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China & UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites: Looking Past & Looking Forward

by Joseph Nicolai   - Feb 17, 2015

UNESCO’s prestigious World Heritage Centre brings the best in world heritage under one organization. The Centre, built from with the living memory & biter ashes of two world wars, aims to promote global peace by protecting world heritage. Since China signed on to the 1972 International Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage in 1985 China has become a major player at the Centre. After China ratified the UNESCO Convention it become a contracting party and it only took until 1986 for China to begin identifying and nominating sites to be considered for inscription on the World Heritage List.

While China may have signed on to the convention late it sure started early with regards to world heritage. From having zero sites before the 1970’s, China’s contributions to the World Heritage List have exploded potentially. As of February 2014 China has a total of 47 World Heritage Sites. These sites can be separated into three distinct categories: cultural sites, natural sites and natural and cultural (mixed) heritage sites. China also has an additional 47 sites listed on the WHC’s “tentative list”. These sites have, on the one hand, met almost all the requirements to be considered a world heritage site but, on the other hand, have yet to complete certain infrastructure requirements. So while the site is understood as being world heritage, it can’t get the official stamp of approval until the site is, for example, wheelchair accessible. Regardless of their status they make for great places to visit if you are able to, and its best to go before they get even busier after being fully qualified and added to the illustrious list. 


The Historical Roots of the World Heritage Centre

While tourists the world over are familiar with World Heritage sites many less are familiar with the prestigious international organizations history. While the inception of the organization came in 1972 with UNESCO’s “Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage” its roots can be traced much earlier. With post-war international in full swing, UNESCO – founded in 1946 - was one of many new institutions with an international scope of the time. It followed in the footsteps of the 1944 Bretton Woods United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference, which established a series of organizations with global reaches such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Being conceived after two of the most gruesome wars of the world the guiding principle of UNESCO, as defined in its own constitution, is to “contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among nations through education, science and culture” in order to further develop the respect for justice, law and human rights. UNESCO’s heritage Convention must be understood as working within this context.

Growing up in this anti-war environment, the 1972 “World Heritage Convention” has been famously successful as it has become one of the few world conventions to be almost universally ratified. Today the Convention and its underlying definition of heritage, with its distinct set of official and internationally recognized approach to engaging the past, is the global authority on issues concerning heritage. They not only set the global standard in terms of awarding the world’s best in heritage, but also are able to coordinate sophisticated teams of experts to preserve and organize world heritage. 

The 1972 World Heritage Convention

While much can be said on the rich tapestry of the Convention itself, the spirit of the document can be understood as being a response to two destructive world wars as well as rapid industrialization that had destroyed – or at least made to seem vulnerable - much of the world’s heritage. In this ever-changing setting that is modernity, suddenly ancient buildings that had survived through the ages were realized to be precarious with an uncertain future. In fact, some sites that are now protected by many institutions that came in the wake of the WHC were still being inhabited. It is in this context the Convention can be understood as responding to both the “threat” of the spread of industrialism as well as the rise of the concern of the precarious state of heritage that this threat engendered. The Convention starts by responding to these very issues by claiming that: “cultural heritage and […] natural heritage are increasingly threatened with destruction not only by the traditional causes of decay, but also by changing social and economic conditions which aggravate the situation with even more formidable phenomena of damage or destruction”. Here we see an acknowledgement that in our modern world that we are not only facing t heritage under threat by “traditional causes of decay” but also by new social forces that are of such “magnitude and gravity” that the Convention was, according to its own rhetoric, created.

The Convention can also be approached as a response to the worst forms of nationalism that were expressed in both World Wars. It is against this type of “negative nationalism” of “national heritage” that the Convention fosters an alternative global sense of belonging. Read in light of UNESCO’s own goals World heritage can be read as promoting “peace in the minds of men” through the appropriation of national monuments for the formulation of global monuments. Pursuing a goal of reading heritage “trans-culturally”, the convention embodies a shift towards understanding heritage and culture as an antidote to the ravages of war. A quality achieved by interpolating non-world heritage sites within a nation as being of lesser importance vis-à- vis the “world heritage” located within a given nation.


China & The World Heritage Centre

China joined the World Heritage Centre (WHC) quite late compared to many other nations.

While many nations signed on to the Convention soon after it having been written, China would only sign on after the Cultural Revolution. Joining the WHC party late, however, does not mean that they have not “caught up” with their inscriptions on the list as today they have an impressive number of sites. The rapid increase of the number of PRC locations on the list has lead to some Chinese press to have called the phenomenon a “heritage fever” (申遗热).

China’s relationship with the organization began in 1985 when the National People’s Congress ratified the UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. As then Chairman of China ICOMOS Zhang Bai said, signing on to the treaty integrated China with the “practice of heritage conservation in China with that being done around the world”. This was the first of many initiatives of China to integrate with the global community on heritage. In 1989, for example, the Chinese government also decided to join the Convention on Forbidding and Preventing illegal import and Export of Cultural Property and Methods of Illegal Transfer of Ownership adopted by UNESCO in 1970.

