Yixian, Anhui province, is one of the country's smallest counties in terms of population with about 76,000 residents.
Nevertheless, the county possesses 1,684 immovable cultural
relics－mostly ancient residential buildings－and was thus recently listed
by the State Council, China's Cabinet, as a national famous historical
and cultural city, a list that also includes counties.
The central government has so far granted the title to 137 regions,
which vary from metropolises as large as Beijing to counties as small as
Xu Juan, deputy director of Yixian's housing and urban-rural
development bureau, said the county first applied for the national honor
"One of the highest honors a region could get in China, the award is
the result of the local government's all-out efforts," she said, adding
that Yixian was established as a county more than 2,200 years ago during
the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC).
To distinguish Yixian from other regions, the State Council's
statement, issued in June, emphasizes that the county has "distinctive
characteristics for regional culture", a reference to its Huizhou
culture, according to Xu.
Huizhou prefecture, which existed for nearly eight centuries, was
established in the 1120s to govern six counties, including Yixian.
So far, three Huizhou counties have been listed as national famous historical and cultural cities.
The listing of Yixian will play an important role in protecting
Huizhou culture and preserving its heritage, according to the local
The State Council approved 99 national famous historical and cultural
cities in three batches－1982, 1986 and 1994－and approved another series
of regions subsequently.
According to the Law of the People's Republic of China on the
Protection of Cultural Relics, such a city is defined as one with an
unusual wealth of relics of important historical value, or high
revolutionary memorial significance.
The law was first issued in 1982 and has been amended multiple times.
The first three batches of cities were recommended by a national team
of experts. The central authorities listed the cities and required
local governments to carry out strict protection measures.
Regulations were later updated to call on such regions to be approved
for the designation at the provincial level, which meant provincial
authorities had to look more strictly into how the relics were being
In addition, a supplementary law was created for the Regulation on
the Protection of Famous Historical and Cultural Cities, Towns and
Villages, which took effect on July 1, 2008.
According to that regulation, such areas should meet multiple
conditions, including demonstrating their efforts to strongly preserve
cultural relics and clustered historical buildings.
The basic requirement is that these areas must have two or more
historical and cultural blocks within their protection, the regulation
In addition, traditional patterns and historical styles and features
should be preserved in such regions, and applicant areas should either
have been a historically political, economic, cultural, transportation
or military center or have been the site of a historical event,
according to the regulation.
Those that don't meet requirements may still qualify if they have
traditional industries, or have completed major historical projects that
have had an impact on the development of their respective areas, or
they collectively reflect the cultural or ethnic features of their local
Conflicts and warnings
Yixian has preserved 92 cultural heritage protection units, including
Xidi and Hongcun villages, which have jointly been designated as a
UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In addition, the county has preserved six national famous historical
and cultural villages, 44 national traditional villages, three
provincial famous historical and cultural blocks and 66 intangible
cultural heritage items, according to the local government.
Being listed as a national famous city poses potentially exceptional
opportunities but also tremendous challenges for the local cultural
heritage protection and tourism development, said Xu, the Yixian
In 2013, the central authorities publicly criticized eight national
famous historical and cultural cities－including Anhui's Shouxian county,
which was listed in 1986－for their incompetent cultural heritage
Shouxian was the last capital of the Chu Kingdom during the Warring
States Period (475-221 BC) and has preserved a city wall built during
the Song Dynasty (960-1279).
Maintaining the urban area's historical layout meant the county could
not carry out large-scale infrastructure construction. And restoring
the large number of dilapidated ancient buildings inside the walled area
placed tremendous financial pressure on the government, according to
Shen Qiang, former Party chief of Huainan city, which has governed the
county since 2015.
Shouxian had been a key national county for poverty alleviation until 2019.
Though the local government had taken corrective measures, relative
efforts seemed difficult, according to Shen, who made the remarks in
Though multiple levels of governments had invested 279 million yuan
($43 million) during the 12th Five-Year Plan period (2011-15) to protect
the ancient city, the county still lacked enough funds to restore 145
ancient buildings and move the original residents out to new urban
areas, Shen said.
Between 2010 and 2013, Datong city in Shanxi province, which was part
of the 1982 batch, rebuilt its ancient city wall with stones and
bricks. The wall was originally built with rammed earth.
Datong has also been criticized by the central authorities. In 2019,
it was pointed out that the city has replaced many of its original
ancient buildings with new ones that were simply built in an ancient
At a news conference in 2014, the National Cultural Heritage
Administration said that it would implement a withdrawal mechanism for
national famous historical and cultural cities.
If a city loses its designation, officials responsible for wrongful practices will be seriously punished.
After Datong and four other cities were criticized in 2019, they were
warned that they would have three years to correct their mistakes.
"Better protection of ancient buildings and cultural heritage
requires delicate restoration and avoidance of major surgical
operations," said Xu, whose department is making a plan for cultural
heritage protection before 2035.