Building on the past

Updated: 2011-12-15 08:03

(China Daily)

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AFTER DECADES OF MODERNIZATION, Beijing is starting to pay more attention to protecting its cultural heritage; but which sites should be preserved or restored, and how, has become a subject of much debate.

At the heart of this debate lies the "Dragon Vein", the central axis that runs north to south through the heart of the city and which links a number of historic sites, including the Palace Museum, Tian'anmen Square, and the Temple of Heaven.

Along with the Beijing municipal government's campaign to have existing heritage sites along the central axis included on the World Cultural Heritage list, it has also proposed restoring or rebuilding sites that were previously demolished.

To recover the Dragon vein, the reconstruction of Di'anmen Gate, which was entirely dismantled in 1955 to make way for roads, would be necessary. However, the expert advisory group of the Beijing Historical City Protection Committee has decided not to rebuild the site, and a consensus has been reached that to relocate residents, change traffic routes and break the business environment for the sake of restoring an earlier manifestation of the city's identity, would only mean causing secondary damage to make up for previous mistakes.

The vicissitudes experienced by all the royal buildings along the central axis, as well as the fate of each tile, intact or fragmentary, are now part of history, so a mutilated Dragon Vein can serve a better purpose as a reminder of historical lessons. For the demolition of Di'anmen not only damaged the integrity of the central axis, it also caused great harm to its cultural meaning, as without Di'anmen, there are only eight gates left on the central axis, and the cosmological symbolism of the axis is lost.

Unfortunately, restoration, which has become a buzzword, does not necessarily mean respecting history, and it is all too easy for restoration projects to become theme parks with little or no real connection with the past.

We should remember that history is an ongoing process, so even the commercial buildings along the axis, which would have to be demolished in any reconstruction, are now part of the city's history.

How to deal with the historical legacy of the city is a test for the authorities, as it is expected that application for inclusion on the World Cultural Heritage list will awaken citizens' awareness of the heritage around them.

However, it is better to let the buildings that have already been dismantled remain a memory (brought to mind by a commemorative monument if need be) and to let the Dragon Vein, as it exists today, play its due role in the city's history and so inspire the future.

(China Daily 12/15/2011 page8)