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Review: Conservation challenges in China

4 November 2010

Cultural and political awareness are key to the battle to preserve China’s historic towns, according to Professor Ruan Yisan, Director of the Chinese National Research Centre of Historic Cities, who spoke at UCL on 21 October.

Ruan Yisan – who is also Chairman of the Yangtze Heritage Foundation and Professor at the College of Architecture and Urban Planning at Tongji University – set out the challenges facing Chinese conservation efforts in a guest lecture reviewed here by Kelvin Ang and Dorina Dobnig, students at the UCL Centre for Sustainable Heritage.


“This guest lecture, co-hosted by the Centre for Sustainable Heritage and the International Centre for Chinese Heritage and Archeology, gave an insight into some of the specific problematics facing conservation efforts in China and the need for balanced sustainable urban development.

The lecture itself was given in Mandarin and relayed to the audience in consecutive translation. Interestingly, the English title of the talk was amended in translation, where instead of ‘water-villages’ as per original (and the term used in Chinese), the term ‘Venetian towns’ was used, perhaps to make the concept more readily accessible to a non-Chinese audience. This struck a chord with the reviewers (both non-British), who had to acknowledge the primacy of Venice as the model of how we understand what a ‘water-based’ urban environment is like!

'Boats in Zhouzhang' by Naus79 on Flickr. Some rights reserved

With his animated expression and use of passionate speech, Professor Ruan certainly did not come across as a member of the intelligentsia isolated in an ivory tower – a perception which he explained was a constraint in early 1980s China, when he was spearheading his ideas in the field.

Professor Ruan Yisan’s background is in urban planning – he is a professor at the College of Architecture and Urban Planning at Tongji University, Director of the National Research Centre of Historic Cities and chairman of the Yangtze Heritage Foundation. He is also the initiator of a number of well-known and award-winning conservation projects in China, including the restoration of the Bund in Shanghai and the Nanjing Road.

Giving an exemplaric overview of his work on six historic water towns in the area south of the Yangtze river, which was awarded the UNESCO Asian Pacific Heritage Award of Distinction in 2003, Professor Ruan gave outlines for a possible approach to the conservation of historic cities in China.

The six water towns that were subject to the lecture, namely Zhouzhuang, Tongli, Luzhi, Nanxun, Wuzhen and Xitang, are located in the Jiangnan region of China, a region of great economic and cultural wealth.

Each town has not only its own local character, but also distinct architecture and heritage qualities, such as local handicraft skills, medicine and cultural expressions, which were in danger of being lost along with the historic fabric as rapid development spread outwards from Shanghai following the development policy promoted by the Government since 1980.

Between 1960 and 1980, at the time when Professor Ruan started out with his research, there had been over 100 such water towns, but as a consequence of rapid development, their number has been greatly reduced. The state-led development of rural areas to semi-industrial ones brought with it destructive growth and an encroachment of industrial sites on the historic structures. The economic benefit to the region came at the cost of cultural and environmental loss.

Professor Ruan presented the practical strategies for ensuring cooperation with local government and residents he had to develop after first being turned down by local officials when arguing for the conservation of the historic cities.

Cultural awareness may well be the key to achieving success in the conservation of heritage towns in China, as an understanding of local political systems and community values would give clues to the professional on how to fight this battle to save whatever is considered to be ‘heritage’ at hand.

Professor Ruan shared that in the light of the centralised power structure in China, he took the approach of not just obtaining agreement on the conservation plan for each water-town from the local city government, but he made sure that it was also endorsed at every level of authority – District, County and finally the Provincial Government.

With that backing, he was able to ensure that the village authority was able to carry out the conservation plans and the development of the new town next to the old town – and that this would prevent developers from contravening a directive published by the Provincial Government. Such insights will be helpful to any of us who may consider projects in China in the future.

In a concluding critique, contrasting the qualities of historic towns with modern cities in China, Professor Ruan called for the identification, development and inclusion of Chinese characteristics in contemporary urban planning and – unusually for us – the importance of creating ‘beauty’ as an outcome of development.

In fact, Professor Ruan was forthright in his aesthetic criticism that the new developments in most of China’s cities are not beautiful, but in fact ugly. He was also frank in stating that his work in conserving the traditional towns is not just to preserve traditional culture, but to raise the awareness of the validity of traditional ways of architecture and city making, which are in tune with a traditional Chinese psyche. These towns should serve to inspire architects and planners in China to a new way of building and planning that would then create unique, harmonious and beautiful cities.

Professor Ruan presented to a full auditorium with a mixed audience of students and professionals and a notably strong presence of young students from China, giving the opportunity to address an audience of ambitious students in their formative years, who are potential supporters of the heritage cause once they return to China to pursue their field.”

Image: ‘Boats in Zhouzhang’ by Naus79 on Flickr. Some rights reserved


UCL context

The UCL Centre for Sustainable Heritage consists of a small, flexible, focused, interdisciplinary team – a model of sustainable practice. Its contribution to a sustainable future for the heritage is through participation in collaborative environmental, scientific and technological research, innovative teaching, advice and consultancy.

The Centre engages in evidence-based research on heritage protection, and through its teaching activities challenges the traditional divide between preservation and use. Its staff work closely with external partners on interdisciplinary stakeholder-led research focusing on past, present and future climate and on educating future heritage managers on the links between sustainability and cultural heritage.