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Asia Research Institute

Working Paper Series No. 133

In Search of Authenticity

in Historic Cities in Transformation:

The Case of Pingyao, China

Wang Shu-Yi

Asia Research Institute

National University of Singapore

ariwsy@nus.edu.sg

January 2010

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ARI Working Paper No. 133

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INTRODUCTION

The definition of the word authenticity is dramatically dependent upon the purposes and
perspectives of the argument in which it is used. This holds particularly for arguments in two
discourses within the field of architecture that are related to topics of conservation in historic
cities. First, the discourse on authenticity in conservation, which has often focused on the
restoration of buildings and monuments; and second, the one on the modern value of
authenticity, which has centered on its relations with heritage tourism. The former
concentrates on the physical environment of historic cities, and has usually been implemented
from architectural perspectives in order to safeguard the original integrity of man-made
artifacts. The latter reflects the high value of the cultural capital stemming from historic
cities, and mostly revolves around the experience of the authenticity of sites as encountered
by tourists. However, an historic city is a living place, where people live their daily lives. The
evaluation of its authenticity can not solely concentrate on its physical environment, since the
historic city has aged and weathered across time.1 On the other hand, the over-emphasis of
the authenticity in tourist setting 2 likely damages the social and cultural fabric of the
historic city due to mutually exclusive activity patterns, since tourism activities stimulated
and shaped by exogenous factors replace earlier indigenously motivated activities connected
to buildings and monuments, as I have argued elsewhere.3
Compared with the West, the concept of conservation of urban settlements, cities and towns
in Asia is relatively new. The development of the tourism industry in the 1980s was the major
reason behind the rise of the popularity of heritage tourism, which has prevented historic sites
from destruction and has facilitated the discourses of authenticity in its modern meaning.
However, when the economic value outweighs the cultural value among a community, it is
easy to turn the historic living places into commercial products to encourage touristic
consumption.4 In order to attract more tourists, the opinions and satisfactions of the tourists
have become the priority, while conservation of buildings and monuments fixes their
appearance for a certain period of their past only yielding frozen history, which is opposed
to the original intention of urban conservation to continue local history in an evolutionary
process. As a result, authenticity in this notion is conceived as to attract more tourists for
immediate economic profits and conservation is geared to enhance economic purposes. In the
long run, this damages an evolutionary approach to authenticity in diverse environments,
particularly in historic cities that accommodate the daily life of their local populations.
If the priority objective of preserving an historic city was to continue the local way of life,
urban conservation should have been oriented to maintain the natural characteristics of a
place, and the authenticity in an historic city should pertain to the stimulation of sense of
place through evolutionary processes. In this article, I argue that authenticity in a historic city
is rooted in its social activities and cultural attributes generated in its historic setting, is
conveyed through the harmony between the physical, social and cultural environment, and is
shown in the form of collective memory among a group of people. This aspect is particularly
inherent to historic cities in Asia. A traditional Chinese walled city, the Ancient City of
1

Rodwell, Sustainability and the holistic approach to the conservation of historic cities.

MacCannell, Staged authenticity: arrangements of social space in tourist settings, 593.

Wang, Traditional anchor elements and cultural continuity in an historic World Heritage city - the Ancient City of Pingyao, China.

Sack, Place, Modernity, and the Consumer's World: A Relational Framework for Geographical Analysis.

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Pingyao, is chosen for a case study for its vivid community life with less tourism
development in 2006 when the research on which this article is based started. The purpose of
the case study is to explain the important role of traditional anchor elements in formulating
the authenticity in sense of place. Traditional anchor elements are the major structures or
buildings which accommodate the main activities of a city, especially the ones with high
levels of commercial and social significance. 5 In Pingyao, they are the City Tower, the
Yamen (Ching administrative office), the Temple of the City-God, the Wen Miao (Temple of
Civil Culture), the Wu Miao (Temple of Warfare), the Taoist Temple, the City Wall, and the
commercial streets along the South, West, and East Streets.

THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK
Sense of Place
Sense of place is relatively abstract. The concept of place has been widely discussed by
geographers, sociologists, psychologists and planners. Three essential elements compose a
place: location, locale, and sense of place.6 The majority of contemporary writing about place
focuses on the realm of meaning and experience,7 emphasizing that the meaning of a place
cannot exist without the support of a strong social context and a well-organized physical
environment. In addition, authors have argued that the primary function of place is to
engender a sense of belonging and attachment. 8 Consequently, all these attributes of the
socio-cultural matrix give individuals a sense of place, a subjective territorial identity,9
which delineates the importance of physical setting in contributing to the formation of
peoples emotions towards places.
Sense of place can be a relational place concept where undifferentiated space becomes place
as we endow it with value,10 the local structure of feeling,11 or a conceptualization that
facilitates the systematic characterization of peoples feelings and beliefs to particular
settings, for example their place of residence, based on a combination of use, attentiveness
and emotion. 12 On a broad scale, sense of place is generally considered a highly selfconscious act of creating meaning in urban landscapes.13 A place meaningful to local people
is a place that brings up unique memories or that formulates a sense of place for an individual
or groups. However, not every person experiences the same level of sense of place.
5

Karimi, Urban conservation and spatial transformation: preserving the fragments or maintaining the 'spatial spirit'.

Agnew, A theory of place and politics, 28.

Cresswell, Place: A Short Introduction.

Proshansky et al., Place-identity: Physical world socialization of the self; Relph, Place and Placelessness; Tuan, Rootedness versus
sense of place.

Agnew, op. cit., 28.

10

Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, 6.

11

Williams, R. Marxism and Literature, 1977, quoted in Agnew, op. cit., 27.

12

Hummon, Community attachment: local sentiment and sense of place; Stokowski, Languages of place and discourses of power:
constructing new senses of place, 369.

13

Arefi, Non-place and placelessness as narratives of loss: rethinking the notion of place, 184.

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Sense of place is socially constructed, is created through the interactions between people and
the distinguishing settings in historic cities, and is being inside and belonging to your place
both as an individual and as a member of a community. 14 This particularly reflects that
stronger feelings of rootedness of residents help in better building sense of place.15 A person
has to reside in a place for a period of time to develop a sense of place, since physical and
emotional attachment is essential to developing this sensibility. In other words, sense of place
comes from the accumulation of experiences in space and time.
Compared with modern Western society with high mobility, 16 Asian populations have a
higher tendency to live a lifetime in one place. Long-time residence helps to establish the
sense of place among local populations and build stronger bonds with the place, particularly
in Asian cities, where their building sense of place is stimulated through collective memory
in society.17 As Cresswell says, although memory is personal, it is also social and is inscribed
in the landscape - as public memory.18 Sense of place cannot be reproduced in an historical
context, and is maintained when social memory and social space conjoin to produce much of
the context for modern identities.19 As Jivn and Larkham have argued, it is group identity,
the people as a society, that is closely linked with the form and history of place, creating a
sense of place.20 Accordingly, the characteristics of a place are reflected in the day-to-day
interplay between buildings, spaces, social activities, and ritual commemorations,21 which
are essential elements when talking about authenticity in an historic city.
Urban Conservation of Living Cities
The origins of historic preservation in Great Britain were primarily intellectual and artistic.22
The attention to historic preservation and conservation in its early stages was primarily
focusing on the restoration of ancient monuments. To most preservationists and
conservationists, the argument of authenticity of the artifacts was centered on the materials
and form of the objects. After World War II, the attention was switched to historic cities and
towns due to mass destruction from war and subsequent rapid economic development. 23
However, the preservation of an historic city is more problematic than building preservation
due to the projected simultaneous realization of historical significance as well as modern
functions in the contemporary era. 24 The purposes of preserving the past nowadays are
14

Relph, op. cit., 65.

