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When it comes to ancient sites in China, a lot of distressing words get thrown around. “Reconstruction” is probably the most disturbing, especially when you are paying $20 or $30 to gain entry to some of these attractions. However, often in China things are lost in translation and, as we discovered this week, some historic sites are not be as fake as the “Chingrish” descriptions may lead you to believe.
What should be understood is that it’s a case to case basis. For example, when we were in the city of Datong in July, we discovered the entire core of the city was being torn down and rebuilt in a traditional Chinese style in order to boost future tourism. This travesty of faux historic was causing the displacement of thousands of locals out to new-builds in the suburbs.
This is not the only situation in which history is being recreated from scratch, or just invented out of thin air! This though is not actually the focus of this article. In fact, I’m the bearer of good news…
Overuse of the word “Reconstruction”
At the Jiayuguan Fort, the last major base at the very western end of the Great Wall, they have put together a great exhibit about the last 100 years of many major sections of the Great Wall. Placing photos from the early 20th century right next to those from the early 21st century it is very easy to see the difference between then and now.
The levels of reconstruction at different sections of the wall range from significant to none at all. The best thing about this exhibit is how it highlights that many sections, including its own in Jiayuguan, although they are often called reconstructions, a better description in English could be “renovation” or even “restoration” in some cases.
The word “reconstruction”, which is used to describe a number of sections of the Wall, conjures up ideas of a ruin being rebuilt to its original design. In the case of many of these “reconstructions” you can see the Wall looking almost the same 100 years ago with only a few cosmetic improvements having been made in modern times, and safety improvements of course.
You can decide for yourself from the photos in this article if you feel “reconstruction” is a fair way to describe these minor changes.
It should also be noted, especially with religious buildings, that many things were destroyed during the cultural revolution in the mid-20th century and that comparing old photos with new ones only gives you an idea of how well the buildings have been rebuilt and not any confirmation of authenticity. Although the Great Wall was targeted (Some major damage was done in the Gubeikou section) it was far less severe overall than for buildings of superstitious or artistic relevance.
Also, sites may have been originally built hundreds of years ago but they were maintained over time as they were in constant use. Something built in 1362 and still in great condition in 1908 may have survived the test of time because it was looked after. If this living history doesn’t kill the authenticity, why should modern cosmetic repairs be regarded differently?
So what is real and what is not?
The saddest thing is that it is very difficult, even for the discerning traveller, to be aware of whether what they are seeing is genuine history. The answer is to do some investigation of your own before you choose to visit a site.
Travel guide books (as opposed to history books) and tour agencies often gloss over the facts in favour of an unhelpful overview that keeps the tourists flowing in. Dig a little deeper and you may discover the real gems of Chinese history that made it through the cultural revolution with minimal damage.
But remember, reconstructions in China may not be a modern as you first think… There is some real history out there, not just in visiting ruins.