Relic hunters loot murals in Shanxi temples
Looting exposes local govt negligence, lack of incentive for protection
Published: Mar 22, 2017 12:28 AM


Cultural scholars are calling for strengthened efforts from the government and public to protect and preserve cultural relics, after hundreds of ancient murals have been destroyed or stolen from dilapidated temples in Shanxi Province.

Police in Pingyao county spent six months tracking down more than 400 stolen murals and arrested a criminal gang of 12. Police say the missing treasures were stolen from at least 22 villages in seven counties, news site reported earlier.

"These wall paintings were cut from the walls of ancient buildings, and the damage is almost irreparable, which is a huge shame," said Liu Yang, a Beijing-based lawyer specializing in cultural relics who has been working to retrieve relics overseas.

Local people said the main reason why criminals can easily steal the paintings is because the local government does not treat these relics seriously, and the budget for preservation of the historical relics is too low.

Tang Dahua, a local relic preservation volunteer, told that in some ancient temples, there is only one volunteer from the neighborhood to keep an eye on relics, and the government does not have a budget to hire people to do this job. Most do this for free, while only a few village heads personally provide a basic salary.

Yan Yinxi, a village officer in Xilianghe village in Pingyao, said Longtian Temple in his village also lost many murals. Yan said that in his village, normally two men are in charge of keeping the keys for a temple. They began to guard the temple day and night only after the paintings were hacked out and stolen

Common scene

Shanxi Province in North China is rich in cultural relics, inherited from hundreds of years ago.

Deng Xiaohua, a local amateur historian in Pingyao, told that the protection of historic relics is far from enough. "There are 400 villages in Pingyao, and on average every village has two ancient temples, with some big villages having 10."

"Shanxi was a prosperous place in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and people liked building temples and opera houses in their hometowns to prove they were successful. So in Shanxi we can find a large number of ancient temples and historical relics above ground," Liu said.

Unlike Pingyao Ancient City, first built more than 2,700 years ago, which is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site and is under better protection, many of the ancient structures in small villages around Pingyao are left dilapidated and suffer from erosion from the rain and wind, lamented Ni Fangliu, a Nanjing-based archeology expert.

Stealing relics like murals is very common in Pingyao and in Shanxi as a whole, because in recent years, the economy of the province has declined, so more criminals have targeted valuable historic and cultural treasures, lawyer Liu said.

Comprehensive solution

Experts said the temple raids are fundamentally a result of a lack of regulations and management.

"Before reform and opening-up in 1978, we didn't have these problems as there was no market to trade cultural relics. Now the market economy has boomed, but policymaking didn't keep pace with the situation," Ni said.

"In some cases, we can use the market economy to solve problems. For instance, make it a tourist site and gather investment from society and then the government will have motivation to do this," Ni further said.

Otherwise, the local officials will treat the preservation of historical relics as an encumbrance and they will not allocate enough resources as there are no incentives for them, Liu added.

"The preservation of historical relics requires a comprehensive system consisting of education of the public and policymakers."