Making and unmaking heritage value in China

Authored by: Shu-Li Wang , Michael Rowlands

The Routledge Companion to Cultural Property

Print publication date:  July  2017
Online publication date:  July  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138812642
eBook ISBN: 9781315641034
Adobe ISBN:


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Since the 1990s China has experienced a heritage boom, developing an increasing number of museum and heritage sites. It is estimated that 100 museums have been built each year and the number has increased from 717 in 1985 to 3,800 in 2014 (National Bureau of Statistics of China 2014; Alberge 2014). Accompanied by a surge of cultural entrepreneurs, there is also an increased interest in private art collecting and art markets (which were once banned), resulting in the establishment of numerous private museums in the post-Mao China. Wealthy cities such as Xi’an and Chengdu each claim to have made themselves a “museum city”, setting the goal of building a hundred private museums in five years. This important social phenomenon reflects the legalization of private property and the ownership of heritage in China’s reformed market. Indeed, this expansion of the heritage and museum industry has been encouraged by the state as part of a pursuit of collective memory and patriotic education in an era of rapid change (The State Council 2016). In post-Mao China, rapid urbanization, mass migrations and unprecedented social and economic transformations have triggered a sense of identity crisis, loss, anxiety and nostalgia (Anagnost 1997; Madsen 2014). Cultural property and its display have become a kind of technology of governance for managing social transformation and social tensions as the state pursues its vision of civilization and quality (Oakes 2013; Wang 2016). As Anagnost has stated, “with the collapse of a Marxist vision of history, we see a ‘fevered’ search for a national subjectivity that can restore a sense of historical agency to China in terms which are in some ways a striking departure from the Maoist era but which are in other ways strangely continuous with it” (Anagnost 1997: 8). 1 China’s historical past and heritage that were once considered an impediment to China’s search for modernity were re-interpreted with new sources of national pride.

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