AP: “Science trumping tourism in China’s “Valley of Kings”

From AP: Hong Kong University economist Zhang Wuchang has rekindled a long simmering debate over whether economic imperatives trump historic preservation. According to Professor Zhang:

“The cultural enlightenment from excavating the tomb of Qinshi Huang will surpass the pyramids of Egypt. Not starting excavations is the same as having nothing. Only by excavating will we find value capable of contributing to society.”

Naturally, archaeologists and historians have concerns over this rush to cash in on the site, potentially one of the richest sources of pre-Han artifacts ever uncovered by archaeologists.

Duan Qingbo, head of the excavation team of the Qinshi Huangdi mausoleum, replied:

“Many view this kind of thinking as the main problem facing China today. A lot of officials are only thinking about money and the benefits that such an excavation will bring to them. Meanwhile they ignore the science. If any dig is going to be undertaken we have to ensure that what is found can be preserved, otherwise we will be killing the chicken that lays the golden egg. Chinese archaeologists have ruined many objects because excavations were not properly done and the technology was lacking.”

Professor Duan was referring in part, to the botched 1950s excavation of the tomb of the Dingling Emperor (Ming) near Beijing, when poor methods and inadequate technology resulted in damage to the tomb. This damage was compounded in the 1960s when Red Guards stormed the site, destroying priceless artifacts including the body of the emperor.

Nobody’s saying that the Chinese should not profit from tourism and China’s long history is a huge draw for tourist dollars. At the same time, officials should not think of themselves as simply the inheritors of cultural treasure troves to be exploited in the most lucrative way possible; rather they should they see themselves as stewards of a rich historical legacy held in trust for future generations. China is justifiably proud of its rich history, it owes it to the world to allow the experts to excavate, study, and provide access to the sites in a way that allows all generations, including those yet to come, to share in the discovery. If this can be done using current methods, then by all means dig. But if the curators of the site feel that the technology or the technique is still lacking, then why not postpone excavation? The Qin Emperor, Emperor Gaozong, and Wu Zutian have rested for millennia, surely they can wait a few more years before revealing their secrets.

The Discussion: 15 Comments

It seems to me that things in China are only done for two reasons.The parties grip on Power and making money for the Party. There are probably many ordinary people who are truly interested in Chinese history and Cultural artifacts. The party,as they have shown over and over again,could NOT care any less for China,Chinese culture or Chinese people. I worry that almost all of China’s culture will turn in to some Mao style kitsch.Example: They’re tearing down really cool REAL Old Towns and then simultaniously building fake ones as tourists attractions. I’m not sure they get it.

March 16, 2007 @ 12:25 pm | Comment


So, just to make this very concrete, since some readers (like Ting Bu Dong) are apparently unaware of the implications of what this article is saying:

… the Chinese government has been doing exactly what you called for, for the past 30 years.

March 16, 2007 @ 1:57 pm | Comment

Actually CCT, you are right. While Chinese archaeological excavations do still have their problems, they are a far cry from the horror show that was “preservation” back in the 1950s and 1960s.

I admire people like Professor Duan (quoted in the article) for sticking to his convictions and protecting these sites. I also applaud the decision by some Chinese academics to take on international partners in excavating some sites (not always an easy decision given the sordid history of foreign archaeology in China and the usual Chinese prickliness about foreigners dabbling in “their” history.)

However, even you would admit that local officials can be quite rapacious when there is a cash cow to be milked in their district. Clearly some experts in China, like Professor Duan, are alarmed enough to speak out. Sites such as the tombs in Shaanxi need stronger protections–by the central and provincial governments–to withstand increasing calls by short-sighted local officials looking to take a whack at the tourist gold pinata.

March 16, 2007 @ 2:11 pm | Comment

I might add that what seems to disturb TBD the most is the urban renewal in many of China’s historic cities, especially Beijing. Like many of China’s recent projects, this one has brought both good and bad. Good because some neighborhoods really are getting facelifts that look attractive and have some connection with past architecture. Bad because other neighborhoods are being razed to make way for steel & glass monstrosities that will look “modern” for all of about 10 years.

Finally @TBD:

(And CCT, I don’t want to derail this discussion so early. You and I have gone around on these issues enough times. Let’s leave this thread for archaeology.)

You’re a funny guy and I am, I guess, as critical of the CCP as anybody. But I would never say that they could “care less” for China’s people and China’s culture, etc. First of all, the CCP is not a monolith and there are actually good people in the CCP. (People who are very frustrated from having to work from within this system to be sure, but they are there.) Second, while central government policies don’t really do much to alleviate the problem, it should be noted that many of the most notorious issues facing China today–pollution, corruption, overdevelopment–can be traced back to out of control local officials eager to make a buck. The system is horribly flawed and there are many greedy and corrupt people within it, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any people on the inside trying to fix it. Just too few of them.

