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    Temple Debacle Reveals Struggle for Cultural Conservation

    Even with legal protections, heritage is no match for property development.

    In a case that demonstrates the difficulties involved in protecting China’s extensive ancient heritage amid rapid urbanization, a museum director in northwestern China is under investigation by authorities, apparently because he opposed commercial development in an area immediately surrounding an ancient temple.   

    Liu Zuopeng, who for three years oversaw the protection of cultural relics at Shangluo Dayun Temple, in Shaanxi province, has come under scrutiny by the Shangluo municipal discipline inspection commission, according to a report on Friday by Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper.

    Authorities in Shangluo could not be immediately reached for comment on Monday by Sixth Tone, and there was no official announcement as to the precise reasons why Liu is under investigation.

    Yan Yuhong, the deputy director of the city’s bureau of culture, radio, and press, told The Paper that the commission was simply doing its job. “It’s the commission’s duty to investigate Liu,” Yan said, declining to comment on how the investigation was progressing. 

    In an interview with Sixth Tone on Friday, Liu said he believes he’s being investigated because online comments blaming the authorities for permitting inappropriate development in the area have been wrongly attributed to him.

    Shangluo Dayun Temple was built during the Tang dynasty in tribute to the Dayun Sutra, a Buddhist verse about a female bodhisattva — a person dedicated to achieving Buddhahood — that was popularized during Empress Wu Zetian's reign because it was seen to legitimize her rule. Standing on grounds that stretch over 8,000 square meters, the Shangluo Dayun Temple is the best preserved of many Dayun temples built in the seventh century and is acknowledged by Shaanxi province as a protected historic site. 

    In 1996, the Shangluo Museum was built at the site to protect and promote the temple’s storied heritage. But a nearby construction project has spelled trouble for the temple since 2010.

    Liu has been firm in his opposition to the development around the temple. “It has totally destroyed the historical image and atmosphere,” he told Sixth Tone. He claims to have done everything within his power to protect the temple.

    Liu says vibrations from the construction site have caused cracks in the temple’s walls. He also fears that the construction will cause water to seep into the temple, as the surrounding development is higher than the temple grounds. “It’s always damp and humid in the temple now,” he said.

    The project is a major redevelopment of Shangluo’s city center, commissioned by municipal authorities and contracted to construction company Kaihua. With a 560 million-yuan ($80 million) investment, the development will see the old city transformed — and the ancient temple surrounded by commercial buildings. 

    Liu says the development violates a 1992 local regulation that forbids construction within a 50-meter radius of the temple. “Half of the commercial buildings are within the protected area of Dayun Temple,” he said. “The closest building is only 12 meters away.” 

    But when Liu became the museum director in 2014, he found that the museum’s previous management had already agreed a year earlier to allow the developer to alter the temple’s boundaries as long as the total square footage of the grounds remains unchanged.

    Without approval from the Shaanxi Provincial Bureau of Cultural Heritage, a 3-meter-deep construction trench was dug within the temple’s original boundaries, and more than 1,400 square meters of the grounds were occupied by the developer in 2014. The developer also transplanted an ancient mulberry tree and dismantled four rooms built in the Ming dynasty.

    “It’s a prime location for the developer, but obviously, it’s illegal!” Liu said. 

    Heritage laws have been no match for the development project. According to The Paper, the provincial cultural heritage bureau’s efforts to stop the construction in 2012 and 2013 failed. In 2015, Liu filed a lawsuit against the developer, questioning the validity of the earlier agreement to renegotiate the temple’s boundaries. A local court decided in favor of Liu’s claim in September that year and ordered the developer to dismantle the walls it had built within the temple grounds.

    Yet the verdict didn’t stop the developer from continuing construction within 50 meters of the temple.

    In 2015, the museum published a draft temple-protection plan that proposed building a tourist zone around the temple and nearby lakes. But in the summer of 2016, the local government announced that the Shangluo Museum would no longer be in charge of the Shangluo Dayun Temple and began investigating Liu in August. 

    Shangluo’s culture, radio, and press bureau decided in April 2016 to establish a new department called the Shangluo Heritage Preservation Center, directly supervised by the bureau, to replace Shangluo Museum in managing the temple and its relics. “We’re actively perfecting the protection plan,” said bureau deputy director Yan. Liu told Sixth Tone that he hasn’t yet received the results of the investigation.

    A national heritage survey conducted between 2007 and 2011 showed that many invaluable historic sites have been destroyed over the last three decades in China. Compared to an earlier survey in the 1980s, the recent survey reported that more than 44,000 heritage sites had disappeared. Of the remaining sites, one-quarter were found to be in poor condition.

    In November, a nongovernmental conservation organization filed a lawsuit against municipal authorities in Dalian, northeastern China’s Liaoning province, over a similar urban renewal project in a historic district. 

    With contributions from Lin Qiqing.

    (Header image: Bricks are piled inside Shangluo Dayun Temple in Shangluo, Shaanxi province, Dec. 18, 2016. A shopping mall has been built next to the temple. Wu Fei/VCG)