You are on page 1of 9

Title: From a Han cultural city to a World Heritage Site

By Shu-Yi Wang, Ph.D. Candidate

School of Architecture and City Planning, University of Colorado
Tel: 303 408 4073


The development of heritage tourism facilitates urban conservation of an historic city

because of the economic value that tourism generates, especially in developing or less
developed countries. However, the physical environment is always the focal point and
the socio-cultural fabric is usually ignored on the conservation process. In this
exploratory research, the case study of the Ancient City of Pingyao in China will be
introduced to discuss the imbalance between the conservation of a living heritage site and
the satisfaction of the curiosity of the tourist industry.

The Ancient City of Pingyao is a World Heritage city with “outstanding universal value”,
and it is on the highest level in the field of historic preservation. The physical
environment in this urban context has remained intact for a long period of time and will
be highly protected after it is designated. The street system, the building types, and
historic monuments will remain intact, but the functions of buildings and the spatial
structure could change according to the need of the society of the time. In contemporary
China, the policy of tourism development and urban conservation is the major factor
affecting the continuity of local culture.

Historical background of the Ancient City of Pingyao

The Ancient City of Pingyao in Sanxi Province was founded around 1368 during the late
Ming Dynasty, and is the original birthplace of the banking/financial system in China.
After the city declined around 1911, China’s public and private sectors neglected Pingyao
because it lacked the natural resources necessary for industrial development. However,

this eventually saved the city from major destruction and kept the city intact until the
present. Today Pingyao is a vibrant city of 45,000 people living in an area of 2.25 square
kilometers. From a successful financial city in the Ming and Ch’ing Dynasties to a living
city during the communism era, Pingyao offers much historical richness. Now the city
has become a domestic and international tourism destination; it has experienced different
social and cultural impacts since it was designated as a World Heritage Site in 1997 due
to its historical significance and architectural integrity. This recognition has increased
Pingyao’s worldwide reputation and brought the chance for transformation to its social,
cultural, financial and physical environment.

The entire Sanxi providence was famous for its Jin Merchant culture and the banking
system, and the Ancient City of Pinayo was famous for its establishment of the first draft
bank. Most buildings in the city were built during the heyday of Jin Merchant culture.
The integrity of the architectural setting and the city layout enable the Ancient City of
Pinyao to develop cultural tourism. In order to maximize the economic value of the site
and to receive attention from domestic and international tourism, the city has been
developed into a museum of escort companies and financial banks from the Ming and
Ch’ing Dynasties. The delineation of the tourist district has become the tourist-only place
for its tourism oriented business and its newly restored buildings. Indeed, the entire
tourist district exists more as a cultural industry than a cultural heritage site. The
tourism-driven preservation and interpretation in the tourism district is extremely
symbolic and political.

Despite the existing issues in Pingyao, this mechanism of developing a cultural industry
has played a successful role in some developing countries. It has helped preserve their
rich cultural essences, keeping them alive and viable, and supplementing these cities’
lack of financial support from the central government.

Theoretical background

One of the meaningful purposes of the designation of World Heritage site is its
educational function for all the peoples of the world to understand the history better, and
then to past it on to next generation. This statement echoes the mission of “The
Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage” and
“The Brundtland Report”. In which, “The Convention” is related to the protection of
World Heritage, and “The Brudtland Report” is about the sustainability of cultural
heritage. However, most historic cities are facing the inevitability of tourism
development after the designation. Not only does the designation bring a local cultural
significance onto a global stage, but it also creates the possibility of cultural
commodification and the destruction of the continuity of local culture.

- Heritage tourism and commodification

Because of their cultural value, historic townscapes have become popular tourism
destinations. “Tourists visiting historical cities are attracted by the spatial concentration
of historic buildings as a setting for sight-setting and the range of opportunities for
cultural activities such as visiting museums” (Nasser, 2003). The competition between
sites and the need to provide tourists with amenities and modern facilities pressure the
towns to develop. The high demand of the tourist industry induces functional changes
and structural changes to old buildings, and eventually also leads to the demolition or
replacement of significant buildings. Many researchers see tourism development as a
panacea for developing and less-developed countries. However, if the conservation of a
place is based on tourists’ needs, it “changes its character in unintended ways, as tourists
themselves inscribe their presence upon place. Indeed, it is the relation between visitor
and space that constitutes the commodity being consumed” (Fainstein & Gladstone,

In the 1980s, global travel became a popular tradition as a result of the improvement in
transportation and the economy. The convergence between heritage and tourism has
brought tourism development into a different era and has enabled the trading of culture
for economic power. Mass production and communication technology in the post-
Fordism era changed the pattern of consumption and created a different view of life and
leisure. Tourism development is the most obvious one. The shift of vacation styles from
the sun and sea holiday type to rich personal and cultural experiences shows the shift of
“the tourism industry from product driven to consumer driven” (Richards, 1996).
Inevitably, all destinations are participating in competition in a consumption-driven
tourism market.

