Protecting country's cultural treasures

Updated: 2013-10-07 07:25

By Peng Yining (China Daily)

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When he visited Suzhou in 1952 as a senior architectural student, Liu Shaozong found no one was taking care of the city's classical gardens, some of which have since been listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

"There were people living in the gardens and centuries-old pavilions being used as stables. The plants were being eaten by horses and cows," said the 81-year-old landscape designer.

But even in their unkempt condition, the gardens deeply impressed Liu with their unique structure and well-designed details.

"You could find beautiful decorative patterns on windows and tiles," he said. "I am glad that the government soon paid attention and started to protect them before it was too late."

The gardens are now popular tourist spots in the city, but that popularity has brought other problems.

Related: Architectural elements of classical design in Jiangsu  

Protecting country's cultural treasures

On National Day last year, more than 50,000 people visited the Humble Administrator's Garden, the most popular site that covers an area as large as eight soccer fields.

Even on days that are not in the peak season, the garden is filled with tourists and tour guides talking loudly through their microphones.

In the garden, there is one pavilion named "Stay and Listen", derived from a poetry verse: " Listen to the rain spattering on the remnant leaves of the lotus."

"But now it is impossible to listen to the rain, you can only hear the cameras whirr," Liu said.

"Crowds of people fly from all corners of the world to see the gardens, and the overload of visitors could harm the landscapes," said Wang Jintao, a professor of landscaping at Beijing Forestry University. "I have seen people picking flowers in the garden for souvenirs, or even carving their names on pillars. And the plants will stop growing if too many people visit and compact the earth."

Wang said the gardens should be protected from the public rather than being fully open to visitors. "Their value as cultural relics is more important than their tourism value," he said.

While some spots are suffering from an excess of visitors, other gardens desperately need attention.

The Garden of Cultivation, smaller than the Humble Administrator's Garden and hidden in a deep alley, is also a UNESCO World Heritage site and recorded 91 visitors on a Saturday in September.

Cheng Hong, director of a classical garden repair and development organization based in Suzhou, said he has spent 10 months in the city visiting more than 70 classical gardens which are not listed as historical relics.

"Once my assistant and I walked into a very humble and shabby building in an alley, but it turned out to be one of the most famous ancient libraries, which is more than 100 years old," he said. "These are not just gardens and buildings. They carry the city and even the country's culture, history and memory, which will disappear if we don't pay attention."

Lou Qingxi, director of the ancient Chinese architecture research center at Tsinghua University, said tourism is a double-edged sword.

"It attracts the public's attention and makes money to maintain the relics. The point of protecting the historical relics is so people can learn by visiting the sites," he said. "But the sites shouldn't be changed or destroyed for commercial purposes. It is supposed to be that tourism supports the sites, not the other way around."

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