Digitization brings ancient treasures alive as China celebrates Cultural and Natural Heritage Day
Restoration of relics
Published: Jun 04, 2024 10:43 PM
Visitors explore a digital exhibition on Sanxingdui cultural relics in Shanghai. Photo: VCG

Visitors explore a digital exhibition on Sanxingdui cultural relics held in Shanghai. Photo: VCG

Editor's Note:

When the metaverse meets museums, visitors are able to travel to the past to build ancient buildings, travel with ferocious wild beasts like lions and white elephants in Chinese legends. 

Digital displays of cultural relics have increasingly become an important way to bring cultural relics back to life. With advances in modern technology, digitization is no longer limited to simple screens that bring pictures of relics to visitors, but now includes high-tech means such as the metaverse, AI-generated content and interactive experiences that bring visitors into the world of cultural heritage. 

Cultural relics impart the brilliance of China's civilization, culture and legacy, bonding Chinese people together with the strong ethos they embody. They are a valuable legacy from our ancestors and protecting them will benefit future generations.

Various advanced means and efforts across the country have been made to protect, develop and utilize fine traditional Chinese culture, in a bid to increase cultural confidence and foster the country's national spirit.

As China celebrates the Cultural and Natural Heritage Day on Saturday, Global Times reporters Xu Liuliu and Chen Xi talked with experts at a number of China's museums, relic sites and more to explore how advanced digitization has benefited the country's cultural relic preservation efforts and further development.

The digital recreation of the original Porcelain Pagoda Photo: Courtesy of the Great Bao'en Temple Ruins Museum

The digital recreation of the original Porcelain Pagoda Photo: Courtesy of the Great Bao'en Temple Ruins Museum

In the West, it is one of the most well-known Chinese cultural heritages and sometimes seen as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The legacy continues as it appears in various American TV series and movies from time to time, on the box of Chinese takeout as an icon of Chinese cultural element. 

This is the Porcelain Pagoda of Nanjing, one of the wonders of the medieval world in the former Bao'en Temple, or Temple of Repaid Gratitude in ­Chinese. The pagoda was built in the 15th century on the southern bank of the Yangtze River. 

Thousands of kilometers away, the Great Pagoda at Kew still stands in London, acting as a ­window on Chinese culture for millions of visitors in the UK. Sir William Chambers visited China twice and his great pagoda designs for the royal family were influenced by prints he had seen there of the famous Porcelain Pagoda of Nanjing.

However, the pagoda was mostly destroyed in the 19th century because of war. Fortunately, the underground palace beneath the temple escaped the misfortune and remains intact. An archaeological excavation in 2008 discovered Buddhist relics in the underground palace while a glass and steel tower based on the original pagoda was built and opened to public in 2015.

With the help of a digitization project, the original nine-story high tower covered with colorful glazed tiles can be seen again in high-definition videos, standing just as it did after it was built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

"Fast developing technology, including digitization, has opened many possibilities to help us protect our heritage site and bring cultural relics back to life," Wang Wenxi, curator of the Nanjing Great Bao'en Temple Ruins Museum, told the Global Times. 

Performers in <em>hanfu</em>,  a traditional garment of the Han ethnic group, dance at the Great Bao'en Temple Ruins Museum. Photo: IC

Performers in hanfu, a traditional costume of the Han ethnic group, dance at the Great Bao'en Temple Ruins Museum. Photo: IC

As the pagoda had been destroyed, it was a challenge for the museum to stay relevant as the pagoda seemed to be nothing but a story from the past for people today. 

"It is a tough and hard process and common issue faced by many heritage sites in China and even around the world," said Wang, whose team has been exploring new ways to promote the site. 

Besides the digital recreation of the Porcelain Pagoda, virtual technology has been introduced to generate a metaverse space at the Great Bao'en Temple Ruins Museum, through which visitors can enter a metaverse museum to explore a digitally restored pagoda. 

"In the digital world, the restoration of the pagoda and interactive experiences will help visitors connect with their heritage and better feel the splendid culture of Nanjing," noted Wang. 

"It brings this historical and national treasure of China back to life."

­Walking into the Great Bao'en Temple Ruins Museum, visitors no longer need to search for information online. Instead, they can "talk" to "Dragon Girl," an intelligent curator based on large language models, at any time and enjoy a "private" tour. Through an interactive AR program, they can also connect all the spots in the museum together. 

What's more, in Wang's view, museums carry a message about recognizing China's values of innovation and peace. The museum has worked with various universities on historical research, architecture, digitization and more.