15

Hay, Sense of place in development context; Kianicka et al., Locals' and tourists' sense of place: a case study of a Swiss alpine
village.

16

Tuan 1980, op. cit.

17

Lowenthal, Environmental perception: preserving the past.

18

Cresswell, op. cit.

19

Hoelscher & Alderman, Memory and place: geographies of a critical relationship, 348.

20

Jivn and Larkham, Sense of place, authenticity and character: a commentary, 69.

21

Nasser, Cultural continuity and meaning of place: sustaining historic cities of the Islamicate world, 77.

22

Barthel, Historic preservation: a comparative analyses.

23

Jokilehto, International trends in historic preservation: from ancient monuments to living cultures.

[24] Karimi, op. cit., 221.

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various, and the high value of cultural capital of historic cities is the major concern,
particularly in Asia. Most historic cities that have survived destruction intend to develop
tourism industry, which tends to provide selective nostalgia and novelty to stimulate place
commodification.25 However, a living historic city is the places for local residents to reside,
shop, eat, work, and play. It is an accumulation of man-made artifacts and intangible culture.
Urban conservation of a living historic city cannot only focus on artifacts for tourism
purposes. Tourist-driven conservation indeed damages the continuity of traditional culture
and its transformations, when the tourist needs are considered more important than the local
needs.
Several authors emphasize the importance of maintaining the urban fabric and sense of place
in the city from different perspectives. For Nasser and Rodwell, urban conservation is a
means to maintain cultural continuity and sustainability in an historic city, instead of
fossilizing history during the conservation process.26 Karimi claims that the key to maintain
the spatial spirit of an historic city is to preserve the physical characteristics of the old cores
as the focal point of history and culture in the modern cities as well as the center for creating
life, activity and socio-economic viability. 27 For urban planners and designers in
contemporary studies on place, sense of place plays an important role in urban design to
rekindle the meaning of historic cities through the recognition of physical environment as one
of the elements consisting of a place.28 Authors like Kropf, Assi, Jivn and Larkham, and Ouf
reaffirm the close connection between sense of place and authenticity in urban design in an
historic city. Ouf points out the creation of sense of place as an imaginable physical setting
with a strong meaning is more important than the issue of authenticity in historic cities.29
Kropt, and Jivn and Larkham share a similar conception that the overall character and
appearance of places and buildings in historic cities could be more important, to more
people, than the authenticity of original materials.30
These ideas echo international treaties such as the Washington Charter31 (1987) and the Burra
Charter32 (1999), which point out the significance of preserving the varied functions that a
town or urban area has acquired over time and its importance in maintaining the authenticity
of historic settlements, in addition to form, materials and appearance. Furthermore, the Nara
Document on Authenticity33 (1994) challenges traditional thinking in the conservation field
in the Western doctrine (cf. article 1). It claims that cultural heritage diversity that exists in
time and space needs to be respected, because different cultures are rooted in particular forms
and means of operation. The authenticity of historic settlements has its evolutionary meaning,
25

Arefi, op. cit., 179-180.

26

Nasser, op. cit.; Rodwell, op. cit.

27

Karimi, op. cit., 230.

28 Milligan, Interactional past and potential: the social construction of place attachment; Stedman, "Is it really just a social construction?
The contribution of the physical environment to sense of place".
29

Ouf, Authenticity and the sense of place in urban design.

30

Kropt, Urban tissue and the character of towns; Jivn and Larkham op. cit.

31

ICOMOS, 1987, Charter for the Conservation of Historic Towns and urban Areas.

32

Australian ICOMOS, 1999, Burra Charter.

33

ICOMOS, 1994, The Nara Document on Authenticity.

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and should be distinguished from the authenticity of materials. This provides a wide spectrum
of possible approaches to the meaning of authenticity and better reflects the sense of
authenticity in Asia.

