Global Heritage Fund ended its involvement in the historic city of Pingyao two years ago. Now, GHF’s China Heritage Program Director Kuanghan Li discusses GHF’s work and the site’s future potential.

Pingyao is renowned as the first banking capital of China and one of the country’s few remaining walled cities. What was it about Pingyao that attracted GHF?

Kuanghan Li: To understand that, we have to start at the beginning. GHF started the China Heritage early on with a project in Lijiang, which is in China’s Yunnan Province. We then moved on to Foguang Temple in Shanxi Province. Our local partners there were impressed with our work and referred us to Pingyao, and a few things went into our decision to start a project there.

Building off of that, we were attracted to its historical status and relative rarity. Pingyao’s Ancient City was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997 based on its preeminence as China’s first banking capital and its status as one of China’s few remaining intact ancient cities.

However, the modern-day economic and social conditions the city suffers from are in stark contrast to its past glamour. With over 40,000 low-income residents living within its ancient walls, Pingyao is facing unprecedented pressures and deterioration of its core historic Qing Dynasty district and last remaining temples, towers, palaces, banks, and ancient residences. The risk of damage from poorly planned development and neglect was unprecedented, and so we realized we had to act fast.

The significance of the city, and the dire condition it was in at that time, immediately appealed to GHF. These factors made it more than fitting with our mission of seeing heritage as a resource to better the life of the local community “beyond monuments.”

What were the major issues encountered in Pingyao relating to conservation, planning, management, etc., and how did GHF overcome them?

KL: Being a living historic city, one of the main challenges was to resolve the conflicts between conservation and development needs.  The two major issues were the outdated living conditions in the historic city and courtyard houses, and the pressing commercial development brought about by mass tourism, which was eroding the historic core of Pingyao’s Ancient City.

Some of these issues can be overcome by preservation and community development measures, whereas others need to align with greater social and political issues and the strategies that correspond with them.  In brief, it requires all aspects of long-term planning, conservation, management solutions, and strong partnership building with local stakeholders to help overcome the issues.

A courtyard house during the restoration process.

The original vision for Pingyao was to preserve the courtyard houses, focusing on the restoration of a block of houses in the Fanjia Jie district. Was this an organic change over time, or was it prompted by something else?

KL: The entire project programming and implementation was an organic change over time. We constantly revised our approach based on informed experiences we learned in the field.

We started out with a singular vision to restore selected individual courtyard houses in the city, and after evaluating the situation, we realized the restoration of an exemplar historic block would have a greater impact at the community level that wouldn’t be limited to the physical conservation work.  After completion of the conservation plan for the Fanjia Jie district, we continued to explore ways to best utilize our limited resources for achieving the maximum impact.  In consultation with local partners, we decided together that a local preservation fund that would provide financial, political, and technical tools to local homeowners to maintain their historic houses would be the most effective long-term solution.

To summarize, we can track the development of our work at Pingyao in three phases. First, we began with attempts to protect individual courtyard houses. Second, we transitioned to a linear distribution, protecting an entire historic block. Finally, we branched out to a greater active agent network through our Preservation Incentive Fund and our series of guidelines that govern restoration on all traditional houses and provide guidance to all concerned individuals in the historic city.

Preserving specific houses morphed into an effort to provide expertise for and develop guidelines around preservation, an effort which took several years to complete. Why were guidelines considered to be so important?

KL: We started out with the restoration of two model courtyard houses, but we quickly realized that, with the limited time and resources available, the impact of a few restored projects may not be conspicuous. Pingyao is a city with thousands of historic courtyard houses needing different levels of care. In addition, changes brought about by commercial development are fast eroding the historic building core of the city, and the “aid-per-building” approach did not enable us to act fast enough to remedy the situation.

Based on these experiences, we decided that a set of guidelines documenting the best practices for conservation and disseminating the knowledge we gained over years of field experiences and research would be best. Our work thus became available to a greater audience, becoming more influential within a framework of more limited resources. This step was conceived as a logical development and a concluding statement to GHF’s work over the years.

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A printmaker at work

What has been the impact of these guidelines two years on? Who are the stakeholders carrying out this work today?

KL: For the first time in Pingyao and in Shanxi Province, a program has been launched to support the protection and maintenance of private historic properties with no legally recognized heritage protection status. This signifies that the heritage value of long-overlooked, “minor” architecture is finally being recognized, and that the residents of a historic city should have modern living comforts while the compromises they made to retain the historic characters of their heritage sites should be compensated in appropriate ways.

Regionally, introduction to the incentive plan and copies of the guidelines were presented and distributed to relevant officials in other historic towns and cities in Shanxi Province with support from the Provincial Ministry of Construction. Nationally, the efforts were recognized by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, and the World Heritage Division was presented with copies

of the guidelines and endorsed it as a model case study.

Conservation professionals from various research institutes and universities have explicitly cited the guidelines as reference material when designing conservation plans for other historic towns and cities in China.

At the local level, the Pingyao Municipality, specifically the Urban and Rural Planning Bureau, is the main stakeholder continuing the work.  The guidelines continue to serve as the main guiding principles of the Preservation Incentive Fund enforced by the bureau.

At the professional level, UNESCO Beijing is the main partner advocating for and disseminating the guidelines to conservators via organizing seminars, publicity, and listing the bilingual guideline as an official UNESCO document downloadable from their website.

How has the work at Pingyao impacted GHF’s China Heritage Program? What lessons were learned at the city we are applying today?

KL: Even though the China Heritage Program began with the Lijiang and Foguang Temple project in China, these projects didn’t have a full-time project director, and so the implementation and management relied heavily on local partners. With these projects behind us, we really began to understand the complexity and subtlety of working in a country like China. Much of the general operational strategy, such as maximizing GHF’s multiplier effect, focusing on building replicable problem-solving models and dissemination of experiences, and providing a supplementary approach to the local government for related development issues such as urban regeneration and inner city poverty, were all learned from the Pingyao experience. These lessons are directly influencing our work today in Guizhou, but also farther afield in Daia, Romania.

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The historic city walls of Pingyao, one of the few intact walls left standing in China.

GHF does not want to be an organization that starts a project, does preservation work, leaves, and never looks back. How has GHF continued to support its work in Pingyao?

KL: GHF’s impact continues in Pingyao on a number of levels. Most importantly through the courtyard preservation guidelines and the government subsidy program. Every year, 15-20 new courtyards are selected and worked on using the GHF developed guidelines and approach.

While we are no longer active in our funding, GHF continues to remain in close contact with the local administration and provides counsel as required. I am still active with local partners and visit the city regularly to discuss impact and progress, particularly reviewing on-going preservation work in the courtyard program.

It’s been nearly two years since GHF completed the project in Pingyao. What are your thoughts looking back?

KL: It was a challenging project in many ways.  In addition to the unique challenges of preserving a living city with more than 40,000 residents and more than a million tourists per year, it was also my first project after stepping into the position as Director of the China Heritage Program.  Looking back on my own experiences, there were some stumbling blocks, and I may have done things differently. However, while I may have learned more efficient and practical ways to do things, I’ll never approach another project with the same passion, built almost entirely on blind faith and hopeless optimism, that is only possible with a first project.  And, faith and passion, I believe, are at times more important than technical knowhow in the field of cultural heritage preservation. We don’t do conservation work for conservation’s sake. It’s a human endeavor, and we need to approach it as humans.