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China Now Has a 20th-Century Architectural Heritage List

A country with an uneasy relationship to its past will preserve 98 buildings of the 20th century for future generations

The Great Hall of the People in Beijing is now on a 20th-century cultural preservation list in China. (Tomoaki INABA - Flickr/Creative Commons)
smithsonian.com

What’s the most important 20th-century building in China? You can’t be blamed for not knowing—until now, the country’s architectural preservation efforts have primarily focused on its ancient treasures. But that’s about to change. As the Agence France-Presse​ reports, the country has created a national list of 20th-century architectural sites worth preserving.

It’s called the 20th-Century Chinese Architectural Heritage List, and the AFP writes that it is 98 sites strong. Drafted by the Chinese Society of Cultural Relics and the Architectural Society of China, the list includes landmarks that track a chaotic century of diverse architectural styles and influences.

Some of the sites on the list will be familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a picture of China, like the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. The imposing structure was built by more than 30,000 people during the late 1950s and houses the Communist Party of China’s National Congress when it convenes every five years. It has also hosted the funerals and memorials of many of China’s most significant leaders. Though it’s not acknowledged by the Chinese government, the Great Hall also overlooks the site of one of the most important moments in modern Chinese history: the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

There are less familiar sites on the list, too, like the Saint Sophia Cathedral in Harbin. The church was once Eastern Orthodox and served as a symbol of Russians in China in a city once called the “Moscow of the East.” But after the Communist government took over in 1949, Orthodox clergy was forced out of the country and the government took over Eastern Orthodox churches. Today, the Orthodox Church is slowly coming back to China as ties with Russia improve, but the Cathedral has not been restored to a church. Instead, it is a museum celebrating the history of Harbin.

A representative of the Society of Cultural Relics tells China Daily’s Wang Kaihao that it’s important to preserve these 20th-century sites lest their historical significance “be irreversibly lost.” The move embodies China’s slow journey toward preserving its cultural treasures—one that was threatened during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, when historic sites were often destroyed wholesale in the name of progress. The naming of important 20th-century sites also contains a veiled critique of some of the weirder buildings that have been popping up all over China—a movement that has prompted a government crackdown.

China isn’t always great at preserving its cultural treasures; just this month, a botched restoration of the Great Wall of China went viral. But adding 20th-century heritage to the country’s radar means that the buildings that stood witness to some of the country’s most powerful events may make it into the future. For a country with a penchant for rewriting its own history, that’s an important step. The China of the future may never stop trying to manipulate its past, but at least the physical remnants of many of those historic moments will be preserved for future generations.

(h/t Curbed)

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