THE ANCIENT CITY OF PINGYAO, CHINA


The Dilemma of Urban Conservation in China
Although the concept of historic preservation in China started to draw attention in the early
twentieth century under the influence of European intellectuals, it only became an actively
debated topic among academics and in the public sector after 1978 when tourism
development became possible in China.34 Although both researchers and city managers have
spent considerable effort to balance rapid development with historic preservation, many
fundamental problems remain unsolved. As a result, tourism development has easily taken
over priority while preservation discourses are still in progress.
When Chinese Socialism was established in 1949, cultural heritage from previous dynasties,
not to mention cultural preservation, was ignored. When China re-opened beginning with
Deng Xiaopings Open Door policies of 1978, the desire for modernity and the influence of
the West have challenged traditional culture in Chinese society and have accelerated the
destruction of historic cities. Since 1982, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage in
China (SACH) started to designate Famous National Historic and Cultural Cities. 35 The
original purpose of this designation program was to ensure the sustainability of life in the
designated cities/districts and to help those cities develop into living towns that could
accommodate the modern needs of the local residents. However, economic benefit has since
become the major reason to facilitate historic preservation in China.
The Ancient City of Pingyao in Shanxi, China, is considered to be the only existing walled
city built according to the dictates of Han culture, and it was designated as a World Heritage
Site by UNESCO in 1997. The Ancient City of Pingyao was the birthplace of the draft
banking system during Ming and Ching Dynasties (1368-1911). The walled city was a selfsufficient city with a static population when it was first built. The symmetrical arrangement
of traditional anchor elements and city layout represented the belief system and cultural
canons in the feudal system. In traditional China, it was believed that the city was managed
by both humans and gods. The arrangement of traditional anchor elements in the walled city
of Pingyao, including the Yamen and the Temples, signified these two realms and reflected
the forms of social control under the imperial administrative and religious system. The Yamen
was the administrative office of the feudal system, and temples were the meeting place
for both secular and sacred business.36 Temples were open to all sections of society. Access
to these public buildings was never limited to certain groups of people, the rich or the poor,
women or men, but remained open to all who wished to take advantage of them.
Consequently, temple courtyards were considered open spaces for multiple purposes.
Temples provided the venue for most activities in the traditional city, including annual
festivals, temple market activities, and social gatherings other than family events.
34

Sofield & Li, Tourism Development and Cultural Policies in China.

35

It is called lishi wenhua mincheng. The ancient city of Pingyao was designated in 1986.

36

Feuchtwang, School-temple and city god, 588.

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After the Chinese Socialist Revolution in 1949, China switched to a new political system that
disrupted the lifestyle, beliefs, institutional behavior and social structure that comprised the
traditional culture as it had existed in the feudal system. Traditional anchor elements from
previous dynasties, such as temples and governmental buildings, were converted into
administrative structures or schools with seemingly random additions to meet modern living
needs. Temple fairs were replaced by Socialist cultural performances and modern operas
related to Maoism and patriotism. While all temples lost their religious attributes and
meaning, temple courtyards remained places for hosting group activities, though of a
different nature: group dances, team sporting events, and standardized exercises, which were
popular among the work units and peoples communes. The life of the locals evolved around
the temples, and the courtyard of temples can be seen as the civic centers in the city. In
addition, traditional anchor elements played significant roles in constituting the spatial system
in Chinese society: the religious centers, community centers, and the media stimulated a
sense of place.
Since its designation as World Heritage Site, the Ancient City of Pingyao has focused on the
development of heritage tourism. Urban conservation was centered on the restoration of
traditional anchor elements back to their traditional form and style but without religious
functions, primarily for tourist usage. A fee is charged to enter these structures. Such urban
conservation policy in China indeed froze history in practical applications as indicated in the
introduction, and tourism-driven development has turned most traditional structures into
tourist destinations geared toward tourist consumption. The original community-based
activities are now scattered around outside the original structures. The exclusive tourist usage
of traditional elements has created discontinuities of collective memory due to the change of
social roles that these elements have played in the past. In the case of Pingyao, the mass
restoration of traditional anchor elements has done little to help shape a sense of place for the
local population for two reasons. First, the emphasis on the development of heritage tourism
produces authenticity in tourist setting and has turned the historic city into a tourist
destination. Second, the elimination of local activities from Pingyaos tourism district,
specifically its traditional anchor elements, has disrupted the development of sense of place in
the historic city.
Catalysts of Sense of Place in Pingyao
The Ancient City of Pingyao in Shanxi, China, is considered to be the only city with existing
walls built according to the dictates of Han culture, and was designated as a World Heritage
Site by UNESCO in 1997. It was the origin of the draft banking system during Ming and
Ching Dynasties. The walled city was a self-sufficient city with a symmetrical arrangement
and static population when it was first built. After the Chinese Socialist Revolution in 1949,
China switched to a new political system that disrupted the lifestyle, beliefs, institutional
behavior and social structure that comprised the traditional culture as it had existed in the
feudal system. Traditional anchor elements from previous dynasties, for example, temples
and governmental buildings were converted into administrative structures or schools.
In traditional China, it was believed that the city was managed by both humans and Gods.
The arrangement of traditional anchor elements in the walled city of Pingyao, including the
Yamen and the Temples, signified these two realms and the forms of social control under the
imperial administrative and religious system. The Yamen was the administrative office of the
feudal system, and temples were the meeting place for both secular and sacred

