Old Version


Despite its thousands of significant cultural and historic sites, China’s persistent shortage of archaeologists and other professionals continues to threaten preservation efforts

By Peng Danni Updated Sept.1

In a county in Northwest China’s Shanxi Province, a team of nine full-time employees at a cultural heritage conservation institute faces monumental workloads.  

Not only do they oversee 432 towers on 65 sections of the Great Wall built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), they must also preserve other historic buildings and sites, complete piles of paperwork, and conduct months-long field inspections every spring and autumn.  

None have an archaeological background. Most survey work and report compiling falls on the shoulders of the team leader, Feng Jun, who has a literature degree. Feng has been on staff since 1994.  

China has nearly 770,000 registered immovable cultural sites, according to the third national census of cultural heritage in 2012, the most recent data on file. However, there are far from enough people at the county level to attend to them all. According to a report by the National Cultural Heritage Administration to the National Congress in August 2021, there are about 110,000 immovable cultural relics sites at the city and county level, but only about 5,000 full-time employees.  

The situation is particularly serious in culturally rich, less-developed regions such as Shanxi and its western neighbor Shaanxi Province.  

The region is home to China’s earliest Paleolithic sites. In July 2018, a Chinese-British joint research team published their findings in Nature that evidence of hominin activities was discovered in Shaanxi dating back 1.26 million to 2.12 million years. Both provinces have some of the first evidence of human civilization along the Yellow River from 7,000 to 5,000 years ago. In the following millennia, Chang’an, now Xi’an, capital of Shaanxi, served as China’s imperial capital, while Shanxi, especially Datong, home to the famed UNESCO World Heritage Site, attracted cultures from across Asia.  

Because of the harsh working conditions, rigid recruitment system and meager salaries, few with relevant backgrounds are willing to work in these counties. To expand recruitment, Shanxi University in Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi Province, rolled out a full-time tuition-free program for 600 students in archaeology and relic conservation. After graduation, the students will serve at local cultural institutes for a minimum of five years. 

Big Cart, Small Pony 
Shanxi Province claims more than 3.2 million movable cultural relics and 53,875 immovable cultural heritage sites, 531 of which are State protected. This far exceeds the capacity of county-based workers, many of whom lack professional training.  

Li Shuyun, archaeologist and deputy director of Datong Archaeological Institute in Shanxi, told NewsChina if there were more professional archaeologists and relics conservationists, on-site inspections and excavations would run more smoothly. “But we still can’t conduct any major projects without the help of professionals from higher up.”  

In one Shanxi county, more than 560 historical sites are managed by just six full-time workers. When its local museum held an exhibition in 2017, the county had to hire six more temporary employees as guides and security guards.  

According to Ma Honglin, a researcher at the Shaanxi Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, untrained temporary staff at county-level cultural heritage institutes can only guard sites from robbers and thieves.  

While the country has opened more jobs to archaeologists and conservationists, it is not enough to match the increasing workload. According to Ma, staff at his institute has increased from over 60 to more than 80, yet the workload has quadrupled.  

County-level museums face similar personnel shortages. Zhang Hong, curator of Yongji Museum in Shanxi’s Yongji County, told NewsChina that the museum offers space for exhibitions, research and academic exchanges. The museum is reputedly among the best in Shanxi, and staff increased from 21 to 25 last year. But it is still short of personnel and financial support, Zhang said.  

The National Cultural Heritage Administration recognizes that cultural relic preservation authorities at city and county levels have long faced talent shortages, describing the situation in their report as “a big cart pulled by a small pony.” 

Poor Professionals 
When Yan Qingming was appointed director of a county-level cultural heritage institute in Shaanxi in 2013, it had six people on staff. In 2018, it topped out at 10. Despite his 20 years of experience, Yan earns 5,000 yuan (US$745) a month, slightly more than his younger colleagues. He has to use his own car to conduct field research.  

Ma Honglin said his income is about one-third lower than researchers in colleges and universities. His younger colleagues, who also hold degrees in archeology or related fields, earn salaries similar to Yan. In addition, county-level relics protection posts rank very low in the civil service system, and offer little chance of promotion for young professionals, Yan said.  