From the colored glaze porcelain wares in the Ming Dynasty to the cultural exchanges centered around the Great Bao'en Temple, "We have much more to do and much is waiting for us to do."      

Creative expressions 

As European travelers like Johan Nieuhof visited the tower in the mid-1600s and made it known to the world, the museum hopes to have more projects that can continue this global connection and promote it as a cultural symbol of China. 

The Digital Heritage Immersive Cultural Heritage Innovator Contest is part of this effort. According to Hu Lei, a deputy manager of the Digital Creativity Department at the museum, young people from 34 cities of 13 countries have participated in the contest, using immersive experiences and innovative digital technology to interpret and tell the stories of lost cultural heritage. 

"It can arouse the public's interest of heritage and present creative expressions from the perspective of young people," said Hu. 

The contest is also an exchange platform for technicians and content makers, as the technical team can pay more attention to content and learn to tell good stories, while the content team can learn more about cutting-edge technologies.

"It is a win-win solution for the protection, display and education of the cultural heritage," said Wang. 

The digital preservation of China's ancient grottoes has become a subject of global interest, as Chinese digital conservation teams utilize cutting-edge technologies to restore the original splendor of these ancient caves and their murals with high precision. This allows people from around the world to transcend time and space and experience the vast beauty of grotto culture, including the ­well-known Yungang Grottoes in North China's Shanxi Province and Dunhuang Mogao Caves in Northwest China's Gansu Province.

Restoring a legacy

Sun Bo, a staff member from the Yungang Research Institute's cultural heritage protection and monitoring center, told the Global Times that the current restoration and protection efforts at the Yungang Grottoes have evolved from technological conservation to digital conservation. The establishment of a digital laboratory at the Yungang Research Institute aims to collect data and use computers to select the materials and restoration methods that will cause the least damage to the grottoes. 

"The restoration of the Yungang Grottoes cannot be stopped, but minimizing harm during the process is an art in itself. The digital laboratory can assist staff in choosing optimal methods, highlighting another significant role in cultural heritage digitization," he said, adding that the ongoing ­digital information collection at the 

Yungang Grottoes will provide significant support for their long-term preservation.

During the data collection process, the team can identify subtle damage and potential risks to the grottoes and statues, which helps with timely restoration and mitigation. Subsequently, the collected high-precision data and information will be processed using digital technology, "recreating" the Yungang Grottoes in a database to provide robust data and visual support for grotto conservation, restoration and even reconstruction.

Media reported that the digitization of the Yungang Grottoes, which boasts more than 59,000 complex and exquisitely carved statues of varying sizes, has resulted in a massive volume of data that will require a considerable amount of time to digitally process.

"The ongoing digital efforts are building a solid foundation for the precise, permanent preservation, and sustainable use of information about the Yungang Grottoes," Hang Kan, head of the research institute of the 

Yungang Grottoes, told the Global Times, adding that two-thirds of the digital information collection work for the grottoes has been completed.

A visitor explores an exhibition on the Mogao Caves held in Beijing. Photo: IC

A visitor explores an exhibition on the Mogao Caves held in Beijing. Photo: IC

The digitization of the Dunhuang Mogao Caves has also achieved commendable results.

In May 2016, the "Digital Dunhuang" resource library was officially launched. It shares high-definition images of mural and textual explanations of 30 caves around the world. Users from nearly 80 countries and regions use the platform, which has garnered more than 22 million visits, the Guangming Daily reported.

"Digitization has allowed cultural relics to leave museums and reach every corner of the world, stimulating people's desire to see the actual artifacts on-site," Su Bomin, chief of Dunhuang Research Institute, told the Global Times.

In April 2023, the "Digital Cave of Scriptures" created by the Dunhuang Research Institute was officially launched, attracting more than 14 million users within a week. With the release of the international version of the "Digital Cave of Scriptures," overseas users can "travel through" the cave with a single click and appreciate the Chinese civilization represented by Dunhuang.

Currently, the Dunhuang Research Institute's digital center has gathered 110 professional technicians from various disciplines, including computer science, photography, art design, video direction and animation, forming an interdisciplinary team of cultural heritage protection talents.

The Dunhuang Research Institute's digital cultural heritage protection team also shared the successful experience of carrying out similar "digital Dunhuang" projects with other countries, including Myanmar, whose Thatbyinnyu Temple was under threat after a severe earthquake.

"The dissemination of Dunhuang culture can allow people from all over the world to understand that China, past to present, has emphasized ­multicultural exchanges and promoted the spirit of mutual learning," Su said.