Cohen addresses the inevitable agenda of commodification in tourism development, and

argues that commodification “is a process by which things (and activities) come to be
evaluated primarily in terms of their exchange value, in a context of trade, thereby
becoming goods (and services)” (Cohen, 1988). During the trading process, the
authenticity of local culture is possibly lost. Greenwood, who conducted one of the first
studies on the commodification of culture through tourism, ruefully expresses the
situation by saying, “[t]ourist-oriented products frequently acquire new meanings for the
locals, as they become a diacritical mark of their ethnic or cultural identity, a vehicle of

self-representation before an external public” (Greenwood, 1989). In order to attract
more tourists, “the destination areas of tourism are conscious constructions of images to
be sold, involving a selection of elements to be displayed for sale” (Lask & Herold,
2005). While the locals are trying to please and attract more tourists, they are also
experiencing the biggest threat of commodification to them at the same time, namely, the
loss of the meaning of culture: “the commoditized cultural products lose in the process
their intrinsic meaning and significance for the local people, who in turn lose their
enthusiasm for producing them” (Greenwood, 1989).

The influence of commodification is not restricted to the products (local culture)

themselves, but also affects the physical environment (place itself). Tourism
development gives the majority of demanding tourists traveling to destinations a
preconceived mindset. Places become investment targets that are created for the trade of
services and goods. They are also “places of consumption [that] capitalize on the
lucrative tourism/leisure market.” (Meethan, 1996). However, the commodification
process does not only change the value of place, but also affects the activities that happen
within the place. These two factors are usually intertwined, for the symbolic meanings of
places have been changed according to the emergence of tourist activities. Thus the
situation of commodification is clearer, and as a result, it will have a dramatic influence
on the urban landscape itself. As Sack (1992) states, “heritage places are places of
consumption and are arranged and managed to encourage consumption; such
consumption can create places, but is also place-altering” (Graham, 2002).

- Cultural continuity

An historic city is a place with a rich cultural fabric that accumulates for several
generations and will hopefully be carried into the next generation through the
evolutionary process. Based on Rapoport and William’s definition, culture is expressed
in daily life and in social structure (Rapoport, 1984). The function of cultural
sustainability is to sustain social structure and possibly transform the institutional
behavior in the evolutionary process. A sustainable culture is not only a matter of the
past, but it is also a matter of the future. It links the past with the future and propels the
living culture into later generations. This sums up the uniqueness of the city, the so-
called sense of place or Genius Loci. Sense of place is the integrity of local daily life and
the buildings that facilitate these daily activities.

Authors like Nasser (2003) and Rodwell (2003) both mention the important role that
traditional architectures play in cultural construction and the responsibility that traditional
architectures have to continue local culture. Nasser even suggests that “in order for cities
to be sustainable, we will have rely in great measure on the knowledge and wisdom
imbued in their cultural heritage, whether it is using traditional architecture and city form,
or using established social and philosophical mechanisms dealing with change and
decision-making” (Nasser, 2003). Traditional architecture such as temples, churches,
towers, old government structures, and retail districts are media that can be used to create
the historical townscape and to establish social and spatial structures. These traditional

elements are key to achieve cultural sustainability in an historical city, and are also the
conveyors that carry or transform culture in later generations.

In addition, Rodwell (2003) also indicates that the identity of an historical city is revealed
through the evolution of its physical heritage and its human culture: “[i]t does not seek to
fossilize either the tangible or the intangible culture. It anticipates continuity and works
with it” (Rodwell, 2003). This reflects the notion that for an historic city to be
sustainable we have to foresee that “[i]f conservation and regeneration are to succeed in
maintaining the integrity, cultural identity, and historical continuity of these centres, then
the contention is that an understanding of the meaning of these places – its cultural
manifestation in physical forms – is paramount” (Nasser, 2003). Otherwise, the historic
city will only become a museum that hardly accommodates the needs of the locals.

Conflicts between tourism development and cultural sustainability in Pingayo

From the Ming-Ch’ing draft banking origin to a Communist living city to a World
Heritage city today, the Ancient City of Pingyao has gone through historically social and
spatial changes. The recent development has brought significant conflicts to local life
that are detrimental to the continuity of local culture.

