Sixty years ago last month, China’s Cabinet-like State Council ratified a list of 180 “Major Historical and Cultural Sites Protected at the National Level.” Typically abbreviated in Chinese as guobao, or the national protection list, the March 1961 document was a first for the young country, and extended important protections to sites like the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the Mogao Grottoes on the eastern edge of the Silk Road.
The list of guobao monuments grew out of the People’s Republic of China’s early regulations on the protection of “cultural relics.” These regulations sorted immovable cultural relics according to their perceived value into different categories of protection: county- or municipal-level, provincial, and national. The final category — guobao — represented the highest level of protection China could offer, and was reserved for cultural relics of immense historical, scientific, or artistic value. The conservation standards for guobao were and are far higher than those for ordinary cultural relics: Their nomination, historical restoration, and excavation generally require the approval of the State Council.
Prior to the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, the Kuomintang government had launched an extensive investigation into local monuments under the auspices of the renowned architectural historian Liang Sicheng. The new regime carried on this work after 1949 by conducting a census of cultural relics in 1956, which became the basis for the 1961 guobao list. The list naturally reflected the ruling Communist Party’s interpretation of Chinese history, and it in turn has influenced the Chinese people’s — and the world’s — understanding of Chinese culture. Sifting through it can be seen as a way to trace modern China’s view of its national history.
Adopted by the Communist Party of China shortly after the socialist revolution, the list not only put “revolutionary sites” first — ahead even of ancient cultural relics — this category also represented almost one-fifth of its total entries. The list’s 33 revolutionary sites are given in chronological order, and stretch back past the CPC’s founding to include memorial sites for major events related to China’s resistance to colonial incursions since the First Opium War in 1840. That includes Sanyuanli, where residents of the southern port city of Guangzhou rose up against the British army; the site of the Wuchang Uprising that overthrew China’s last monarchy; and the Tiananmen Gate, where the People’s Republic was first proclaimed.
The last site in the initial revolutionary category was the Monument to the People’s Heroes, which stands in Tiananmen Square. The monument's inscriptions and engravings cover the history of China’s struggle for national independence and Communist revolution. The youngest site of the initial 180, the monument was completed just three years before the list was announced, in 1958.
Still, even during the Mao era, ancient architecture has always represented the bulk of the guobao list, including 40% of the first batch. Most of the initial sites in this category were included on the basis of Liang Sicheng and other scholars’ work. In addition to well-known sites such as the Great Wall, there are also more minor works of architecture, such as the 2.5-kilometer-long stone Anping Bridge in the eastern province of Fujian. Built in the 12th century and still standing today, it is a testament to the skill of China’s ancient masons.
Although much of what survived to be included in the list is built from stone, the real strength of China’s artisans lay in woodworking. Lightweight and easy to construct, wooden buildings are vulnerable to moisture, fire, and insect damage. By the early 20th century, academics believed China no longer had any extant examples of wooden architecture from the Tang dynasty (618-907) or earlier. It was Liang Sicheng, together with his wife Lin Huiyin, who followed clues found in the frescos of the Mogao Grottoes to sites like Foguang Temple at northern China’s Wutai Mountain. There, Lin discovered hidden inscriptions on wooden beams that allowed her to determine that the temple had been built between the eighth and ninth centuries. Thanks to her and Liang’s work, many more wooden buildings from the 14th century and earlier were eventually included on the list, and were rediscovered by the public.
Left: A portrait of Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin; Right: Liang’s sketch of the main hall of Foguang Temple. IC
Another feature of the first batch of guobao is the inclusion of ancient capitals or landmark buildings from ancient dynasties. The list includes the capitals of seven major states of the Spring and Autumn Period and the ensuing Warring States Period (770-221 BC), for example. Most of these sites were rediscovered by archaeologists in the early 20th century. In many cases, the city itself had long since crumbled to dust, leaving only rammed earthen walls and tombs.
Indeed, in addition to important historical capitals, the initial list featured the mausoleums of numerous historical figures. Some of these — like the famed Han dynasty general Huo Qubing — are quite well known, but it also covered smaller sites, like the relatively little-known Feng Family Tombs in the northern province of Hebei, which were included as representative of tombs from the minor Northern and Southern dynasties period (covering much of the fifth and sixth centuries AD).
The first batch of guobao also sought to strike a multicultural note. The Potala Palace in the center of Lhasa, capital city of the Tibet Autonomous Region, stands in stark contrast to much of traditional Han architecture, though its roofs and ornaments do contain elements of Han influence. And then there are the list’s Buddhist caves and grottoes, which bear the hallmark of Indian culture. These grottoes are sites of worship drilled into cliffs and filled with frescoes and statues of the Buddha. The 14 grotto temples in the first batch of guobao represent a wide variety of artistic styles. From the burly Buddhas of the Yungang Grottoes carved by northern, nomadic peoples to the courtlier statues of the Longmen Grottoes in the central Henan province, they stand testament to Buddhism’s popularity and the way it was integrated into Chinese culture.
Tourists visit the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang, Henan province, Dec. 6, 2020. People Visual
Less than a decade after the announcement of the list with the first batch of guobao, China plunged into the turbulence of the decadelong Cultural Revolution. Traditional culture was completely rejected, and many cultural relics and monuments were seriously damaged or even destroyed. And yet all but one of the 180 guobao sites were essentially preserved intact, suggesting just how important the list was for the preservation of China’s cultural relics.
After the Cultural Revolution ended in the late 1970s, China recommitted itself to conserving its cultural heritage. In 1982, 21 years after the first list was released, the Chinese government announced the second batch of guobao. Since then, a new batch has been published every five to eight years. Thus far, a total of eight batches comprising 5,058 sites have been announced. These sites include a wide range of ancient ruins, tombs, buildings, grotto temples, and stone carvings, as well as sites from modern history that attest to China’s transformation into a modern industrial country. It has also functioned as a kind of to-visit list for generations of tourists interested in the country’s past.
The recent discoveries at Sanxingdui — a site included in the third batch of guobao — in the southwestern Sichuan province have sparked renewed interest in archaeology and China’s ancient history. The protection of cultural relics and sites will always be challenged by the temptations of short-term financial gain. But I believe a more reflective approach to history, respect for Chinese traditional culture, and recognition of our multicultural heritage is crystallizing into a collective awareness of the importance of preserving China’s past.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Workers restore a gate of the Forbidden City, Beijing, 1978. Paolo Koch/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images/People Visual)