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Tiny county in Anhui earns big honor

Pub Date:2021-07-14 08:45 Source:China Daily

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 Yixian.

Xu Juan, deputy director of Yixian's housing and urban-rural development bureau, said the county first applied for the national honor in 2010.

"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 government.

Comprehensive protection

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 preserved.

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 says.

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 architecture.

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 official.

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 protection measures.

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 2016.

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 style.

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.


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