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The Renaissance of Ancient Architecture: Bringing relics back to glory


Standing at the heart of China's capital Beijing, the Palace Museum, also known as the Forbidden City, is believed to be the largest royal palace complex to ever exist in the world.

Sheltering more than 9,000 rooms, it is a museum of ancient architecture even without its 1.86 million cultural relic collection.

Yet, the Palace Museum is not the only place where ancient Chinese architecture is standing in the embrace of numerous concrete structures and crystal skyscrapers. As a country enjoying over 5,000 years of civilization, such a combination of past and present can be seen everywhere, including both metropolises and remote areas.

In the past decades, while China was going through unprecedented economic growth and development, the public's awareness of cultural relics protection has also been on the rise.

Forces have been gearing up, calling for restoration work of peeling paint, broken wooden frames and the delicate carvings. Despite the achievements, the preservation of ancient Chinese architectures still requires more attention.

During the first International Forum on Chinese Ancient Architecture jointly held by Caijing Magazine and Qinsen Group on Saturday, experts and enterprises gathered in Beijing to discuss new ways to explore architectural preservation methods.

From metropolis to countryside: revitalizing the relics

The Palace Museum has no doubt set an example for the preservation of ancient architecture. With an 18-year project launched in 2002, the museum is expected to restore all of its architecture and bring a glorious "Forbidden City" back to the public in 2020, when the palace complex turns 600 years old.

Shan Jixiang, curator of the museum, said in his opening speech at the forum that only by bringing cultural relics in front of the public, can they be better preserved.

By turning ancient architecture into exhibition halls, not only will the buildings become more well treated, the value of their collections will also reap the benefits.

But the restoration of ancient architecture could be as delicate and accurate as scientific studies. The Palace Museum therefore put forward what they call "research-based preservation".

"We have introduced the concept of archaeology in preserving the architecture: to discover the historical information by excavating layer by layer," said Shan Jixiang. He said that they carefully recorded and studied the materials and techniques used in the construction of the ancient structures.

"Every relic must be restored with its original craftsmanship, materials and techniques. Even a piece of tablet and couplet taken down from the wall needs to be carefully recorded, and everything should remain exactly the same, without any changes," said Shan while talking about the Palace Museum's restoration.

The museum has kicked off the restoration of Yangxin Dian (Hall of Mental Cultivation), where the emperors of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) used to live. At least 33 research projects were held in the past two years of preparation, and all the 116 artisans that participated in the restoration have gone through strict examinations and training before being qualified.

By restoring all of the ancient palace, Shan Jixiang said he hoped that by 2020, 80 percent of the museum’s collections could meet the public.

Aside from cities, increasing attention has also been paid to the preservation of the ancient towns and villages, which have been disappearing during the process of urbanization.

Li Xiaojie, director of the China Heritage Conservation Foundation, said in his speech that compared to the palace, the number and variety of ancient villages accounts for a large part of China's ancient relics. However, they are often more easily ignored or destroyed.

Even though a preservation project was launched in 2012, and 4,153 villages have been listed as protected, the government’s fund and strength is quite limited considering the vastness of the scattered villages.

Li also believes that only by reviving the ancient villages and combining old architectures with people's daily life, can they be well protected.

"One of our standard procedures while evaluating the results of our project is to see whether the villagers would like to return," said Li Xiaojie. "The traditional villages are a living carrier rather than architecture museums."

By restoring the ancient houses in the villages, the project also encourages the villagers to provide homestays and develop tourism.

"The project in Songyang county is expected to bring in a turnover of 400 million yuan (58.4 million US dollars) by 2020," Li said.

A long journey of architecture renaissance

Even with more and more people realizing the value of ancient architectures, it is still a journey of twists and turns on the way of preservation and restoration.

No doubt, ancient architecture still plays an important role in modern society. According to Ruan Yisan, director of the National Historic Cities Research Center, the ancient buildings are linked to so-called “nostalgia towards hometown”. They are about history and the collective memories.

"It plays the role of stability, and shows that people have been here for a long time. It also plays the role of social belief," said Geoffrey Read, director of the International National Trust Organization (INTO) of the UK, who has been working with the heritage preservation projects in China for a long time.

Read mentioned that even though the government plays an important role in the protection of cultural heritage sites, the whole society and every individual should also bear their own share.

"In many countries, the role of the individual in society is particularly important, in conserving their heritage and in continuity," said Read. "It's not just the state responsibility. It is of course, but also the individual member of society through the generations."

Experts have also been calling for the participation of financial organizations, so as to create new mechanisms in the preservation of the ancient architecture. For instance, bringing in market mechanisms as well as social capital.

Meanwhile, there is also a lack of legislation dealing with national heritage sites. China has laws on cultural relic preservation and regulations on the protection of the renowned towns, villages and cities, but so far the preservation of the traditional villages remains in a legal grey area, said Li Xiaojie.

Despite the difficulties, the preservation of the heritage sites is for the continuity of culture, and for passing on to the next generation, as was mentioned by Geoffrey Read. And efforts to preserve ancient architecture will benefit all of humanity.


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