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Archive for May, 2009

“To Protect an Ancient City, China Moves to Raze It”

That was the title of the article that was published in the New York Times yesterday, May 28, 2009. Reaction to the proposed project to “demolish at least 85 percent of this warren of picturesque, if run-down homes and shops,” and relocate as many as 13,000 Uygher families, from the archaeological community should strong be immediate, and strong. Kashgar, known as 喀什市 in Chinese, is located on the extreme western side of China, in the Xinjiang Uygher Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China. It is a city that lies in the heart of Central Asia, and was one of the most important cities along the ancient Silk Road. Today, it is a city that covers roughly 15 square kilometers, and is still an important connection point on routes between China and northern Pakistan over and around the Taklamakan Desert.

Location of Kashgar(Photo courtesy of http://www.chinahighlights.com)

As much influenced by Islamic and Turkish cultures as Chinese, the city has been known to exist in this area since the Han Dynasty (ca. 202 B.C. – 221 A.D.). Since that time, it has seen heavy traffic from people coming from Europe, Central Asia, and East Asia as they made their way through the city on the Silk Road Trading Route. Because of this, there is no need to discuss how important the city is in terms of archaeological patrimony. But it is this important cultural heritage that is now in imminent danger of destruction. According to the article, the razing of Kashgar’s Old Town, which is located in the very heart of the city, is aimed not only at “preserving Uigher culture,” but also to mitigate and avoid the hazards of earthquakes, which “could strike at any time, collapsing centuries-old buildings and killing thousands.”

Map of Kashgar(Photo courtesy of http://www.lonelyplanet.com)

China’s claims that they are actually protecting cultural heritage beg the question: why not simply relocate families who currently reside in supposed earthquake danger zones, without completely demolishing Kashgar Old Town only to rebuild it in the exact same place? After all, the article states that “In [the] place [of Old City] will rise a new Old City, a mix of midrise apartments, plazas, alleys widened into avenues and reproductions of ancient Islamic architecture.” This method of earthquake disaster prevention seems a bit odd to me. Even more unfortunate is the article’s mention that “Chinese security officials consider [Kashgar] a breeding ground for a small but resilient movement of Uighur separatists who Beijing claims have ties to international Jihadis. So redevelopment of this ancient center of Islamic culture comes with a tinge of forced conformity.” This single statement, I believe, strikes the true heart of the matter more than any claim made about earthquakes. It speaks to the unfortunate situation the modern world finds itself in where archaeological patrimony and cultural heritage is all too often used and manipulated in order to achieve political goals.

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“When people talk of cultural relics, they usually relate them to something ancient…but since China has undergone rapid changes in the past three decades, any place or institution that helped that transformation can be a cultural relic And the farm where Yuan grew his hybrid rice is one of the best examples of such a place.” These were the words of Shan Jixiang, director of China State Administration about Cultural Heritage (SACH), from a recent article about the making of “farmer” Yuan Longping‘s hybrid rice paddy in Hunan province, as well as the Anjiang School of Agriculture in the same province into cultural relic sites.

Any thoughts on this issue?

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YAY! Check out the article co-written with SAFE (Saving Antiquities for Everyone) founder HERE, at SAFECORNER! It’s about the Kashgar situation!

I also wrote another version that is slightly less politically sensitive…. that’s coming up soon. For now though, enjoy SAFECORNER, and stay tuned for more archaeological community reaction the Kashgar sitch.

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The other side

Here is a report from another blog that discusses the Kashgar situation from another angle. I think we should make sure the last bit gets changed… soon.

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In a way, collectors will be collectors…and archaeologists will be archaeologists. The link between these two groups of people is tenuous, abstract, inexplicable, and unescapable all at the same time. Why? Because we operate in seemingly unconnected spheres. One that is filled with fine works of art, black tie events, buckets of money, and status, and the otherwith dusty books, dusty artifacts, trowels, and long articles. But underneath it all, the collector and the archaeologist are only two points in an intimately and diabolically interwoven network along the channels of which artifacts (as they are known to some), or “fine works of art” (as they are known to others), constantly travel.

Sometimes, however, the world of the collector and the world of the archaeologist collide, mostly when it has to do with object provenance. A recent article about the sale of Chinese works of art by Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction houses in London had this to say: “the Chinese government intervention forbidding the export of newly discovered archaeological works has led collectors to favour antiquities from old collections held abroad.”

