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In China, Conservationists Debate Moving Historical Monuments

While Vietnam's headlong rush to modernization wipes out historical monuments and heritage buildings across the country, in recent years China has taken an unorthodox approach to preserving the past: moving entire buildings to new locations.

In an in-depth feature for CNN, Andrea Lo looks at China's method of relocating certain historic buildings instead of demolishing them to make way for new developments.

According to Lo, this practice actually began in Egypt in 1964, when the 3,200-year-old Abu Simbel temples were moved 656 feet to accommodate construction of the Aswan Dam.

Hoyin Lee, an associate professor of architectural conservation at the University of Hong Kong, told the news source: "[The move in Egypt] led some people to think that relocation is okay. But we're talking about irreplaceable artifacts." 

China's rapid economic growth over the last 20 years has completely redrawn the country's landscape. Between 1995 and 2015, the nation's urban population grew from 352 million to 771 million, according to the National Bureau of Statistics of China

This placed enormous pressure on historic areas, resulting in massive losses. A Guardian article from 2009 reported that over 30,000 relics listed by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage in 1982 had disappeared, with one conservation campaigner telling the news source that the damage was worse than during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution. 

According to Lo's CNN piece, China began moving monuments on a large scale at the start of this century. In 2001, the Jinlun Guild Assembly Hall, located in Guangzhou, became one of the first structures in the country to be completely relocated. The Qing dynasty-era building was moved 264 feet to make way for a road.

Another notable relocation was the Shanghai Concert Hall, which in 2003 was raised five feet, slid 218 feet on a track, and raised six more feet while a new foundation was built underneath it. In 2013 the Zhengguanghe Building, also located in Shanghai, was shifted 125 feet. 

Such projects have drawn contrasting reactions from conservationists. Tang Guo-wah, a professor at Guangzhou University's School of Architecture and Urban Planning, told CNN: "China is going through a time of major development and people are feeling a conflict between preserving historical buildings and achieving economic growth. As a result we are seeing the incorrect handling of structures like tearing them down, or relocating them."

Meanwhile Nancy Berliner, a curator of Chinese art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, argues that "in some cases, relocation can help to preserve heritage". Berliner was instrumental in moving the Yin Yu Tang building from Anhui province to the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts in the late 1990s. 

"Had the house not come to the PEM, it most likely would have been sold for its parts," Berliner told CNN.

It now appears that China's stance towards relocating historic monuments may be shifting, CNN reports. In 2015, the government issued "An Emergency Notice on Firmly Banning the Relocation of Traditional Buildings, and Following the Laws Against Theft of Components".

While not a new law, this statement clarified the enforcement of existing laws and signaled a new interest in trying to preserve heritage. Oftentimes, however, such enforcement comes down to local leaders, not the central government.

Of course, for many buildings it is already far too late. Tang, the Guangzhou University professor, relays an old Chinese proverb: "In prosperous times, cultural relics are repaired."

He told the news source: "When economic development reaches a certain stage, it's only then that people turn around and say: 'What have we lost? Where are our memories?'"

[Photo via CNN]

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