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business.37 Temples were open to all sections of society.38 Access to these public buildings
was never limited to certain groups of people, the rich or the poor, women or men, but
remained open to all who wished to take advantage of them. Consequently, temple courtyards
were considered open spaces for multiple purposes. Temples provided the venue for most
activities in the traditional city, including annual festivals, temple market activities, and
social gatherings other than family events. In the Communist period, temple fairs were
replaced by Socialist cultural performances and modern operas related to Maoism and
patriotism. While all temples lost their religious attributes and meaning, temple courtyards
remained places for hosting group activities, though of a different nature: group dances, team
sporting events, and standardized exercises, which were popular among the work units and
peoples communes.
In sum, temple courtyards were the major sources of open space for group activities of local
residents. The life of the locals evolved around the temples, and the courtyard of temples can
be seen as the civic centers in the city. In addition, traditional anchor elements played
significant roles in constituting the spatial system in Chinese society: the religious centers,
community centers, and the media stimulated a sense of place.
Survey on Collective Memory
As mentioned earlier sense of place is subjectively constructed, is based on long-term
interaction between people and a place, and is imbedded in the society with a form of
collective memory. In order to examine the connection between people and the way sense of
place is conceived, I conducted interviews with 50 residents about their memories of places
in Pingyao in 2006. In response to an open-ended question39, respondents chose places in the
walled city that had meant the most to them in their life, and each told a brief story from his
or her personal experience about one or two places of their own choosing. In all, 41 out of 50
interviewees answered the question.
In this study, gender of the respondents was not a concern. However, respondents older than
40 years were favored, since they had been through at least two political policy phases and
were thus a better source of information on events that happened at various places in the
walled city. In the case of the Ancient City of Pingyao, the historical attachment to places of
respondents is the other critical key to this research in addition to age, since most of the
current inhabitants of the walled city are not descendants of the original owners of the
traditional courtyard houses. The relationship between people and places, in this study, is
investigated through the descriptions of places according to the personal memories of local
residents themselves, instead of their knowledge about the distant history of the city.

[37] Feuchtwang, School-temple and city god, 588.


[38] Xu, The Chinese City in Space and Time - the Development of Urban Form in Suzhou.
[39] The open-ended question is Please indicate or draw two places within the walled city and any event happened in these places which
are impressed or meaningful to you, if any.

