Protecting cultural heritage, promoting mutual learning

By Hang Kan

To protect cultural heritage and pass it down through generations is a shared responsibility of humankind. So far, the number of world heritage sites in China has grown to 56, including the Great Wall and the Summer Palace in Beijing, the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, northwest China’s Gansu province, the Yungang Grottoes in north China’s Shanxi province and Fujian Tulou, a type of Chinese rural dwellings of the Hakka people in the mountainous areas in southeast China’s Fujian province that dates back to Song and Yuan dynasties.

The diversity of human civilizations not only defines the world but also drives the progress of humanity. Over 2,000 years ago, ancient Chinese realized that “things are born to be different.” The prosperity of civilization and human progress will not be possible without enhancing common ground and reserving differences. It is the interaction among different civilizations that promotes human progress and prosperity.

The Yungang Grottoes are an excellent example of Chinese-foreign cultural communication. For instance, in Cave 18, one of the five earliest excavated caves with gigantic Buddha images, a statue on the north wall features a Caucasian appearance. However, there needs to be a document proving the Yungang Grottoes’ excavation was joined by European artisans. This exactly mirrors the communication between China and foreign countries in ancient China.

Besides, various decorative patterns of both Chinese and foreign features are seen in the caves of the Yungang Grottoes, and some columns there obviously carry the characteristics of foreign cultures, such as the Ionic order from ancient Greece as well as other classic orders from Persia and India.

Inter-civilization interaction promotes technological exchanges. It has been influencing the world since ancient times.

For instance, porcelains went from ancient China to the rest of the world, and the technologies for making porcelains are still upgrading today. High-tech porcelains made from rare piles of earth, mixed with metallic elements, or made with various firing techniques can be used in biomedical fields such as manufacturing artificial bones and joints.

It is valid in the case of rice planting, too. Rice Terraces in China’s southern mountainous and hilly areas are recognized as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System, and the country’s hybrid rice technology benefits humanity. So far, Chinese hybrid rice has been planted in 16 African countries and is printed on the banknotes of Madagascar.

Over the recent years, more and more quality exhibitions of cultural relics have been introduced to China, which mirrors modern China’s open and broad vision.

The just-ended Gandhara Heritage along the Silk Road: A Pakistan-China Joint Exhibition held at the Palace Museum, Beijing, attracted many visitors. The Gandhara was a significant transportation route on the ancient Silk Road. As an outcome of the collision among Greek, Persian, and Indian civilizations, it reflected the creativity and vitality of mutual learning among the cultures along the ancient Silk Road.

Between 2016 and 2020, China hosted over 300 entry-exit exhibitions of cultural relics. The Treasures of China, East Meets West: The Maritime Silk Road during the 13th – 17th Centuries, and The Splendor of Asia: An Exhibition of Asian Civilizations that was jointly organized by 47 Asian countries as well as Egypt and Greece all demonstrated the mutual learning between China and other civilizations around the world, becoming a “golden signature” of Belt and Road cultural communication.

The conservation of cultural heritage is a shared responsibility of all humanity. The 8.1-magnitude earthquake that hit Nepal in 2015 damaged many cultural heritage sites. Two years later, the Chinese government officially kicked off a foreign aid project to restore the quake-hit Nine-Storeyed Basantapur Palace complex in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. It was China’s first major foreign aid project for cultural heritage conservation launched in Nepal.

Today, the cooperation on cultural heritage conservation has grown into an area that sees excellent potential in inter-civilization exchange and collaboration.

The preservation and restoration of historical sites in Khiva, Uzbekistan, the first cultural heritage conservation project launched by China in Central Asia, was completed in 2019. The project allowed the Chinese side to study local culture, history, and traditional techniques and brought Uzbekistan Chinese philosophies, practices, and experiences of cultural heritage protection.

The excavation of the ruins of Nateshwar in the Vikrampura Ancient City, Bangladesh, marked the first archeological collaboration between China and a country in the South Asia subcontinent. It has achieved remarkable results. Currently, the two countries plan to build an archeological park on the site to explore the value of the ruins further and bring more benefits to local communities.

The cooperation on cultural heritage conservation, as long as it conforms to relevant international and local principles and respects the customs of the countries and regions concerned, leads to win-win situations. 

China is cooperating with six Belt and Road countries to conserve 11 historical sites, up from one country and one historical place. It has also launched 33 joint archeological projects with 17 Belt and Road countries, which all received high evaluations from local governments and people.

Today, protecting cultural heritage and promoting mutual learning among civilizations has gradually become a consensus the international community shares. However, it is also essential to see that the conflicts in human society and natural changes would damage cultural heritage. To pass cultural heritage down through generations remains a heavy task that calls for continuous efforts.

Chinese people believe that one should value not only one’s own culture but also the cultures of others, which will contribute to the flourishing of all cultures. Countries worldwide could work together to inherit exemplary traditional cultures better and respect each other’s culture while protecting the diversity of human civilizations and pursuing further development of their own cultures, to deepen international cultural exchange and cooperation.

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