March 16, 2007 @ 2:31 pm | Comment

I agree that there are good people in the Party. I know some of them on a personal level. (They all know the party only cares about the Party.)but I think the Nazi’s probably had some nice folks too. I am left unimpressed by the CCP except for their mind control skills. I am not trying to be funny..Just a different opinion.

March 16, 2007 @ 2:51 pm | Comment

I also would say that the Party is most definitely a monolithic huge immovable, uniform entity. Although, We should save this discussion for another thread….

March 16, 2007 @ 2:57 pm | Comment

Oh, I would love to know what’s under that hill near Xian.
But Duan is right. To start digging without beeing sure you can preserve it would be a crime.

March 16, 2007 @ 4:42 pm | Comment

@shulan – I remember reading somewhere that one archaeologist here had said that within a couple of years they might be able to use sonar (?) or some similar imaging technology to get a picture of the contents without actually having to expose any of it to oxygen.

I myself am still waiting for them to find the cinnabar boat floating on a sea of mercury, or whatever wacky-ass stuff is supposed to be buried there. It must’ve been good to be the emperor.

March 16, 2007 @ 5:31 pm | Comment

“cinnabar boat floating on a sea of mercury”?

lol, that is just wild guess from movies and novels. You probably will be disappointed.

March 17, 2007 @ 3:22 am | Comment

I heard from those mercury lakes and rivers too. Don’t know where that comes from.

March 17, 2007 @ 3:56 am | Comment


Those calling for a dig at this site have always existed, but they remain a small minority. The government position on this issue has been firm, and I’ve seen no hint of any kind that the government has shifted on this at all.

I’d also point out that hutongs are a lot more attractive to visit than to live in. I say that having grown up in a Qing-era home in Nanjing. There are times I wish I had taken more pictures to show my kids… but to the decrepit, moldy, collapsing structure with exposed sewers and electrical wiring… I say, good riddance.

March 17, 2007 @ 6:27 am | Comment


Be careful not to downplay the extent of these calls for opening the sites. First, the “government” position needs to be qualified: the position of the central government on a host of issues is routinely undermined by local and provincial officials out for a quick buck. Certainly those in charge of protecting the sites are sufficiently alarmed to begin making noise.

I agree about the hutongs. I too have family who grew up in a pingfang (in Tianjin). I have no romantic illusions about them and I think I made that clear when I said that there was both good AND bad in the urban renewal programs in Beijing. However, there has been…not inconsiderable protest BY RESIDENTS over the manner in which the relocations have been carried out in some areas.

I agree that the Beijing urban renewal has been quite a thing to see, but I’m reminded of Mr. Wolf’s famous words from Pulp Fiction. “Let’s not start…etc., etc.”

March 17, 2007 @ 8:20 am | Comment


Let’s not exaggerate the extent of the central government’s fragility. It’s one thing to talk about the central government’s ability to make sure every coal mine in every hick village in every corner of China is properly licensed… it’s another thing entirely to talk about the central government’s ability to decide policy for Qin Shihuang’s tomb.

As far as residents protesting the “manner” in which the relocations have been carried out… I think you’re informed on this issue, so I believe you’ll agree with me that 99% of the complaints are strictly about deciding “proper” compensation for the residents.

Do previous residents get a share of the profits that the developer will be making? Or will they get enough compensation to stay in the same area? Or will they just get enough compensation to match the arbitrary nature to which they were assigned the housing unit in the first place?

I doubt you can point out many in Beijing that are hoping to stay in a living, unrenovated museum.

March 17, 2007 @ 12:15 pm | Comment

CCT, Is it possible to renovate these places to make them attractive to people who have an interest in preserving Chinese Culture?

March 17, 2007 @ 4:56 pm | Comment

@ Ting Bu Dong,

If you’re asking whether I believe it’s technically feasible, the answer is yes, absolutely. Given enough capital and time, I’m positive these buildings can be renovated to preserve their traditional character while also being wired for fiberoptic data, cable tv, and a sauna.

I think the issue is the amount of *capital*. How much will it cost, and who will pay for it? What % of these hutongs need, should, can be preserved? Considering that there isn’t enough capital to preserve the Great Wall… where do generic hutongs rank on the priority list?

Let’s make sure we have architectural drawings, and plenty of other recordings. Hopefully, maybe a few will be preserved as literal museums. But in the mean time, let’s build livable homes for as many Chinese as possible.

March 18, 2007 @ 12:56 pm | Comment

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