CHINA / SOCIETY
Floods threaten centuries-old architecture in treasure house Shanxi, underscore urgency of relic protection
Published: Oct 11, 2021 10:13 PM
The photo taken on October 7, 2021 shows a building in Pingyao ancient city damaged by floods. Photo: CFP

The photo taken on October 7, 2021 shows a building in Pingyao ancient city damaged by floods. Photo: VCG



The 12-meter-tall rammed earth wall of Pingyao - the best-preserved ancient Chinese city - in North China's Shanxi Province collapsed along a 25-meter section due to heavy downpours over the past few days that displaced 120,000 people, prompting concerns among history and architecture lovers. 

Pingyao has received the most attention as a national treasure and UNESCO World Heritage site. Other ancient buildings scattered across Shanxi, many in remote and mountainous areas, also grabbed the public spotlight for suffering from severe damage from the rain and floods.  

Scholars specializing in architectural protection noted the heavy rainfall, unseen in many decades, highlighted the urgency of checking, registering and improving the protection of ancient buildings in Shanxi, which is a treasure house of ancient Chinese architecture. 

The Global Times learned from Pingyao ancient city's management center on Monday that the city wall and a building used as an exhibition hall saw water leakage and collapsed. Other buildings are in good condition. 

The two sites were closed to the public and put under repair.

An official at the Pingyao culture and tourism authority told the Global Times on Monday that it had enhanced protection of other buildings in the city, including the use of waterproof materials and close monitoring and frequent checks of the structures.

The risk of further breakage or collapse is relatively low as the rain has stopped, the official said, adding that the city had reported the situation to national heritage protection authorities and experts with the central government have stepped in to help with repair and restoration. 

Pingyao ancient city is one example of many ancient architectural sites that were damaged by the record-breaking downpours and flooding. Jin Temple in Jinzhong city, the most prominent religious complex in Shanxi, saw the roofs leak in multiple buildings and its earth wall partly collapsed. The Tianlongshan Grottoes, notable for the influence of Buddhist culture, suffered water leakage inside the chambers. 

The two are national-level protected relics, but the extreme weather posed a great danger to some 30,000 registered ancient architectures in the city and other unregistered ones. 

Primary checks found 1,763 relics in Shanxi collapsed or were damaged due to the rain and the National Cultural Heritage Administration sent experts and allocated funds for local rescue and restoration of the relics. The administration also vowed to enhance follow-up support for the province's relics protection at a working meeting on Monday.

Previously, arid weather, fewer instances of warfare and economic prosperity made Shanxi a perfect museum of splendid ancient architecture as well as folk dwellings, including wooden architecture, dating back 1,200 years, Tian Lin, a professor at the Beijing University of Civil Engineering and Architecture, told the Global Times on Monday.  

There is a saying that "one should look at the above-ground features of Shanxi and the underground areas of Shaanxi to learn about Chinese architecture and civilization." 

Shaanxi, next door to Shanxi, has numerous ancient tombs while Shanxi has the most and best-preserved instances of above-ground architecture. The province has more than 50,000 relics, including some 30,000 structures. Shanxi has more than 500 national level relics, the highest in China. About 80 percent of China's remaining architecture before the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) is located in Shanxi. 

Jinzhong, one of the hardest-hit cities, preserved not only the Pingyao ancient city and the Jin Temple, but also the Wang Family Courtyard, the home of a rich businessman surnamed Wang in ancient times. The courtyard is larger than the Forbidden City in Beijing, according to the Chinese National Geography. 

Liu Zheng, a member of the China Cultural Relics Academy, told the Global Times that Shanxi has plenty of ancient architecture, with structures that are very old and often scattered in remote rural areas, increasing the difficulty of protection. 

Tian said that bricks were not widely used until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in Chinese architecture. When the walls are soaked by rain, they become vulnerable and can easily collapse. Floods, landslides and other minor strikes can cause major damage. 

Some buildings that appeared intact after the disastrous weather could have subtle structural damage, which will require follow-up monitoring and maintenance, the expert said, noting that training basic-level cultural relic protection staff for routine check-ups is the key method. 

The Global Times found that public donation campaigns for Shanxi's downpour and flood response have designated a specific category of cultural relics protection. 

Tencent and ByteDance each donated 50 million yuan ($7.77 million) to aid local relief work, and named the restoration of ancient architecture as one of purposes for the use of the money.

Tian suggested that authorities introduce more social funding and resources into protection, not only in times of emergency but also in daily maintenance. As long as preservation conditions can be guaranteed, the relics should be open to visitors to enhance social awareness of relic protection. 


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