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AUTHENTICITY IN SENSE OF PLACE THROUGH URBAN CONSERVATION


Space, Activities and Memory
Before the Ancient City of Pingyao became a popular tourist destination, it had always been a
living city that served approximately 350,000 local people living inside and outside the
walled city. In my research, respondents memories of places in the Ancient City of Pingyao
show the variety of their life experiences. These experiences were dynamic and were
cultivated through the interaction between the respondents and certain places.
According to my research results, most places selected by the respondents as a response to
the open-ended question mentioned above were traditional anchor elements and commercial
streets, which had social, functional and spatial roles in the city. They were the Temple of the
City God, the City Wall, the Main Streets, the Yamen, the Wen Miao (the Temple of Civil
Culture), the City Tower and the Taoist Temple. The result echoes Karimis research on
maintaining the spatial spirit of historic cities with economic, social and cultural meanings.
The traditional anchor elements, specifically the temples, were not only religious places in
the walled city, but also social spaces with the center courtyards as open spaces for special
gatherings and daily activities.
Because each temple has a specific social meaning and religious function for local residents,
the uniqueness of a temple assists to generate distinguished activities within it. In traditional
Han culture, the City-God was believed to manage the spirits of the local dead. The form of
social control provided by the City-God was a supplement to the feudal system; thus, the
temple of the City-God was the activity center of different guilds for trading and meetings. It
was the most popular place for hosting local activities. Even though the Temple of the City
God was converted into the Headquarters of the Workers Union and the workers club after
1949; it was still the hub of local activities.
A few direct quotes from respondents answers will provide illuminating insights:
In the 50s, there were many activities happening at the Temple of the City
God, such as the circus and local Jin Opera. I went to watch shows and bought
snacks. Life was harsh at that moment, so I only got an allowance to buy
snacks that I liked when I went to watch shows. Lots of vendors would come
and sell different things (05, 28).40
Traditional Chinese architecture was usually square in shape, with a courtyard located in the
center of a compound. Temple courtyards with big shade trees worked as open spaces, and
served as communal spaces for local residents.
Before the Temple of City God was restored, there were not this many
structures inside the temple. Thus, the youth would play volleyball and the
elders would play checkers and chess in the courtyard. Lots of activities were
going on everyday in the morning and afternoon. It was a place for community
entertainment (34).

40

The numbers here indicate the sequential numbers of the residents survey that I did in 2006.

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In rural China, most temples usually served as part of the school system rather than a temple
with social and religious functions due to the lack of financial support. The Wen Miao was
famous for its educational function to the locals, and the temples Main Hall only opened
when a local resident won the place of Number One Scholar (zuang yuan) of the imperial
examination. After 1949, most temples were converted into elementary and high schools.
Most of the compound of the Wen Miao became Pingyao Middle School, the biggest school
in Pingyao.
It was a breezy, cool summer. We played in the courtyard in front of the Main
Hall, and studied the content of the inscriptions on the steles. Several of my
friends and I played in front of the idols. They were big and tall with awful
expressions on their faces (33). I had such a wonderful three years at the
Pingyao Middle School. That was the best time of my life (21). In the 60s,
architectural experts from the Qinghua University in Beijing and Tonji
University in Shanghai came to Pingyao to inspect the Main Hall of the temple.
It was said that the Main Hall had an exceptional quality of architectural
excellence and aesthetics when compared with other Main Halls of Wen Miao
in the entire nation. I am so proud that I had my class there (07).
The Taoist Temple was famous for its tranquility and fairyland-like environment, and was
usually the symbol of philanthropy in the society. In feudal times, the Taoist Temple was the
place where the rich gave out free food to the beggars and the poor families. After 1949, the
religious meaning of the temple disappeared, and it became the Bureau of Food
Administration.
The Taoist Temple was the station of food and oil. Local residents went for
food with food stamps. I used to go there with my grandpa to receive corn
flour, rice and oil (04, 15).
In addition to daily activities, political events also help in building up the collective memories
that stimulate sense of place in the locals. The Cultural Revolution in China between 1966
and 1976 was a severe one that most people bore in mind.
In 1966, the February Storm 41 came to Pingyao. The Communist Cadre
rummaged precious goods from a landlords house by the South Gate, and
displayed all of their collection at the Temple of the City God. I saw gold
ingots (yuan bao), gold and silver jewelry and antiques (01). During the
Cultural Revolution, there was a huge debate between two parties. They
marched on the Main Street (14). Buildings along major streets were painted
in red or covered with slogans in red Viva Proletariat, Viva Chairman
Mao (01). Most faades of shops along the Main Streets were either torn
down or covered with red boards (18). People died on the top of the city wall
and were buried inside the Temple of the City God (04). A great amount of the
excellent structure of the Temple of the City God was destroyed (03, 25).
In addition to temple courtyards, the Main Streets with economic functions were also the
important places to perform social activities and to create collective meaning to the locals. In
the City and County of Pingyao, only 45,000 people lived inside the walled city before the
[41] One of the major events during the Cultural Revolution, which happened in February of 1967.