Wang Yanqing, a research fellow at Yungang Grottoes Research Academy in Datong, Shanxi, told NewsChina that most of China’s major archaeological discoveries are in remote areas. The National Cultural Heritage Administration report also said that low incomes and harsh work conditions make it difficult for cultural heritage protection agencies to attract professionals.  

Apart from low salaries and poor career prospects, local cultural heritage institutes have little say in recruitment. Local human resources and social security bureaus handle most hires. Yan Qingming said his friend’s daughter applied for a job at his institute in Shanxi after graduating with a degree in archaeology. But the local bureau never replied so she eventually gave up and became a teacher.  

In 2018, China’s culture and tourism agencies were merged into one administrative body – the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Based on the reshuffle, Shanxi only kept two independent cultural heritage protection bureaus in Taiyuan and Datong. The remaining institutes were merged with tourism bureaus, which once again diminished their capacity for relics research and protection.  

Huang Hua, a curator at a county-level museum in Shanxi, said the merger with cultural and tourism administrations prevents it from independently recruiting the people it needs. Huang said the museum needs archaeologists, or at least trained historians. Instead, authorities allocate candidates like these to local art museums, cultural centers and county governments, while other bureaus poach experts from museums for cultural and tourism projects.  

The torrential rains and devastating floods that swept Shanxi in late 2021 brought to light the importance of heritage preservation and the field’s shortage of experts. 

Special Program 
Just days after the floods, the State Council, China’s cabinet, released a circular on protecting cultural relics and promoting sci-tech innovation during the 14th Five Year Plan (2021-2025) on November 8.  

According to the circular, the country is expected to increase the number of archaeologists and relics conservationists by expanding university programs.  

In 2022, to mark International Museum Day on May 18, Shanxi University announced it is separating its archaeology and relics conservation courses from the university’s School of History and Culture. The newly established School of Archaeology is expected to enroll 600 full-time students over the next five years. Half will study archaeology and the other conservation.  

In an interview with NewsChina, Li Jun, a leading archaeologist at Shanxi University, said that among all the province’s universities, archaeology courses are only offered at Shanxi University. However, over the past few decades, most archaeology undergrads choose to pursue graduate degrees in the country’s top 39 universities in more prosperous coastal cities. As a result, few returned to Shanxi, and even fewer worked in grass-roots institutions.  

“Students from poverty-stricken families are more likely to keep working in counties. But others may choose to leave,” Li Jun said.  

The expanded enrollment aims to change this trend. All 600 students will receive full scholarships before their five-year assignments with local institutes. Liu Gang, a human resources official at the Shanxi provincial cultural heritage agency, said the province would earmark more funding for training and research for them. Those who fail to serve the full five years will pay back the cost, plus penalties.  

Another way of improving cultural heritage preservation and research is more training for those at grass-roots agencies. In an article for the State-run Guangming Daily in March 2021, Zhang Jianwei, vice dean of the School of Archaeology and Museology, Peking University, called for more cooperation between universities and grass-roots agencies. He noted successful training sessions in grotto protection and research through joint programs with his school and cultural heritage authorities.  

Liu told NewsChina that Shanxi University and his provincial cultural heritage agency discussed similar training for grass-roots professionals, but the plans were halted due to the pandemic.  
Though without higher salaries and better locations, these programs offer other benefits to dedicated professionals.  

“The five-year program can assist young people’s future careers by providing first-hand experience on site,” Chen Xiaosan, a professor from the School of History and Culture at Shanxi University, told NewsChina. According to Chen, field work is hard and tedious but also rewarding. It provides opportunities not only to hone skills but also to work close to nature as well as with locals who continue folk traditions.  

But Chen also said the success of the five-year program partly hinges on the emotional attachment those graduates have to their hometowns, which is not a long-term solution.  

By contrast, Wang noted her academy is not short of professional personnel because of strong government support, which proves the importance of sufficient resources to attract professionals.