BEIJING – The city of Xi’an in central China is known for its army of Terracotta Warriors.

Local authorities have decided to apply for UNESCO World Heritage status for a number of historical sites in Shaanxi Province along the Silk Road, the ancient trade route linking many points west to China.

In their proposal to the UNESCO, authorities said that the Xingjiao Buddhist Temple would be demolished, to make way for a new and better-looking temple.

The Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi'an - Photo: Mark Fischer

Built more than 1,300 years ago, the Xingjiao monastery is where the remains are buried  of Xuanzang, the Chinese monk who famously traveled the Silk Road all the way to India in search of Buddhist holy scriptures during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD).

In China it seems there is nothing surefire safe from demolition – except perhaps for Beijing's Forbidden City. But then again, the Forbidden City has housed a Starbucks Coffee, and was once leased out for an exclusive party of the world’s biggest billionaires. That is almost on par with demolition.

Razing old things has always been regarded by local authorities as part of “development.” No official ever feels distressed about it. Over the years in every corner of China, officials have been tearing down houses and buildings to replace them with new ones.

Xi’an is one of the oldest cities in China – more than 3,100 years old – and was even the capital of the country during a number of dynasties, including the Qin, the Han and the Tang. As a result Xi’an is full of historical relics, both above and under ground.

The Terracota Army in Xi'an - Photo: Mike Locke

For many years, local governments have been pursuing the UNESCO World Heritage label very passionately. For them it is an excellent way to promote local tourism, increase ticket prices and bring in tourism tax revenue. Never mind the threat that tourism poses to these sites. What’s important for local officials is “development.”

A garden and a parking lot

The World Heritage Committee rejects any imaginative reconstructions – which is tricky because in China it is not unusual for historical monuments to be fake imitations. To make it on the list, Chinese authorities must find other ways to beautify or modify their natural and cultural sites.

The World Heritage Committee attaches great importance to the integrity and authenticity of a cultural site because it preserves the continuity of a community's tradition and culture. The World Heritage Convention clearly states that are considered as cultural heritage “groups of separate or connected buildings which, because of their architecture, their homogeneity or their place in the landscape, are of outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art or science.”

On China’s Silk Road application for World Heritage Site, only the three pagodas that house the relics of Xuanzang and his two disciples are on the list. The other buildings, which represent two-thirds of the monastery’s buildings, are scheduled to be demolished. Local officials say these buildings – temples, meditation chambers and monks’ dormitories and dining hall – have “little value for cultural preservation.” Not only do these buildings merit being preserved, demolishing them will affect an entire monastic community, and disrupt their religious life.

Developers working on the Xingjiao Temple project want to turn the area into a large open space, which will be transformed into a garden, with a newly built monastery and adjacent parking lot. Their goal is to “make the local environment more elegant,” – not to mention bring in millions in annual tourist revenue.

The idea behind a World Heritage Site listing is to protect these historical sites – but in China the result is the opposite: preserving the cultural heritage is most often achieved by building brand new antique imitations.

Hopefully, thanks to the uproar this situation has created, the World Heritage Committee will hear of this proposed cultural vandalism and do something to stop it.