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World Heritage designation. A big portion of the population living outside the city only
visited the walled city to do business or shop during special occasions. Thus, the Main
Streets, including the South, West, and East Streets, have served as major shopping areas for
local residents in different political periods. To some people in the rural areas, it was
considered as a novelty in their life to visit the city center.
When I was little, I went to South Street with my mom and my brothers to buy
quilts (12). It was after the Chinese Revolution. I was little. Grandpa and I
stayed in a tavern on Nan Da Street (the South Street). Vendors sold breakfast
and snacks on the street in the morning (05).
From the time it was first built until the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), the City
Wall was used to protect all who lived inside the walled city from attack. After the Chinese
Revolution, the City Wall no longer served the function of defense, and became more of a
landmark with little actual function.
I grew up close to the foot of the wall. When I was a boy, I usually played
around the city wall, climbing up to the top of the wall and sliding down along
the downspout. That was so fun (30). Sometimes we would climb up to the
city wall and play poker at the crenel towers (49).
Authentic Historic City and Conservation
According to various international and national treaties, the purpose of urban conservation is
to maintain the physical setting of historic cities. This is especially relevant for traditional
anchor elements in Asian settlements, in order to continue their community-oriented
purposes, and to continue the functional interaction between people and the places in which
they live. A city is not materially original or genuine, thus, the authenticity in historic cities is
reflected in the continuation of traditions and traditional types of function and use42 in a
transformational and sustainable manner. From the viewpoint of urban design and planning,
urban development and transformation affect the essence of authenticity for a given time and
audience in a natural, evolutionary process. Hence, the concept of authenticity should be
consistent with the idea of sense of place for two reasons: first, sense of place changes over
time; second, the authenticity of historical reality is subject to interpretation.43
An authentic urban context that sustains local activities and generates social memories
reflects sense of place, which comes from a full awareness of places for what they are as
products of mans intentions and the meaningful settings for human activities, or from a
profound and unselfconscious identity with place. 44 According to the present research
results, sense of place is created through the setting of a place and the activities within,
underpinned with space and time. Sense of place plays an important role in emphasizing the
meaning of places, shown through collective memory. It reveals the historical background
and intrinsic value of a place that forms the place identity among a local population. In this
case, the nature of authenticity is completed with an urban conservation effort on retaining

42

Assi, Searching for the concept of authenticity: implementation guidelines.

43

Schouten, Heritage as Historical Reality.

44

Relph, op. cit., 64.

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the integrity of a city and maintaining of sense of place within that city through the
evolutionary process (see the diagram below).
Authenticity
Sense of place

Urban Conservation
Physical setting/Traditional
anchor elements
Community-oriented purpose
Functional interaction