- The selection of the past

One of the purposes of urban conservation is to continue historic essence to the next
generation and to establish local pride, especially in developing and less-developed
countries. The process of the selection of the representative history is usually involved
with political power and is dominated by the elite of the society or local politicians. This
is reflected in the philosophy and methodology of urban conservation of the time, in
which the physical setting is the catalyst of historic preservation, and the social and
cultural context is ignored during the selecting process. Naturally, physical setting
became the theme of tourism development. The selection of the history was cynical due
to its geographical convenience. The phenomena can be explained by the case of the
Ancient City of Pingyao and can be extended broadly to other heritage sites in China.

The selection of history in the Ancient City of Pingyao is a typical example of elite
selection. Civil Wars in Chinese history caused a population shift throughout the entire
nation when Ch’ing Dynasty was overthrown. Most of the population currently living in
the Ancient City of Pingyao are new immigrants from the society reform after 1949. In
addition, the social network system has been destroyed and the usage of the monuments
became irreverent to their original function during the Cultural Revolution. Most of
traditional architectures were converted into schools, government office, community
centers and hospitals. All commercial and residential buildings were confiscated and
converted into the people's commune or government-owned retails. Thus, the meaning of
traditional architecture to the locals is different from their original purpose. On the
contrary, buildings established after 1949 indeed have more significant meaning and life
memory to most of the existing population than those original buildings within the walled

In the Ancient City of Pingyao, the gap between the elite and the local people concerning
the interpretation of history and local pride reflects the issue of divergence of local
identity. History after 1949 is intentionally ignored; therefore, buildings symbolizing the
new era of the nation during the Communist period has been temporally buried in more
ancient history.

- The publicity of public buildings

In traditional Han culture, ritual buildings are anchor elements in the city planning. They
played an important role in the city for their social and cultural meaning and sometimes
Feng Shui significance. When the city was built, those ritual buildings operated as the
center of each community; social gatherings, religious worship, political events, and
festival celebrations were just some of the public functions held there. They were social
and cultural symbols in a feudalistic system that kept up local identity and social
coherence. In addition, the traditional relationship and the formation of the urban grid
next to ritual buildings were the core to formulate spatial environment and to make the
city livable.

During the communist period, the social fabric changed, and the religious system was
reformed under the pressure of solo political party. All religious buildings were
transformed into government offices, schools, and community centers after 1949. The
severe Culture Revolution between 1966 and 1976 destroyed most of the traditional
customs and belief system. The functions of these buildings in this period were different
than their original ones, thus the spatial system changed along with the function.
However, these public buildings retained their publicity; they were opened to public use.

After the Ancient City of Pingyao was designated as one of the World Heritage Site, the
entire city was restored back to the date of Ming-Ch’ing dynasty to accommodate its
physical landscape. To both local people and the government, heritage tourism was the
opportunity for environmental and economic improvement; furthermore, heritage tourism
protected the historic city from the threat of new development. In order to attract more
international and domestic tourists, the historic city provides a tourist-friendly
environment and tourist-only destinations. All religious buildings are opened to people
with high admission. Activities that used to happen inside and outside of buildings no
longer exist. These tourist driven policies change the social network, traditional
relationship and spatial system. The bonding force created by local people and anchor
buildings is fading away.

- The historical authenticity of city building

The historic city that grows from the interaction between building form and functions
reflects its social context; thus a different relationship between people and buildings can
be created by creating a new form of spatial system. Urban conservation in historical
cities is not about the protection of physical environment alone; the improvement of the
quality of local life and the vitality of the city are more intrinsic to the conservation of a

historical city. The social fabric in the City of Pingyao has transformed during different
political time frames, and it reflects on the spatial environment.

One of the major threats to the authenticity of the Ancient City of Pingyao is the over-
night demolition of authentic old buildings and over-weekend replication of newly-built
old style buildings to satisfy the needs of tourism development. Without proper
conservation regulations, authentic old buildings have been replaced by the replicas of
other old buildings. This damages the diversity and origin of the urban fabric of the
heritage city due to similarities in building style, materials, motifs and craftsmanship. It
will also damage the authenticity of architectural integrity and affect socio-cultural
sustainability indirectly by way of change of sense of place. In addition, the conversion
of old buildings to modern use to satisfy the need of tourists is also a big challenge to the
management of historical townscape.