The application process for world heritage status is not a simple procedure and requires various criteria to be met before a site is allowed on the list. Applications require a proven organizational capacity that illustrates the ability to implement a variety of projects that build up the infrastructure of the site. Given these demanding requirements the application process can be not only daunting but prohibitively expensive.

As of 2015 the PRC ranked second only to Italy in the world for most number of properties. It is now among the strongest contenders in what has been called the “World Heritage fever fight” (世界文化遗产争夺热) where countries are understood as valuing themselves according to how many sites they have on the list. If you want tick off the most UNESCO sites as you can on your trip, traveling within China can offer you that.  


Top Three Chinese World Heritage Centre Site

While there are many world heritage sites in China (see the master list at the end of the page), these are undoubtedly some of the most famous:


Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China is perhaps the internationally best well known Chinese structure. This is probably due, at least in part, due to its enormous size – it has been said to be visible from outer space. The 2,000-year-old wall borders not only North Korea all the way to China’s western province of Xinjiang, but also borders on the borders of sublime. The official entry points to the wall – set in guideline with UNESCO – are very well kept and managed, while the rougher sections are for the more adventurous type. See a more detailed description here.

Forbidden City

Up next in the list of most famous Chinese structures must be the Forbidden City. Forming the heart of Beijing for centuries it is a historic site not to be missed. While most of the Forbidden City’s sprawling 8,700 rooms are still just that – forbidden – its doors have never been so open as the site greets thousands of tourists everyday. Declared a World Heritage Site in 1987 it welcomes many tourists from the world over. See a more detailed description here.

Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor: Home of the Terracotta Warriors

While officially inscribed with UNESCO as the “Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor”, most tourists will know it as being home of the world famous Terracotta Warriors. Located in Xi’an Province, these hand-crafted warriors guarded the mausoleum of the first Qin emperor, Qin Shihuang, in this underground mausoleum for over 2,000 years until farmers stumbled upon them in 1974 while digging a well. Now protected by the Chinese government & UNESCO, these statues are sure to be around for the next 2,000 years.


Current China World Heritage List

While the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and the Terracotta Warriors may be the most famous Chinese UNESCO World Heritage Sites, there are also many different places to visit for the adventurous. Below is a complete list of the cultural, natural, as well as mixed UNESCO sites in China.


•    Ancient Building Complex in the Wudang Mountains (1994)
•    Ancient City of Ping Yao (1997)
•    Ancient Villages in Southern Anhui – Xidi and Hongcun (2000)
•    Capital Cities and Tombs of the Ancient Koguryo Kingdom (2004)
•    Classical Gardens of Suzhou (1997)
•    Cultural Landscape of Honghe Hani Rice Terraces (2013)
•    Dazu Rock Carvings (1999)
•    Fujian Tulou (2008)
•    Historic Center of Macao (2005)   
•    Historic Ensemble of the Potala Palace, Lhasa (1994)
•    Historic Monuments of Dengfeng in “The Center of Heaven and Earth” (2010)
•    Imperial Palaces of the Ming and Qing Dynasties in Beijing and Shenyang (1987)
•    Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties (2000)
•    Kaiping Diaolou and Villages (2007)
•    Longmen Grottoes (2000)
•    Lushan National Park (1996)
•    Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor (1987)
•    Mogao Caves (1987)
•    Mount Qingcheng and the Dujiangyan Irrigation System (2000)
•    Mount Wutai (2009)
•    Mountain Resort and its Outlying Temples, Chengde (1994)
•    Old Town of Lijiang (1997)
•    Peking Man Site at Zhoukoudian (1987)
•    Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang'an-Tianshan Corridor (2014)
•    Site of Xanadu (2012)
•    Summer Palace, an Imperial Garden in Beijing (1998)
•    Temple and Cemetery of Confucius and the Kong Family Mansion in Qufu (1994)
•    Temple of Heaven: Imperial Sacrificial Altar in Beijing (1998)
•    The Grand Canal (2014)
•    The Great Wall (1987)
•    West Lake Cultural Landscape of Hangzhou (2011)
•    Yin Xu (2006)
•    Yungang Grottoes (2001)


•    Chengjiang Fossil Site (2012)
•    China Danxia (2010)
•    Huanglong Scenic and Historic Interest Area (1992)
•    Jiuzhaigou Valley Scenic and Historic Interest Area (1992)
•    Mount Sanqingshan National Park (2008)
•    Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries - Wolong, Mt Siguniang and Jiajin Mountains (2006)
•    South China Karst (2007)
•    Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas (2003)
•    Wulingyuan Scenic and Historic Interest Area (1992)
•    Xinjiang Tianshan (2013)