In a way, it has been the continuous effort on the part of archaeologists and other interested individuals that haslead to the passing of the import restrictions against unprovenanced Chinese antiquities, which has in turn forced collectors and dealers to look for ways ot make provenanced items more “hot.”

I guess what I’m trying to get at is that in many ways, collectors and archaeologists, although seemingly so distant from one another on the spectrum of interest in Chinese antiquities, can’t help but get in each other’s way from time to time. This is because, ultimately, we are seeking the same thing: a spectacular object. For the collector, it is the object’s aesthetic qualities that are the most appealing, while for the archaeologist, it is the knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the object’s creation that is alluring. What we all have to keep in mind, however, is that in either case, the things we seek are non-renewable resources. Nothing is creating more 3rd century lacquer boxes, or 2nd millennium B.C. ceramic jars. Be they “artifacts,” or “fine works of art,” they are not being replaced anytime soon, which, unfortunately, begs the question: in the battle of China’s cultural heritage protection, is either side really in the right?

(For the record, I believe archaeologists are MORE in the right. Wanna know why? COMMENT!)

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There’s been quite a kerfuffle over this article: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/28/world/asia/28kashgar.html?scp=1&sq=kashgar&st=cse that came out in the New York Times today.

Personally, I feel like this situation is yet another example of how archaeological patrimony is used to achieve blatantly political means. I mean, thanks for trying to distract all of us by saying you’re worried about earthquake hazards in the area, but really, if you were truly that concerned about the well-being of the Kashgar residents, you could just relocate them to a new area and leave Old Kashgar alone. Does Three Gorges ring a bell? Yea, there’s precedent.

But all unnecessary ranting and finger-wagging aside, the situation with Kashgar is a clear indication that despite the passage of the MOU [Memorandum of Understanding] earlier this year, nothing is changing fast. Archaeological heritage is still in danger of destruction even though it is now prohibited for the United States to import any unprovenanced Chinese antiquities into its borders. This brings up the issue of the difference between movable and immovable cultural property. Sure, if you can’t move it, you can’t steal it. But it can still be destroyed, as we can clearly see in the article. Is it enough just protect movable cultural property? Does one type of cultural property take precedence over another?

These are only two questions that only scrape the tip of this iceberg-sized issue.

What I want to draw your attention to by posting the article is this: What good is a Memorandum of Understanding that prohibits a country from importing unprovenanced antiquities, when the government of the country that is the source of those antiquities seems have no qualms with destroying them? This is the Chinese situation in a nutshell, and so I felt that this article was an appropriate one with which to launch my little bloggie here. So, enjoy, chew on these ideas, and report back.

Also, big link dump coming up soon, and also check out: safecorner.savingantiquities.org for my spiel on the Kashgar issue that’s coming up soon!

ALSO check out: http://en.bjchp.org/english/indexen.asp for more on-the-ground information about the Kashgar crisis.

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This blog is an attempt to fill somewhat of a lacuna in online publications about cultural heritage protection in China.

What IS cultural heritage protection in China? Basically, it’s what archaeologists, historians, art historians, optimistic lawyers, optimistic students, hippies, authority-haters, and concerned citizens in general do to try and keep the archaeological record of China, that would be all 5000 years of history in material form, protected from destruction.

Why is there a lacuna in online publications about this issue? Basically because it’s too massive of an issue for any one New York Times or Washington Post article to cover in one go. That’s why I’m here. I want people to know about how endangered China’s archaeological record, the sum total of the physical remains of China’s 5000 year history , is in the modern world. I want the public to be as concerned about it as I am. I also want people to know about how much knowledge and information is contained in China’s archaeological record, knowledge that, contrary to what most people might think, is not wholly inaccessible to the average Joe

But why should you believe me? Who am I? What do I know about this issue, or about archaeology? Well, you should listen to me because I’m an archaeologist, by training, and hopefully soon, by profession. My college degree is in Archaeology, and my graduate degree is in Early China Studies, specifically, in the archaeology of ancient China. In addition, I have done an extensive amount of research on the topic of archaeological site looting in China, as well as the market for Chinese antiquities in the United States and Europe.

What I hope to create here is a place where information about the destruction, protection, and maintenance of China’s archaeological patrimony and cultural heritage can be gathered, viewed, distilled, and discussed. I’ll most likely be publishing a lot of my own thoughts and rants about this issue, but I encourage any and all feedback. In addition, I hope to share with everyone some of my research interests in the field of Early China Studies, and generally to provide information on a subject that, as global attention becomes increasingly focused on Chinese-American relations, can be interesting, if not useful, to the public at large.

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