In a remote corner of the Gobi Desert, near China’s border with Mongolia, lie the Mogao Grottoes.
Located along the Silk Road—the ancient network of trade routes that connected the empires of Asia to those of the Mediterranean—these cave temples were first carved out of a rock cliff face by Buddhist monks in the fourth century. Over the next 1,000 years, monks, artists, and patrons all had a hand in creating about 500 caves decorated with over 45,000 square meters of wall paintings and more than 2,400 sculptures—until other trade routes and the rise of Islam in Central Asia relegated the Silk Road and Mogao to the forgotten past.
In the following centuries, Mogao’s remote location and the dry desert air helped preserve this treasure trove of Buddhist art until Western explorers turned their attention to it in the early twentieth century.
In 1979, after decades of isolation from the West, China rejoined the international community. That same year, the Mogao Grottoes—under the management of the Dunhuang Academy—opened its doors to the public: 26,000 people visited.
Today, 1,200,000 people visit the cave temples each year. Managing this explosion of tourism with preservation of the site that inspires that tourism is an urgent concern for Mogao as well as at thousands of other locations across China.
In response to such challenges, China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) began developing national guidelines for the conservation of cultural heritage in the 1990s, and invited the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) to help with the process.
Twenty years on, the Principles for the Conservation of Heritage Sites in China (the China Principles) are ensuring that the nation is prepared to meet conservation challenges that only continue to grow.
China ratified UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention and successfully nominated its first six sites to the World Heritage List in the 1980s, but it was nonetheless playing catch-up with modern conservation theory and practice.
The GCI began working with China’s cultural heritage sector in 1989, in collaboration with the Dunhuang Academy at Mogao. Thanks to the success of that partnership, SACH turned to GCI to help develop what would become the China Principles.
The goal was to utilize a values-based conservation and management planning model while respecting Chinese traditions and approaches. The resulting document would cover general conservation principles, a management planning process, and intervention guidelines for dissemination throughout China.
The work began formally in 1997 with international meetings and workshops. A core working group was formed and conducted field research at many sites in China and in Australia, where the former Australian Heritage Commission—invited as a project partner by GCI—had experience in the development of national guidelines for heritage conservation. The group also visited sites in Los Angeles, New Mexico, and the Washington, DC area to learn about professional practice in the United States.
Concurrently, collaborative projects in wall paintings conservation at Mogao and architectural conservation at the Imperial Mountain Resort and Outlying Temples in Chengde were carried out to test and further develop the emerging guidelines.
SACH authorized the China Principles in October 2000. By spelling out a planning process that begins with the investigation and research of a site’s artistic, historic, cultural, social, and economic values, they form a rigorous and holistic system for the long-term conservation and management of heritage sites throughout China.
Efforts to disseminate and promote adoption of the China Principles began immediately through workshops for site managers, archaeologists, and academics, and by building professional capacity in the heritage field, including through residencies at the GCI for young and mid-level professionals from Chinese partner organizations.
Today, China is the third most popular tourist destination in the world. Urban development, pollution, and a lack of awareness of laws that protect heritage all pose threats to cultural sites, as does a lack of professionals trained to care for the over 400,000 sites inventoried in the latest survey, including 4,296 ranked at the national level and 52 World Heritage sites—more than any other country aside from Italy.
In the midst of these challenges as well as changing heritage conservation theory and practice, SACH and the international professional organization ICOMOS China initiated the process of revising the China Principles in 2010.
Released in 2015, the revised China Principles now emphasize new and diverse categories of heritage and acknowledge adaption as appropriate re-use of a heritage site. Specific guidelines for conserving cultural landscapes, historic canals like the Grand Canal, cultural routes such as the Silk Road, and industrial heritage are included as they are often enmeshed with ongoing ways of life and beliefs and so present particular challenges.
Less than 30 years after it began to build its capacity in heritage conservation, China now undertakes evermore complex conservation projects. Fittingly, the revised China Principles are ready just as the Dunhuang Academy—again with the assistance of the Getty Conservation Institute—takes on a new challenge: the management and conservation of three other large cave temple sites in Gansu Province—Maijishan, Binglingsi, and the Northern Grottoes. Requiring a shift from local to regional site planning, the project signals a new chapter for China as it continues to chart its own way in the international cultural heritage field.