Meaning of place
Collective memory
Subjective feeling

People/activities

In the case of Pingyao, the concept of adaptive use of traditional anchor elements was applied
through many generations, from feudal society to the early stages of Socialist China, in order
to accommodate the political and social changes. Nasser says, [b]uildings were conserved
chiefly owing to the continued ability of the building to serve its intended purpose.45 My
research results reinforce the importance of traditional anchor elements as community
centers, activities centers, and social media for local residents in different political periods.
Most people have a strong relationship with these elements ranging from daily life to
occasional personal experience. Even though the life styles, customs and belief system have
been affected by political ideology change, the traditional anchor elements have always been
the centers of community activities. They have significant meaning in the life experiences of
local residents and play important roles in building up a collective memory and a sense of
place.
Although the discussion of the relationship between urban conservation and sense of place
usually centered on tourism development for the purpose of nostalgia and novelty in
contemporary times, tourism development was indeed the major reason that prevented the
Ancient City of Pingyao from destruction. The urban conservation of a historic city has to
pertain to local development, which sustains the functional interaction between local
population and places; however, the introduction of tourism dramatically changed local
residents relationships to the traditional anchor elements in the walled city. Since 1997,
heritage tourism has dominated economic development and cultural development in the
walled city of Pingyao. The conscious re-interpretation of the past for the purpose of tourism
development has affected the usage and restoration methods of the traditional anchor
elements. Traditional anchor elements in the walled city that used to be the centers of
community activities are now tourist destinations with no religious functions. Tourism-driven
policies of urban conservation and environmental development indeed worked to squeeze
local activities out of traditional anchor elements. The elimination of local activities from
traditional anchor elements transforms the meaning of the conserved schemata and uses
them as tourism/economic resources,46 and indirectly creates authenticity in tourist setting.
45

Nasser, op. cit., 79.

46

Gospodini, Urban morphology and place identity in European cities: built heritage and innovative design, 228.

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CONCLUSION

Although the concept of urban conservation in Asia was developed relatively late, the
authenticity of an historic environment, following the Western concept, was usually centered
on its architectural excellence. The research on social fabric in and cultural aspects of historic
settlements was separated from settlements physical environments, let alone to say that they
were included in considerations about the degree of authenticity in an historic city.
However, an historic city is a living place where people live through different times, and it
is the accumulation of man-made forms and their functional interaction with the society. The
identity of a historic city is revealed by the evolution of its physical heritage and its human
culture, and it anticipates continuity and works with it.47 Maintaining the integrity, cultural
identity, and historical continuity of a place are the major reasons to conserve and regenerate
it. In other words, the traditional anchor elements, in the case of Pingyao, cannot exist
without the support of their cultural surroundings, which reveal their meanings.
The results of my study demonstrate that the functional change of traditional anchor elements
from local use to tourism use is threatening the nature of authenticity of the historic city. The
memorable events described by respondents during my interviews will not be shared by
future generations because places have lost their original social meaning and significance,
and because local activities have disappeared from their original places, been transformed
into different forms, or presented in different fashions. If the purpose of urban conservation is
to maintain the local way of life and to sustain the local culture and social fabric, the search
for authenticity has to center on the social and cultural character of places, in addition to the
wholeness of their historic settings. In the case of the Ancient City of Pingyao, it is the sense
of place evolving through traditional anchor elements that generate the meaning of the place
to local population.
The historic environment is not static; on the contrary, it evolves and is adjusted according to
the needs of society across time. For a poor city like the Ancient City of Pingyao without
natural resources, tourism development has become an important possibility for the future,
and has led to a tourism-driven preservation. However, whether tourism development is the
only option for the future of historic cities remains a question. The urban conservation of
historic cities under the impact of rapid development is urgent and needs careful planning.
This is especially obvious in China. If tourism development is inevitable in historic cities,
urban conservation should be seen as a tool with which to bridge development and
preservation, to prevent the exclusion of local residents and to benefit them while
simultaneously hosting the tourists. Changing the functions of traditional anchor elements to
respond to the needs of tourists profoundly influences local life and the continuity of local
culture, and indirectly affects the building of sense of place among local populations. The
inclusion of local activities alongside tourism in historical environments should be a major
concern during processes of urban conservation and development, which will help to find
proper ways to develop historic cities into both living places for local populations and vibrant
destinations for tourists.

47

Rodwell, op. cit., 68.

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