In Need of Pro­tec­tion

As its Unesco world her­itage list grows, china seeks in­no­va­tive ways to pro­tect its as­sets

ChinAfrica - - BRIEFS - By Liu Ting

in re­cent days, He Xiongzhou, a 49-yearold pho­tog­ra­pher from Guangzhou in south China’s Guang­dong Prov­ince, did not have his mind on tak­ing pic­tures. His thoughts were else­where. In Manama, cap­i­tal of Bahrain, to be pre­cise. All his at­ten­tion was on the 42nd Ses­sion of UNESCO World Her­itage Com­mit­tee, which took place from June 24 to July 4 in the Per­sian Gulf coun­try.

Af­ter a long wait, the news he had been wait­ing for so im­pa­tiently was fi­nally re­leased: Fan­jing Moun­tain, where he now lives, be­came China’s lat­est ad­di­tion to the UNESCO World Nat­u­ral Her­itage List.

“It’s re­ally worth it,” said He.

He first set foot on Fan­jing Moun­tain, in south­west China’s Guizhou Prov­ince, in 2006. As a pho­tog­ra­pher with an eye for land­scapes, he was im­me­di­ately fas­ci­nated by the beauty of the place. So much, in fact, that he de­cided to sell his house in Guangzhou and set­tle on the moun­tain. Since then, he has un­der­taken the task of cap­tur­ing Fan­jing Moun­tain’s wild beauty with his cam­era. Over the last 12 years, he says he took more than 100,000 pho­tos of the moun­tain from all an­gles.

Com­par­ing pho­tos taken 12 years ago to oth­ers taken re­cently, he finds that al­most noth­ing has changed: This means that the lo­cal govern­ment at­taches much im­por­tance to pro­tec­tion of the moun­tain.

“But now that Fan­jing Moun­tain has been placed on the UNESCO World Nat­u­ral Her­itage List, we will need to put even more em­pha­sis on its pro­tec­tion,” he said.

Tech­nol­ogy to the res­cue

China signed the Con­ven­tion Con­cern­ing the Pro­tec­tion of the World Cul­tural and Nat­u­ral Her­itage on Novem­ber 22, 1985, and be­came a mem­ber of the World Her­itage Com­mit­tee on Oc­to­ber 29, 1999. Since then, the coun­try has taken an ac­tive role in pro­tect­ing its World Her­itage sites. In­clud­ing Fan­jing Moun­tain, the coun­try now has 53 Unesco-rec­og­nized sites, rank­ing it the sec­ond in terms of the num­ber of the World Her­itage sites af­ter Italy.

In re­cent years, China added an­other string to its bow by us­ing mod­ern tech­nol­ogy to bet­ter pro­tect its her­itage sites. On April 25, Amer­i­can tech gi­ant In­tel and the China Foun­da­tion for Cul­tural Her­itage Con­ser­va­tion signed a part­ner­ship agree­ment to pro­tect and re­store the Great Wall of China us­ing drones and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence (AI).

“As one of the Seven Won­ders of the World, the Great Wall has been ex­posed to weather ero­sion for thou­sands of years. Some parts are lo­cated on steep slopes which makes daily main­te­nance a huge chal­lenge. Our part­ner­ship with In­tel opens up new op­por­tu­ni­ties for preser­va­tion,” said Li Xiao­jie, Pres­i­dent of the Foun­da­tion.

The Jiankou Sec­tion of the Great Wall is among the most fa­mous and steep­est. Lo­cated in a thick for­est, the sec­tion of the wall, which dates back to the third cen­tury B.C., has been se­verely tested by time and weather. In­tel’s Fal­con 8+ drones will be used to map the area through aerial pho­tog­ra­phy, gen­er­at­ing high-def­i­ni­tion 3D images that will al­low teams to as­sess the cur­rent state of dam­age. The data will then be pro­cessed by AI, which will cre­ate 3D mod­el­ling of the Great Wall to ef­fec­tively and safely iden­tify ar­eas in need of re­pair. All this would have been im­pos­si­ble with­out new tech­nolo­gies.

