Few countries can boast a history as long and rich as China. Archaeological records confirm that the country’s first dynasties rose more than 3,000 years ago. Chinese writing began to take shape not long after. Written sources dating back more than 2,500 years preserved both the details of Chinese political and social life and the thoughts of philosophers like Confucius. The ancient Chinese also left behind massive building projects that are still visible today: The Great Wall of China was begun around 200 BC by the same Chinese rulers who created vast terra-cotta armies to guard their eternal rest.
China’s vast size – it is the fourth largest country in the world, just a little smaller than the US – also encompasses areas like the western deserts of Xinjiang and the mountain highlands of Tibet, regions with distinct cultural traditions and archaeological significance.
Looting and development pose severe threats to China’s archaeological heritage. The country’s rapidly growing population, rising consumer class and widespread official corruption make it possible for looters to rob ancient tombs with near impunity and for developers to destroy or damage ancient sites.
Tomb raiders are not a new problem in China. For almost as long as the country’s ruling class has been building elaborate underground burial chambers, filled with grave goods designed to help the deceased’s passage into the afterlife. The largest sprawled over hundreds of acres.
Robbers targeted the jade and bronze contained within. More recently, the small-scale ceramic replicas of everyday objects (akin to the terra cotta army’s soldiers) have become sought-after loot.After millennia of looting, nine in ten Chinese graves may be disturbed.
The problem is getting worse as China’s growing consumer class and nouveau riche develop an interest in and taste for the relics of their own past. China’s art and antiquities market is now the world’s largest. The resulting demand for ancient Chinese art and artifacts has been tremendous. Experts estimate nearly half a million ancient graves have been plundered in the past two decades. Increased enforcement has turned looters professional: Sophisticated gangs locate buried chambers using long steel rods, them move in equipped with everything from chainsaws to oxygen tanks.
The tremendous pressures posed by the construction of large-scale infrastructure projects are another key issue for China’s physical heritage. China will add 350 million urban residents by 2025, more than the entire population of the US. By 2020, China will have 221 cities with more than a million inhabitants. The expansion – and the highways, pipelines and train limes that make it possible – threaten countless archaeological sites with destruction.
Urbanization takes a toll in other ways, as well. Well-known sites like Beijing’s Forbidden City are being eaten away by acid rain, a result of the capital’s extremely polluted air.
China is a communist state, with a long history of authoritarian rule. Since the birth of modern China in 1949 after a bloody civil war, it has gone through a number of upheavals. Perhaps the most dramatic was the Cultural Revolution beginning in 1966, which explicitly set out to destroy traditional Chinese culture. Over the course of a decade, vast numbers of ancient buildings, books, paintings and other relics were destroyed with the implicit sanction of the Communist Party. Some artifacts were smuggled abroad for sale in the chaos. On a less tangible level, the Cultural Revolution damaged Chinese society’s connection to its rich past.
In the last 30 years, China has transformed itself from a closed, planned economy run according to communist principles into a thriving capitalist economy. It is the world’s leading exporter, and by some measures the world’s second-largest economy overall. China’s rise has created a massive, growing middle class, eager to consume and collect.
International visitors to China represent big business, spending more than $50 billion last year. However, Chinese domestic tourism is a far larger force: Chinese traveling within China represent four percent of the country’s GDP, spending close to $150 billion. Those numbers are predicted to rise as China’s growing consumer class travels more inside and outside of China
China’s heritage sites are managed by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, part of the Ministry of Culture, under the leadership of Li Xiaojie. The administration oversees a vast network of over 760,000 “registered unmoveable cultural relics4,” including 103 “historically and culturally famous” cities and 2,352 sites under national protection. Tens of thousands of others are managed by provincial and local authorities.
A signatory to the 1970 UNESCO convention, China has also aggressively soughtownership of artifacts taken from the country in wars dating back to the 19th century, claiming that 1.67 million Chinese relics are held illegally in museums around the world.