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Extreme floods have exposed a lack of historic preservation in Shanxi Province, home to hundreds of thousands of ancient sites and relics, many of which are abandoned and unprotected

By Ni Wei Updated Jan.1

The House of the Chancellor in Huangcheng, Jincheng, Shanxi Province, May 20, 2016. It was once the residence of Qing Emperor Kangxi’s (1654-1722) tutor Chen Tingjing (1638-1712)

The exterior brick layer of an ancient building in Xizhonghuang Village of Xiangfen County, Shanxi Province, peels off in the rain

Zha Qun felt she had been through a long, grueling battle. A monstrous downpour wreaked destruction and havoc across North China’s Shanxi Province from October 2 to 7. Over six days, average rainfall reached 119.5 millimeters, roughly one-fifth of the province’s annual precipitation for the whole of the previous year. In the cities of Jinzhong and Linfen, rainfall exceeded 200 millimeters. The heavy rainfall and floods caused 15 deaths, with three people still missing and 1.75 million residents affected. The province’s 280,000 historical sites were the silent victims of the storm.  

According to statistics from the National Cultural Heritage Administration (NCHA), by October 11, a total of 1,783 heritage sites were destroyed or damaged, with 89 “critically damaged,” and 750 “badly affected.” Among the damaged relics, 176 are State-listed cultural sites, 143 are under provincial protection, 661 are listed at municipal and county levels, and 803 are not under any type of official protection.  

As a member of the expert group of the NCHA, Zha Qun and her colleagues spent days and nights inspecting the condition of damaged sites in Shanxi Province, particularly the ancient city of Pingyao, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  

“It broke my heart to see the damage,” Zha told NewsChina in the early morning of October 13. As deputy chief engineer of the NCHA, she has been involved in cultural relics conservation for three decades.  

There’s a well-known saying – “If you’re interested in cultural relics above ground, go to Shanxi; if you’re interested in those underground, go to Shaanxi.” Nicknamed the country’s “ancient building museum,” Shanxi enjoys an unparalleled status with more than 280,000 ancient architectures, the most in China.  

However, the deluge laid bare the critical condition of the cultural relics in the province, particularly those in remote, less populated villages and abandoned fields. Many ancient relics have long been neglected.  

In addition to the deficiency in funds and human resources, the phenomenon of depopulated or “hollow” villages where the young have mostly moved to urban centers is also behind the lack of care and protection for ancient structures in Shanxi.  

Silent Victims 
On October 11, the National Administration of Cultural Heritage formed an expert group to go to the ancient city of Pingyao to assess the flood damage, particularly to the ancient city wall.  

Founded in the 14th century, Pingyao is one of China’s best-preserved ancient cities, featuring Ming and Qing (1368-1911) planning and structures. The deluge damaged 51 sections of the city’s 6-kilometer wall, with 36 sections partially collapsed and 15 entirely collapsed.  

Having closely studied the damage, Zha Qun concluded the primary cause was poor waterproofing. Most damage was to the wall’s rammed earth interior, not to the external brickwork. To make a rammed earth structure watertight, Zha said there should be a 30-centimeter lime earth layer and three tiers of bricks to form a tight waterproof layer on top of the earth. On Pingyao’s wall, there was only a loose and thin waterproof layer.  

“The poor waterproofing meant water seeped into the rammed earth and made it swell. Naturally, it was going to be a big problem,” Zha said.  

The floods this time serve as warning for preservation of ancient structures in northern China. Normally dry with low annual rainfall, restorators did not bother with elaborate drainage or waterproofing, unlike in southern China which is wet and humid.  

Most of the damaged sections, Zha said, are sections that were restored in the 1980s. Sections which were restored more recently included better waterproofing and drainage, and escaped the storm unscathed.  

The Research Institute of the Conservation of Ancient Architecture, Painted Sculptures and Frescoes of Shanxi Province supervised the latest restoration.  

Ren Yimin, dean of the institute, told NewsChina that Pingyao has spent more than 100 million yuan (US$15m) to restore and strengthen vulnerable parts of the city and the wall to increase resilience, otherwise the devastation would have likely been more widespread. “In such an extreme disaster, that we only saw collapses on 15 sections of a 6-kilometer wall means that the damage was relatively confined,” Ren said.  

