China / Cover Story

An age of restoration

By Zhang Yuchen (China Daily) Updated: 2012-08-27 09:08

Ancients skills are being lost as beauty of cultural artifacts fades away, reports Zhang Yuchen in Beijing.

Liu Yuming, 77, is on the road again, traveling to one of the many Buddhist temples in northern China. One of the few restoration masters in the country, Liu is visiting the temple to help preserve its cultural relics.

He has restored hundreds of cultural artifacts, and worked on pieces in important heritage sites, such as the Summer Palace and the Yonghegong Lama Temple in Beijing.

An age of restoration

Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), Tibetan religious leader and founder of the Gelugpa school. The 6-meter-high statue of the Buddha in Falun Hall, at the Yonghegong Lama Temple in Beijing, was built in 1924, at the cost of 20,000 silver coins Each silver coin would be roughly equal to 40 yuan ($6.30) today. [Photo/China Daily]

"When the master Lama in the Yonghegong Lama Temple wanted to repair its famous Buddha statues more than 10 years ago, I was the only one willing to work on them. No one else wanted to work on such valuable artifacts," Liu said.

It is not only the statues in temples that are in need of care and attention. Half of the nation's 30 million museum items are damaged or their condition is deteriorating, according to the State Administration of Cultural Heritage.

Yet despite the huge number of cultural relics that need restoration work, there are few qualified restorers and conservation technicians available.

Lack of talent

"Many countries with a rich legacy of cultural relics are already engaging in preventive conservation, but we are still struggling with rescue conservation," said He Haiping, deputy director of restoration and repairing at the Capital Museum in Beijing, "Even though we have made great progress there is still a long way to go."

Restoration only receives about 5 percent of the operating expenses of a museum and nearly half of museums across the country do not have a crew of professional full-time restoration technicians, according to Song Xinchao, vice-director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage.

Before 2000, the Capital Museum had only four restoration technicians. Today, there are 40. Nationwide there are around 2,000 at 3,415 museums, both private and public, according to the administration.

But among the 2,000 technicians only 300 or 500 can actually do restoration and conservation work, said Zhan Changfa, the director of the restoration and training center at the Chinese Academy of Cultural Heritage. "There are not that many in the frontline of the profession."

The central government has said it will invest 12 billion yuan ($1.89 billion) on restoring and conserving the nation's cultural relics in 2012, according to Zhan. "But even if the government has the will to spend the money, few museums or cultural organizations can do restoration projects, because there is a lack of people that are capable of doing the work."

Few young people choose restoration work as a profession as it is not a glamorous or high profile career. Restoring a cultural relic attracts less attention than publishing a research paper, said Zhan.

"It's not very often that young people choose restoration work as their first job, never mind as a lifelong career. Every year, about one-third of graduates from the related departments choose other walks of life."

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