What Does Relocation Mean For The Future Of China’s Heritage Preservation?

Xidi Word Heritage Site in Huizhou
Xidi Word Heritage Site in Huizhou

There was a recent article in CKGSB Knowledge on a collector whose passion is to discover and relocate Ming and Qing dynasty houses from Huizhou to Beijing before they are demolished. The article, though it did not directly address this, does bring up the trend of dismantling ancient buildings and moving them to a different location, which has been growing in China in recent years. From discussions I’ve had with Old China Hands on the subject it seems that as early as the 1990’s Hong Kong real-estate developers have been buying up, dismantling and moving ancient temples and mansions from the mainland to be housed in new building complexes as part of their exterior landscaping.

More recently, with a rising middle and upper class taking a renewed interest in China’s traditional cultures and arts and crafts, this trend of relocating old structures has emerged amongst wealthy collectors who have a passion for building preservation, an interest in expanding their antiques collection, or both. On occasion large building developers will offer to fund these costly relocation projects as a means of easing planning approval with the local government. Relocating a troublesome building can also sometimes come with the added bonus of creating a new tourist attraction wherever the ancient structure gets relocated to. Mainland tourists have, for years now, enjoyed visiting ancient sights. This typically entails flocking in by the busload to any place with a heritage plaque outside and paying bloated entrance fees for a few glimpses of a relic in an overcrowded and artificial setting. The demand for such building relocation work is large enough in fact that there are companies devoted solely to either replicating or moving an original relic (depending on your budget) for developers and private enthusiasts alike.

There is of course also the question as to whether relocating a building in such a manner even falls under the strict guidelines of ‘building preservation’ as it is typically understood in the West. For many for example, preserving a building out of context only counts as half of a preservation job, as generally speaking the surrounding environment is what gives a building its meaning. Not to mention that the process itself is quite invasive and therefore less than ideal when it comes to delicate structures. However, whether it is right, wrong, or somewhere in-between, the fact remains that it is practiced in China, and I imagine it is seen as a suitable solution to the obstacle that preservation typically poses for urban modernisation.

This in my mind raises the question: does this type of building preservation set up a bad precedent for future preservation behaviour in China? Between the record speeds of China’s urbanisation, combined with increasing media attention on the issue of building preservation, I could easily see this relocation option being regarded as the silver bullet that local governments and developers have been looking for to avoid the typical hurdles that building preservation poses.

This pattern of imperfect solutions to a real problem can be seen in other areas, such as for example with nature reserves. In the West there are efficient guild lines in place for setting up and monitoring nature reserves, which often focus on regulating the amount of visitors allowed to visit those areas in order to limit any further man-made damage. Not so much in China. Anyone who has travelled around China knows that anything with a view can be labelled a nature reserve, transforming it into a tourist attraction. This can invariably lead to the opposite of conservation where the natural wildlife or geological formation will rapidly deteriorate as a result of overuse and improper care. This unfortunate side-effect can clearly be seen for example, with the Ordos Relict Gull Reserve in Inner Mongolia.

I believe that when it comes to building preservation, yes, for now if there is a choice between losing the building forever or plucking it up and placing it somewhere safe, no matter the motivation behind doing so, then the relocation option is favourable. However I do not believe that this is a sustainable, long-term solution to preserving the architectural heritage of an area. To really preserve something you have to have enough people with the desire, knowledge and ability to preserve for the sake of preservation, for the desire not to further diminish your country’s heritage.  Unfortunately, at this time in China’s development this sentiment is still very unconventional and has yet to become part of people’s psyche, let alone help create policies integrated into urbanisation plans.

Visitors stay on path at English Heritage protected Stonehenge
Visitors stay on path at English Heritage protected Stonehenge

Luckily, models do exist for China, primarily in North European countries where the industry has had the opportunity to mature, for creating sustainable methods of building preservation. These include creating charitable foundations such as the National Trust or the Fondation de France, as well as government run organisations such as English Heritage, all of which assist not only in creating guidelines for issues such a preservation, but also collect funding and encourage private sponsorship. The US has a Historic Preservation Tax Credit which adds a financial incentive to preserving old buildings, encouraging private investment as well as creating jobs in the building industry. In France owners of historic buildings, even if they are not listed, are able to claim income tax deductions for restoration and maintenance purposes. Of course all of these countries also have much more rigid building preservation rules, with the UK, for example, having exceptionally high penalties for the destruction or unapproved restoration of protected buildings.

There’s no debating China still has a way to go when it comes to building preservation. However for a country with an unbroken civilisation of over 5,000 years, it would be a terrible thing to be on a path of establishing sound building preservation rules, only to settle for a shortcut solution, a solution which will no doubt be regreted generations after it is too late.

File photo



Xidi image shared through Wikipedia.

Article written by

Passionate about all things related to traditional architecture and cultures Amy has a keen interest in building restoration and sustainable architecture. Living in, and traveling around China has given Amy the opportunity to become increasingly exposed to many different forms of traditional Chinese architecture and local Chinese cultures.

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