On October 12, the experts headed to Qi County of Jinzhong to inspect important sites like the Qu Family Grand Courtyard, Hongfu Temple, Pushou Temple and Temple of Guanyu.  

Having had been entirely inundated, Fenggu Village was among the most severely affected areas in Qi County. The floods swelled over the riverbanks and destroyed its bridge. The villagers were safely evacuated but the immovable cultural sites were in grave danger. 
The heavy rains flooded Pushou Temple, a county-level protected relic built in the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). Not far away, the Temple of Guanyu, built in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), which was selected for provincial protection in August, was ruined – many parts crumbled and the courtyard was flooded.  

From October 11 to October 14, the expert team inspected 13 listed historical sites, did an initial assessment of the damage and gave suggestions for repairs. 

Zha told our reporter that Shanxi’s ancient buildings are on borrowed time. “It’s quite hard for them to keep intact when extreme disasters befall them,” Zha said.  

Pain of the Unprotected 
As soon as the rain stopped, Tang Taihua headed to Pingyao.  

An ardent relics conservation activist, Tang has visited ancient structures in Shanxi more than 100 times in the last decade.  

“The situation [in Pingyao] wasn’t as bad as I thought. Problems suffered in places with higher [State or provincial] protection levels were relatively trivial – mostly water leaks. It was the lower-graded and unlisted relics that suffered the most,” Tang told NewsChina.  

China has adopted a four-tier grading system for the conservation of its cultural relics – State, provincial, municipal and county level. They are listed roughly based on assessments of the relic’s historical and cultural value.  

However, there are still many immovable relics yet to be listed under any level of protection. In Shanxi alone, by 2019, 13,405 immovable relics were listed as protected sites, but more than 400,000 other sites remain unlisted.  

On October 12, after checking Pingyao, Tang traveled the 18 kilometers to Yingxi Village, eager to examine the state of Sanjiao Temple, an unlisted temple dating from the Qing Dynasty (1644- 1912). In April, Tang received a photo from a friend showing the unattended temple in very poor condition: the roof of its main hall on the edge of collapse.  

When Tang arrived at Sanjiao Temple, he was sad to find its roof had entirely crumbled, the fallen tiles piled like small hills.  

“In the past, masons in northern China would stuff a thick dry soil layer under the roof tiles for insulation. But if the roof tiles leak and water seeps into the dry soil layer, the soil layer weakens. If the soil becomes saturated, it turns to mud and becomes so heavy the roof won’t be able to bear the weight,” Tang said.  

Tang said that over half of the 400,000 ungraded historical relics in Shanxi are entirely unmaintained like Sanjiao Temple. “Perhaps the number of unprotected historical sites in Shanxi is more than the sum of those in other northern provinces. These relics are so unknown that you can’t even find a picture online,” Tang told NewsChina.  

Being unlisted for protection does not suggest the relic is inferior in cultural and historical value, particularly in a province that has so many cultural treasures like Shanxi.  

After Sanjiao Temple, Tang visited another unlisted, almost abandoned temple, on the beam of which he discovered an inscription that shows the construction date – “the second year of Yongle, Ming Dynasty” (1404).  

“I felt sad that an over 600-year-old structure like this was in such abject condition. You should know that its historical and cultural values are even greater than many provincial-graded relics in other provinces,” Tang said.  

Ren Yimin said that since each province only has a limited quota to apply for national or provincial protection, Shanxi has to give priority to structures that date back to before the Yuan Dynasty – pre-13th century.  

“The grading of cultural relics in Shanxi is much stricter. It’s like choosing the best of the best,” Ren told NewsChina.  

Compared with natural disasters, robbery is a much more frequent threat to the unlisted cultural relics. Completely unguarded and never locked, some historical sites in Shanxi are easy pickings for robbers. Artifacts looted from Shanxi’s ancient sites and structures are very popular on the underground antique market.  

Pictured are the ruins of Kuixingge Pavilion after it collapsed from heavy rains, Yanjiazhuang Village, Xinjiang County, Shanxi Province

Dating from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Sanjiao Temple stands partly ruined by torrential rains, Yingxi Village, Pingyao County, Shanxi Province

‘Own the Debt’ 
“If this flooding had occurred 10 years ago, we might have seen much worse devastation,” Ren Yimin told NewsChina.  

