Heritagization in Chinese Cities: Practices and Debates

Title: 1364 | Heritagization in Chinese Cities: Practices and Debates
Area: China and Inner Asia
Stream: Urban Studies
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Lili Wang, Southern University of Science and Technology, China (organizer, presenter)
Xiaokui Wang, Southern University of Science and Technology, China (chair, discussant)
Qingkai Ma, Hangzhou Normal University, China (presenter)
Qian Guo, Université de Lyon, France (presenter)
Yiqing Zhao, Politecnico Di Milano, Italy (presenter)


Since the 2000s, heritagization has become a major strategy of (re)development and city-branding in Chinese cities. From 798 Art District in Beijing to Xintiandi in Shanghai, from the Broad and Narrow Alley in Chengdu to Enning Road in Guangzhou, these urban redevelopment projects try to integrate or remake local cultural heritages into new urban landmarks and reshape the spatial fabric and place identity of redeveloped areas and cities. Underlying these projects are entwined social, economic, and political rationalities, ranging from local boosterism, urban entrepreneurialism, cultural conservation and rehabilitation, to the rise of cultural tourism, etc. These heritagization projects, however, invariably induce intense conflicts, stirring up debates over the principles and impacts of heritagization. A growing tide, heritagization in Chinese cities poses significant and challenging research questions in a wide range of academic fields.

This panel aims to engage with these questions by exploring and problematizing the embedded social politics of heritagization and various stakeholders shaping these politics, e.g. the states, the mass, local growth coalitions, cultural elites, etc. While the four papers are invariably based on solid empirical studies and primary research sources, they are situated in different local contexts (larger cities vs. smaller cities, northern region vs. southern region) and academic disciplines (i.e. urban sociology, urban planning, heritage studies, and communication studies), therefore presenting diverse theoretical perspectives and research approaches. In so doing, the panel aims to stimulate cross-disciplinary debates and provide fresh empirical findings and theoretical insights in the study of heritage politics in China.

Panel Abstracts:
A Third Force? Contesting the Roles of Intellectuals in Reshaping Historic Neighborhoods in Nanjing, China
In mainstream studies of urban redevelopment, intellectuals (experts, scholars, and journalists, and other cultural influencers) are often under-examined or mis-portrayed as a subsidiary to dominant political economic powers to promote capital accumulation or neoliberal “autocratic governance-beyond-the-state.” Inspired by Bourdieu’s notion of intellectual field, this paper rejects the one-sided and over-pessimistic theorization of intellectuals and suggests to approach intellectuals as deeply embedded in social relations and playing complex and dynamic roles in social politics. Through a case study of three groups of intellectuals (planners, local intellectuals, national intellectuals and technocrats, respectively) involved in the redevelopment and conservation of the historic neighborhood of Nanbuting in Nanjing, China, we find that the roles of different groups of intellectuals in China’s urban redevelopment politics are much more complicated than depicted in the existing literature. Notably, local and national intellectuals have formed a successful coalition to prevent the complete demolition of the heritage site, Nanbuting, although they have failed to prevent the local residents from being displaced. This article concludes that local intellectuals should be understood as and encouraged to be a promising political force to unfetter Chinese cities from the formidable effects of neoliberal capital accumulation and make a more just city by producing counter-hegemonic discourses.

Moving Beyond the Authorized Heritage Discourse: The Discourse and Practice of Cultural Heritage in the Meng Lineage in Northern China
This study explores the indigenous discourse and practice of cultural heritage in cultural heritage sites related to Mencius (372 B.C.-289 B.C.) in Zoucheng, Shandong Province in Northern China. Mencius was regarded as another sage in pre-modern China, second only to Confucius. The Temple of Mencius constructed in Northern Song Dynasty (960 A.D.-1127 A.D.), the Mencius Family Mansion where the direct descendants lived, and the cemetery of Mencius and his descendants are all in Zoucheng. The direct descendants of the Meng lineage were actually taking the responsibility of managing these heritage sites. Through interpreting historical records and ethnographic data, this study demonstrates the indigenous discourse of heritage and ways of practicing heritage in this family lineage, before the notion of heritage conservation entered China in the beginning of the 20th century. Confucian scholars did not regard cultural heritage as having innate values. Cultural heritage sites were valued for their contribution to the edification of people rather than for their fabrics. To achieve this goal, cultural heritage sites that were dilapidated were constantly restored and rebuilt. In the paper, I also investigate how this tradition has been transformed. All these sites were put under the management of heritage agencies in the 1950s. Influenced by the ‘Authorized Heritage Discourse’ (Smith, 2006), an overemphasis is given to the materiality of these sites rather than their cultural meanings. This study aims to diversify the discourses of heritage and reactivate the tradition of using heritage for cultural transmission.

The Role of Social Media in the Valorization of Urban Cultural Heritage
The emergence and popularization of social media in China provides not only a new form of expression, but also a new way to convey and transmit culture. It promises a new path to cultural democracy that allows individuals to establish personalized connections with cultural objects and encourages people to form a cultural community as contributors, collaborators and co-creators. In some Chinese cities, social media platforms like WeChat public accounts, Bilibili are quickly becoming new, crucial tools for people to obtain and disseminate information. Such everyday activities on social media profoundly reshaped the interpretation/experience of “legitimate” heritage and facilitated the construction of “illegitimate” living heritage. Situated in communicational studies, this paper aims to understand how urban heritage is characterized, valued, mediated, and presented in the audiovisual products mass-produced on social media platforms in China. Specifically, we seek to understand different communication strategies in terms of cultural expression and connotations in different communication contexts. Finally, we hope to bridge communication studies, specifically, social media studies, and heritage studies, and ask how social media is changing the valorization and inheritance of urban cultural heritage.

Preservation for Growth – Land Value Appreciation and Policy Networks of Heritage-led Redevelopment in China: The Case of Daming Palace Heritage Site Area in Xi’an
Since the 1990s, heritage-led redevelopment has become an important policy instrument in China to enhance inner-city areas by capturing the positive externalities of heritage and cultural facilities, as has occurred earlier in European and U.S. cities. Increasingly, local elites employed heritage preservation as a means to legitimize growth and to excel in the global urban competition. Previous studies have considered heritage-led redevelopment as an example of fostering tourism through the commodification of urban heritage. However, the internal functioning of policy networks of pro-growth coalitions and the mechanisms for the appreciation of real estate has not been fully discussed yet, implying a limited understanding of how heritage preservation contributes to the generation of political and economic values. Drawing on the perspective of China’s growth coalitions and the case study of the Daming Palace heritage site in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, this paper reveals how a heritage-led redevelopment policy network works in the form of land finance. Based on literature survey, semi-structured interviews and field observations, this paper further argues that heritage preservation strengthens local pro-growth coalitions and heritage-making facilitates the appreciation of surrounding mixed-use real estate through the Qujiang development model. The Xi’an case clearly shows how, through these mechanisms, heritage gets preserved and growth promoted while ruling elites benefit from these operations more than other actors at lower levels. This paper calls for further research to examine how different actors mobilize heritage policies and how opponents interact with the pro-growth coalitions

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