Urban conservation vs. Tourism development

My research on the Ancient City of Pingyao shows a possible result.

If the representative cultural heritage is recognized by both the elite and the local people,
it should be supported by the local communities, the operators of heritage tourism, and
the government. The more similarity of the interpretation these groups share, the higher
possibility the cultural continuity will succeed. In addition, traditional buildings of the
representative cultural heritage are key components to establish stronger spatial
structure to sustain local culture. The more recognition the traditional elements receive
from the public, the higher possibility the traditional elements will succeed in carrying on
spatial structure with functional adjustment according to the need of the society in time.

Not only does heritage tourism play an important role in the improvement of local
economy and physical environment, but it also provides an impulse to enhance place
identity. Although the history chosen is quite selective, it should be the pride of the
group of people who live there, and serve as a mutual memory among this group of
people. Interpretation and tourism products should present to the tourists the pride of
local people. Only when the recognition of cultural heritage between tourists and the
local population coincide can the historic city/town serve as a heritage tourism
destination and a living town for local people underpinned with a proper urban

Traditional elements are the cluster center of the neighborhood spatial structure. No
matter whether these elements are religious centers, community centers, retail centers,
schools, government offices, or hospitals, they remain social networks with services and
retails activities around them. In order to retain the socio-cultural attributes, an historic
city/town needs to serve the need of tourists without sacrificing the needs of the local
people; otherwise, the city/town will become a museum that services only tourists and
excludes the local people.


Cases like the Ancient City of Pingyao can positively indicate that a living heritage site
does not have to be separated from its cultural sustainability and from satisfying the
curiosity of the tourist industry. However, as one of the World Heritage Cities, the
conservation plan of the ancient city of Pingyao has never been carefully delineated
according to the modern needs of its contemporary society. Restoration efforts have been
focused on the more popular destinations within the walled city. The meaning of these
ritual buildings has been removed from their urban fabric and social context.
Furthermore, it separates the city into two distinct areas. One area belongs to the local
communities who promote cultural heritage to enhance local economy. The other area
belongs to tourists who consume spectacular culture and history.

Since it takes longer to perceive socio-cultural change, it is usually ignored during

tourism development. This phenomenon is more obvious in China, due to its strong
desire to catch up with the global pace and to accelerate economic development.
Tourism development can achieve urban conservation and socio-cultural sustainability, if
physical and socio-cultural change can be integrated through evolutionary processes.
Thus it will aid in finding the proper way to develop a historic city into a livable place for
the local people and a vivid, desirable destination for tourists. Finding a balance point
between tourism-driven displays and the authenticity of daily/local history is the lesson
that the ancient town of Pingyao is learning right now.


Cohen, E. (1988). Authenticity and commoditization in tourism. Annals of Tourism

Research, 15(3), 371-386.
Fainstein, S. S., & Gladstone, D. (1997). Tourism and urban transformation:
Inpertretations of urban tourism. In O. Källtorp, I. Elander, O. Ericsson & M.
Franzen (Eds.), Cities in transformation - transformation in cities: Social and
symbolic change of urban space (pp. 119-135). Aldershot, England; Brookfield,
Vt.: Avebury.
Graham, B. (2002). Heritage as knowledge: Capital or culture? Urban Studies, 39(5-6),
Greenwood, D. (1989). Culture by the pound: An anthropological perspective on tourism
as cultural commoditization. In V. L. Smith (Ed.), Hosts and guests: The
anthropology of tourism (2nd ed., pp. 129-138). Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania Press.
Lask, T., & Herold, S. (2005). An observation station for culture and tourism in vietnam:
A forum for world heritage and public participation. In D. Harrison & M.
Hitchcock (Eds.), The politics of world heritage: Negotiating tourism and
conservation (pp. 119-131). Clevedon; Buffalo: Channel View Publications.
Meethan, K. (1996). Consuming (in) the civilized city. Annals of Tourism Research,
23(2), 322-340.
Nasser, N. (2003). Cultural continuity and meaning of place: Sustaining historic cities of
the islamicate world. Journal of Architectural Conservation, 9(1), 74-89.
Rapoport, A. (1984). Culture and the urban order. In J. A. Agnew, J. Mercer & D. E.
Sopher (Eds.), The city in cultural context. Boston: Allen & Unwin.

Richards, G. (1996). Production and consumption of european cultural tourism. Annals of
Tourism Research, 23(2), 261-283.
Rodwell, D. (2003). Sustainability and the holistic approach to the conservation of
historic cities. Journal of Architectural Conservation, 9(1), 58-73.