick profits and is a sign of moral degradation,” he said.

According to China’s regulations regarding the preservation of cultural relics, construction companies are required to fully research and investigate prospective construction sites to ensure that they aren’t under state protection before beginning construction work.

However, these regulations are rarely followed and enforcement is often non-existent.

A survey of construction projects in Beijing showed that out of 4,191 projects completed in 2007 and 2008, only 2.3 percent of the projects followed the regulations regarding cultural relic preservation. The survey was conducted by the Beijing municipal people’s political consultative conference.

An Jiayao, a researcher from the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, says that although China has trumpeted its protection of cultural relics in years past, a lack of true understanding of the significance of these relics has resulted in poor regulation enforcement.

Professor Gao said that lenience for violators is another significant problem for the preservation of China’s cultural heritage.

All of the experts interviewed agreed that China needs to take a stronger attitude towards penalizing violators if it hopes to prevent further damage to its cultural relics.

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