Ruined by ruins

By Fang Yang Source:Global Times Published: 2014-3-9 20:58:01

A man passes a villa under construction in Xiaosikong village, Anyang, Henan Province in February. Photo: CFP

Archaeologists call it "the cradle of Chinese archaeology," and the UNESCO World Heritage Committee regards it as being of "universal value."

The archaeological site known as Yinxu, or the Yin Ruins, are all that remain of the ancient city of Yin, the last capital of China's Shang Dynasty (C.1600 - 1046BC) which spanned eight generations across 255 years.

The site is located in Anyang, Henan Province. Among China's oldest and largest archaeological sites, the Yin Ruins were included in the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 2006.

Excavations have revealed tombs, foundations of palaces and temples, bronze items and jade carvings, to name just a few of the findings.

One of the most significant discoveries was a collection of inscribed animal bones and tortoise shells, known as the oracle bones, which carry the earliest known examples of Chinese characters.

Given its historical significance, strict protection measures cover the protective zone which covers about 20 square kilometers and includes 14 villages in the city.

Construction work needs to receive approval after ensuring it won't destroy any relics underground, according to the regulations issued over 20 years ago in Henan.

However, a report on February 25 by the Xinhua News Agency showed that local people had built a row of three-storey villas in the village of Xiaosikong, the core zone of the Yin Ruins, without official approval.

Tang Jigen, an archaeologist and head of the Anyang Work Station under the Archaeological Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times that Xiaosikong was not the only region where violations had been found.

"There is a housing estate with many houses over six stories in Sanjiazhuang village, which is also in the protective zone," Tang said. "The Yin Ruins are facing widespread destruction on a greater scale than ever before."

More than meets the eye

Although the houses were built on unexcavated land, Tang said the foundations of the buildings would put pressure on underground ruins.

"It's all integrated," Tang said. "And that's why new constructions should be surveyed based on archaeological exploration to check if there is anything less than 30 centimeters underground."

"But the foundations go down several meters, which is destructive," Tang said.

However, many locals remain defiant. "Approved or not, we will finish the construction, even at the cost of me being arrested," Sun Weidong, the Party chief of Xiaosikong village, told Xinhua.

Sun said that the village had formulated a plan to solve housing issues for about 70 families.

According to Xinhua, the law enforcement agency of the city's cultural bureau stopped the construction work and reported it to the city government when it first started in 2012. Yet right after they left the site, construction resumed again.

While providing a good platform for the city to present itself to the world, the Yin Ruins' fame has also caused problems for Anyang as it tries to settle conflicts between heritage protection and economic development.

Following the continuous survey and exploration of the site, the protective zone has been expanded significantly.

According to the conservation program for the Yin Ruins issued by the Henan provincial government in 2012, the protective zone covers 12 villages and over 20,000 people in Yindu district.

"Many villages in the protective zone haven't built any houses in over 20 years, and we can't fulfill reasonable requirements," Wang Xuejun, deputy head of the Yindu district, told Xinhua.

Over 40 percent of the petitions in the district were about housing issues, Wang said.

With nearly half of the district land area left idle, local farmers have no more than 0.5 mu (0.033 hectares) of farmland each on average. The average annual income of Xiaotun village residents in Yindu district is 3,000 yuan ($450), while residents of Guoliusi village, outside the protection zone, make 7,583 yuan a year on average, according to a State Council research report in 2011.

Failed management 

The regulations on cultural relics and sites shouldn't be violated even in the name of people's livelihoods, said Liu Xu, a professor of the School of Archaeology and Museology under Perking University.

Liu said that it is the local government's responsibility to find a balance between ecological protection and livelihoods.

"Local people are a very important part of the cultural heritage," said He Shuzhong, founder of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, adding that the government should encourage local people to be more involved in the protection work.

"They should feel proud of being part of a great cultural treasure instead of feeling deprived," He said. "The Yin Ruins are valuable for archaeologists, but are not so attractive to the public."

Tang also said that the tourism industry should receive more investment to bring benefits to local citizens.

Solutions buried 

On February 28, the Anyang government announced that it would halt any illegal construction currently underway, and said it has set up a work team to solve villagers' housing issues. The government also said it will improve the image of the site to develop tourism.

However, many are not so convinced that the situation will fundamentally improve if there aren't any effective solutions for similar problems in Anyang or other historical sites nationwide.

He Shuzhong said the problem is the lack of compensation mechanisms in the protection for cultural heritage, which is very different to the situation when there are ecological concerns.

Xiaotun village residents moved out of their homes to make way for a cultural park and museum in 2002. Those who had to move or had their factories torn down received compensation, Tang said.

However, there was no subsidy for local residents who stayed behind or residents of other areas, despite the fact that development has been heavily affected by the heritage protection efforts.

Tang added that over the past years, as the population grows, the housing demand has risen. He suggested that they should be allocated lands outside the protective zone for additional housing.

Meanwhile, he said that the central government will need to push forward reforms to laws regarding cultural relic protection. Around sites like the Yin Ruins, local governments should be relieved from the pressure of GDP growth so they can focus on preservation efforts, Tang said.

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