Be­yond the Great Wall, other im­por­tant her­itage sites have also ben­e­fited from mod­ern tech­nol­ogy. The Mo­gao Caves, lo­cated in a de­serted area of Dun­huang in north­west China’s Gansu Prov­ince, have been listed as a UNESCO World Cul­tural Her­itage site since 1987. While the site was un­der the threat of nat­u­ral ero­sion and hu­man im­pact, lo­cal au­thor­i­ties de­cided to launch a large-scale dig­i­ti­za­tion project of the caves in the 1990s.

Af­ter more than 20 years of work, a hun­dred caves un­der­went dig­i­ti­za­tion and 3D mod­el­ing. Since April 29, 2016, the Mo­gao Caves can be vis­ited through high-def­i­ni­tion vir­tual re­al­ity on the In­ter­net.

“With these tools, we wish to open up these trea­sures of hu­man­ity to a greater num­ber of vis­i­tors and help pro­mote stud­ies and re­search on Mo­gao Caves in China and be­yond,” said Wang Xudong, Pres­i­dent of Dun­huang Academy, the unit re­spon­si­ble for pro­tect­ing and study­ing the caves.

Tourist man­age­ment

The sta­tus of be­ing a UNESCO World Her­itage site can also help de­velop tourism. Pingyao An­cient City in north China’s Shanxi Prov­ince be­came a World Her­itage site in 1997. Soon af­ter, the num­ber of vis­i­tors soared from 50,000 in 1997 to more than 1.5 mil­lion in 2016. It was the same for the Long­men Caves in Luoyang of cen­tral China’s He­nan Prov­ince, listed in 2000: Ticket sales in­creased from 10 mil­lion yuan ($1.49 mil­lion) in 2000 to 27 mil­lion yuan ($4.03 mil­lion) in 2001.

But overde­vel­op­ment in tourism of some World Her­itage sites brought prob­lems in pro­tec­tion.

“I once helped to pro­tect the an­cient cities of Pingyao and Li­jiang (in south­west China’s Yun­nan Prov­ince), but af­ter they be­came pop­u­lar tourist sites, things took a rather ugly turn,” said Ruan Yisan, Pro­fes­sor at Shang­hai Tongji Univer­sity.

The sit­u­a­tion is so se­vere that the ram­parts of Pingyao An­cient City have col­lapsed three times in two years be­cause of the ex­ces­sive num­ber of tourists. In Dun­huang, caves have be­come vic­tims of their pop­u­lar­ity, which has ac­cel­er­ated ox­ida­tive dam­age to the fres­coes.

“The main value of World Cul­tural Her­itage sites lies in their cul­tural func­tion, not their eco­nomic func­tion. In some places, these sites are con­sid­ered first as tourist at­trac­tions and are over­ex­ploited, which is wrong,” said Xie Ning­gao, Pro­fes­sor at the World Her­itage Re­search Cen­ter of Pek­ing Univer­sity.

In fact, as early as 2002, the State Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Cul­tural Her­itage, then Min­istry of Cul­ture, and other re­lated gov­ern­men­tal bodies jointly is­sued a reg­u­la­tion stip­u­lat­ing that the pro­tec­tion of World Her­itage sites should be a pre­req­ui­site for their ex­ploita­tion. In fact, the Chi­nese Govern­ment has stepped up its mon­i­tor­ing of man­age­ment pro­grams in its World Her­itage sites and re­jected those deemed un­rea­son­able.

“Pro­tect­ing and ex­ploit­ing World Her­itage sites are not con­tra­dic­tory goals, and lo­cal au­thor­i­ties must adopt ef­fec­tive meth­ods to achieve win-win re­sults,” said Zhao Yun, Re­searcher with the Chi­nese Academy of Cul­tural Her­itage.


* Com­ments to


Lu­long­foer Yu Sec­tion of the Great Wall in He­bei Prov­ince be­ing ren­o­vated in Oc­to­ber 2016

Fan­jing Moun­tain in Guizhou Prov­ince

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