Ancient Chinese City Seeks Line Between Preservation and Implausible Perfection

The historic city of Pingyao, China, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, faces an uncertain future as it tries to find a balance between managing modern threats and petrification by preservation, as it attempts to maintain its historic character.
July 13, 2012, 5am PDT | Akemi Leung
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Debra Bruno examines the two extreme fates facing Pingyao, a 2,700-year-old village in the Shanxi province of China. One possibility allows tourists, overpopulation, pollution, rain, and dust from local coal mines to disintegrate the ancient city. The other is to preserve the town; but some are worried that preservation efforts could come off looking too perfect or even fake, as was the case with the overly restored city of Lijiang.

UNESCO, the Global Heritage Fund, the China Cultural Heritage Foundation, and the Pingyao county government have been working to define conservation and repair guidelines for the close to 4,000 Ming and Qing-era courtyard buildings inside the walled city.

Another element of the effort to maintain a living, working city is to slash the population down from 40,000 to a more fitting 20,000. But, more room for the residents would bring other complications. "'The exodus of indigenous residents and the loss of confidence in local Pingyao cultural traditions' may be the single biggest threat to Pingyao today, says UNESCO's [Dr.] Du [Xiaofan]. 'There are threats that the Pingyao could become nothing but a city full of souvenir shops, restaurants and hotels,' adds Tongji University's Shao Yong.

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Published on Thursday, July 12, 2012 in The Atlantic Cities
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