Tuesday, October 06, 2009

China's lost heritage

Li Songtang at his museum in Beijing, where he displays relics saved from demolition sites in the rapidly modernizing city. [photo New York Times]

Beijing, China
"The destruction of this 800-year-old city usually proceeds as follows: the Chinese character for 'demolish' mysteriously appears on the front of an old building, the residents wage a fruitless battle to save their homes, and quicker than you can say 'Celebrate the New Beijing,' a wrecking crew arrives, often accompanied by the police, to pulverize the brick-and-timber structure" said Li Songtang.

It is difficult to overstate how much of China’s old imperial capital has disappeared in recent years. Mr Li has been salvaging architectural remnants since the 1970s, sometimes at considerable risk to himself. He then takes the objects back to his museum in Beijing, the first privately-owned museum in China. There are currently around 3000 items on display, including gate piers, plaques and screen walls ranging from 2nd century BC to the early 20th century. Mr Li also has more than 10 thousand carvings and is preparing to display them to the public. "Every item has a tale. That Song Dynasty lintel etched with a frenzy of folk scenes was pulled from a pig sty. The lacquered screen that tells the history of a clan of scholars was fished from the burn pile."

In the years leading up to the Beijing Olympics in August, the destruction took on a manic pace. According to Unesco, more than 88 percent of the city’s old residential quarters are gone, including many government-designated heritage zones.

Folk Carving Museum

New York Times

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