In 2012, many important relics were in decay.  

From 2012 to 2014, slogans about “rescuing ancient architecture” drew attention from the public and media. Reporters flocked to Shanxi. Tang Tianhua wrote nearly 50 letters to authorities, each reporting a unique problem he discovered from his many visits to the province. 

In early 2015, Half-Hour Economy on CCTV-2, one of China’s most influential financial television programs, broadcast a fourepisode feature about the bleak reality of the cultural relics in Shanxi.  

Under pressure, in March 2015, the provincial government said it would raise 150 million yuan (US$23.4m) in five years to restore the 235 national and provincial protected ancient structures. Local media dubbed it “life-saving money for ancient buildings.”  

According to statistics from Shanxi Provincial Cultural Relics Bureau, from 2016 to 2019, 106 million yuan (US$16.6m) was allotted from the central and provincial governments for the conservation of 358 cultural sites in Shanxi – most of which were protected at the State or provincial level. After years of efforts, the ability to withstand disasters at the most prominent sites and structures has been greatly enhanced.  

Ren said the previous funding system was to let governments take responsibility for relics under their protection: The central government provided funding for nationally listed ones, the provincial government for provincial-listed relics. It was the county governments that took responsibility for relics that were yet to be assigned protected status. 

“Though there are different conservation levels for relics, in essence there shouldn’t be a difference,” Ren said.  

A funding policy started in 2019 encouraged central and provincial government funding to be allotted to the conservation of lowergraded cultural relics.  

Bai Xuebing, director of the Relics Department of Conservation and Utilization of Cultural Relics of Shanxi Provincial Cultural Relics Bureau, told NewsChina that provincial government funding is still basically used to preserve provincial-listed relics. “But the conservation of lower-graded cultural relics is the next focus of the provincial government. More resources will be allotted to the lower-graded ones,” he said.  

Bai admitted the problem is still the lack of money. For a province with over 280,000 historical sites, it is impossible to rely on government funding to cover all the costs of conservation. So authorities have looked for other ways.  

In 2010, Huang Wensheng, an entrepreneur from Woxian County in Shanxi, signed an agreement with the county government to “adopt” a county-graded site – the Xihai Dragon King Temple. Built in the Yuan Dynasty, the temple had long been abandoned and was choked with weeds. Huang put 4.5 million yuan (US$703,274) toward its restoration and opened it to the public. He has been granted the right to use the temple for 20 years.  

It was the first instance of “cultural relic adoption” in Shanxi. Since 2017, the model has been promoted throughout the province. Enterprises and individuals who adopt ancient relics should take responsibility for the restoration and have the right to develop museums, exhibition halls or small-scale entertainment venues around the site. Ancient residential houses and courtyards, once adopted, can be used as small inns, guesthouses and stores. The development should not endanger the safety of the ancient structures.  

So far, 238 cultural relics in Shanxi have been adopted by social organizations.  

However, these adoption programs have also led to improper restoration, overdevelopment and neglect. Moreover, many historical sites in more remote areas have less commercial value and draw little attention.  

As a result, cultural relics are disappearing. According to the third national survey on immovable cultural relics, which was conducted from 2007 to 2011, more than 44,000 immoveable cultural relics had disappeared compared with the second survey (1981-1989), 2,740 of which were in Shanxi Province. Most were unlisted.  

“It’s a debt we have to own,” Zha Qun said with a sigh.  

In 1997, Zha spent a month visiting different regions of Shanxi to do field research. What impressed her most were the little temples quietly hidden in the villages, ancient and fragile.
During her inspections after the deluge, Zha revisited the areas she had been to 24 years ago, but found that many places have become “hollow villages.” The village temples are completely deserted and thick with weeds.  

Tang Tianhua shares the same feelings about the empty villages. Sometimes he can barely find a single person to ask for directions. In most of the villages, only the elderly remain. “Even 50-year-olds are considered young,” Tang added.  

“Architecture is made for people to live in. Once wasted, the building becomes dilapidated really quickly. Daily maintenance is indispensable. Things would be entirely different just with some minor care and renovations now and then,” Zha said.