•    Mount Emei Scenic Area, including Leshan Giant Buddha Scenic Area (1996)
•    Mount Huangshan (1990)
•    Mount Taishan (1987)
•    Mount Wuyi (1999)


Tentative List

While tourists flock to sites already on the official world heritage list there is also another world heritage list. This other list, called a “tentative list”, is a requirement set by UNESCO. UNESCO asks that all countries that signed on to the Convention write up a list of sites that are eligible for World Heritage status as the first phase of going through the next step of rigorous procedures. Often times, sites on the tentative list meets the formal requirements to join the prestigious ranks of other world heritage sites in terms of its significance but they often are still lagging in other areas. These sites, often in the process of securing funding or setting up the infrastructure to be managed by UNESCO standards, require upgraded infrastructure before they can make it to the official list. What kind of infrastructure you might ask? Well UNESCO sites require, for example, that a location be accessible for everyone. While everyone has a different definition of wheel chair accessibility (compared with wheel chair conveniently accessible facilities), UNESCO site requirements have done quite a bit in and of themselves in promoting the issue of universal access in China. Even in great caliber cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, universal accessibility is still making slow strides. While some of these sites are already quite busy if you have the time they are well worth a visit before they become added to the list of every guidebook in the world. Get there before they become world heritage.  

Properties submitted on the Tentative List (47)

•    Shennongjia Nature Reserve (1996)
•    Dongzhai Port Nature Reserve (1996)
•    The Alligator Sinensis Nature Reserve (1996)   
•    Poyang Nature Reserve (1996)
•    The Lijiang River Scenic Zone at Guilin (1996)
•    Yalong, Tibet (2001)
•    Yangtze Gorges Scenic Spot (2001)
•    Jinfushan Scenic Spot (2001)
•    Heaven Pit and Ground Seam Scenic Spot (2001)
•    Hua Shan Scenic Area (2001)
•    Yandang Mountain (2001)
•    Nanxi River (2001)
•    Maijishan Scenic Spots (2001)
•    Wudalianchi Scenic Spots (2001)
•    Haitan Scenic Spots (2001)
•    Dali Chanshan Mountain and Erhai Lake Scenic Spot (2001)
•    Sites for Liquor Making in China (2008)
•    Ancient Residences in Shanxi and Shaanxi Provinces (2008)
•    City Walls of the Ming and Qing Dynasties (2008)
•    Slender West Lake and Historic Urban Area in Yang (2008)
•    The Ancient Waterfront Towns in the South of Yangtze River (2008)
•    Chinese Section of the Silk Road: Land routes in Henan Province, Shaanxi Province, Gansu Province, Qinghai Province, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, and Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region; Sea Routes in Ningbo City, Zhejiang Province and Quanzhou City, Fujian Province - from Western-Han Dynasty to Qing Dynasty (2008)
•    Fenghuang Ancient City (2008)
•    Site of Southern Yue State (2008)
•    The Rock Painting of the Mountain Huashan (2008)
•    Baiheliang Ancient Hydrological Inscription (2008)
•    Miao Nationality Villages in Southeast Guizhou Province: The villages of Miao Nationality at the Foot of Leigong Mountain in Miao Ling Mountains (2008)
•    Karez Wells (2008)
•    Expansion Project of Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties: King Lujian’s Tombs (2008)
•    The Four Sacred Mountains as an Extension of Mt. Taishan (2008)
•    Taklimakan Desert—Populus euphratica Forests (2010)
•    China Altay (2010)
•    Karakorum-Pamir (2010)
•    The Central Axis of Beijing (including Beihai) (2013)
•    Wooden Structures of Liao Dynasty—Wooden Pagoda of Yingxian County,Main Hall of Fengguo Monastery of Yixian County (2013)
•    Sites of Hongshan Culture: The Niuheliang Archaeological Site, the Hongshanhou Archaeological Site, and Weijiawopu Archaeological Site (2013)
•    Liangzhu Archaeological Site (2013)
•    Ancient Porcelain Kiln Site in China (2013)
•    Kulangsu (2013)
•    SanFangQiXiang (2013)
•    Tusi Chieftain Sites: Laosicheng Site, Hailongtun Site, Tang Ya Tusi Site and Rongmei Tusi Site (2013)
•    Ancient Tea Plantations of Jingmai Mountain in Pu'er (2013)
•    Western Xia Imperial Tombs (2013)
•    Dong Villages (2013)
•    Lingqu Canal (2013)
•    Diaolou Buildings and Villages for Tibetan and Qiang Ethnic Groups (2013)
•    Archaeological Sites of the Ancient Shu State: Site at Jinsha and Joint Tombs of Boat- shaped Coffins in Chengdu City, Sichuan Province; Site of Sanxingdui in Guanghan City, Sichuan Province 29C.BC-5C.BC (2013)



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