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Beijing Review Exclusive
Special> Aftermath of the Quake> Restoring Cultural Sites> Beijing Review Exclusive
UPDATED: June 3, 2008 NO. 23 JUN. 5, 2008
Relics Reduced to Rubble
Quake damage leaves worst cultural relic loss in 60 years

CULTURAL TRAGEDY: The ruins of the temple honoring Li Bing and his son

The deadly earthquake in Sichuan has not only taken tens of thousand of lives and left millions homeless, but it has also had a cultural impact.

Standing on the rubble of a temple in Dujiangyan City that was heavily damaged after the May 12 earthquake, Tong Mingkang, Deputy Director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) of China, said the big loss of the cultural relics caused by the strong quake is beyond comprehension.

"It is the biggest damage to the cultural relics of the New China since its founding in 1949, " Tong told reporters.

Accompanied by a team of cultural relic protection experts, he arrived in Sichuan on May 26 to carry out investigations and assessments on the damaged historical sites.

Prior to this, Shan Jixiang, Director of the SACH, told the media that as of May 19, 65 of 128 important historical sites under state-level protection in Sichuan had been destroyed to varying degrees, and 119 historical sites under provincial-level protection had also been destroyed.

But the number of damaged historical sites under state-level protection will very possibly rise after further investigation, experts on cultural relic protection predicted. "It may exceed 100 sites," said Zhao Chuanrong, Deputy Director of the Sichuan Bureau of Cultural Heritage, in an article in Guangzhou-based Nanfang Daily.

According to the bureau, some old buildings in or near the Dujiangyan City, one of the worst-hit areas during the big temblor, were completely destroyed, including a temple built on a hillside and several other ancient sites in the Dujiangyan scenic area.

The destroyed old temple was initially completed in the 5th-6th century and was rebuilt in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) to commemorate Li Bing, a local governor who led the construction of the Dujiangyan irrigation system. Built in the 3rd Century B.C., the irrigation system is the world's oldest and the only damless irrigation project that is still functioning today. The son of Li Bing is also enshrined in the temple.

Fortunately, major parts of the Dujiangyan irrigation system were unscathed, a miracle to many archeologists. Only one part of the irrigation works was found to have a crack.

Another historical site affected is the Qingchengshan Mountain, one of the ancient cradles of Taoism. Over 100 Taoist temples dot the mountainside. But after the May 12 quake, the ridges and walls of these ancient buildings were badly damaged, with some buildings toppled and some completely wrecked.

Besides the Dujiangyan scenic area and the Qingchengshan Mountain, which were listed as World Cultural Heritage sites by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in November 2000, some other ancient sites and important historic relics in China, such as the former residence of Li Bai (701-762), one of the greatest poets of China in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), were also ripped apart by the quake.

The Sichuan Bureau of Cultural Heritage also told the media that more than 60 museums and other places that house cultural relics were damaged. Latest statistics released by SACH say that a total of 1,800 cultural relics collected in the museums in the province were damaged, of which 151 pieces are very rare and priceless.

Faced with such a tremendous disaster to the nation's cultural heritage, SACH has pledged to repair and restore all the damaged historical sites to their former glory.

"We will try our best to restore them and try to use original materials including every brick or tile," SACH's Tong told reporters.

But experts said the repair work will be very difficult. Luo Zhewen, an expert on ancient architecture in China, said in the same article in Nanfang Daily that some wooden buildings are possible to be renovated, but brick or stone buildings are more difficult to restore. He also warned that old buildings that have already collapsed should not be moved in haste, as many bricks or tiles that are intact can be used in repair work to maintain the original look.

Other experts suggest that the Central Government should upgrade the earthquake-resistance standard of cultural relics and museums and work out some practical measures as soon as possible in case of future disasters.

"We will rally the strength of the whole nation to save and restore those ancient sites that tell the history and culture of China," Tong said. According to him, when the assessment work is finished, experts and professionals on cultural relic protection and repair from other provinces will assemble in Sichuan to carry out a large-scale repair campaign.

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