Conservation Disasters China

China investigates Sichuan earthquake, five years on

Officials report on the extent of damage caused by 7.0-magnitude quake to heritage sites and what can be done to conserve them

Damage to the Erwang Temple in 2008. Photos: China.org.cn

An investigation has been launched to determine the extent of the damage to cultural heritage sites in the Ya’an and Lushan regions of Sichuan Province following a 7.0-magnitude earthquake in April. It comes five years after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which killed around 70,000 people and left more than 18,000 missing.

“Five days ago, a team from the State Administration of Cultural Heritage and I conducted a thorough examination and assessment of around 20 sites in the earthquake-stricken Ya’an and Lushan regions in Sichuan,” Lv Zhou, the director of the Institute of Architectural History and Historical Conservation at Tsinghua University, told The Art Newspaper China on 10 May. After the 2008 earthquake, specialists from the institute were among the first to begin recovering monuments and artefacts from disaster-affected sites, including the Erwang Temple in Dujiangyan, the Fulong Guan Daoist Temple and the Wuhou Memorial Temple in Chengdu. “All the staff from our institute—more than 20 of us—left for Sichuan at that time,” Lv said.

The 7.0-magnitude earthquake occurred at 8.02am local time in Lushan County, Ya’an, Sichuan Province on 20 April. Around 260 monuments and buildings, including 24 of national importance, were affected, according to the official website of the Central People’s Government of the People’s Republic of China. A further 349 moveable artefacts were also damaged—7% severely damaged, 46% moderately and 47% were mildly affected.

“An on-site investigation should be done immediately after a disaster. The state cultural heritage protection system quickly responded to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake—investigations took place within three days of the disaster,” said Fan Jialing, then a member of staff at the China Cultural Heritage Protection Research Institute who arrived in Chengdu immediately after the earthquake. “The latest investigation report will be sent to the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, which will draw up instructions on how best to recover and conserve items of cultural heritage.”

Sichuan is an earthquake-prone province with 65,231 immovable monuments, the third highest number among China's 31 provinces, according to a census of Chinese cultural heritage taken between 2007 and 2011. Following the 2008 earthquake, 79 important heritage sites under state protection were affected. Despite the less serious damage caused by the recent Lushan earthquake, several monuments were inevitably affected. Two Han dynasty tomb towers, the Gao Yi tomb tower and Fan Ming tomb tower in Ya’an city and Lushan County, partially collapsed—the second time in five years after the 2008 earthquake.

“Immovable cultural heritage items suffer the most in disasters such as earthquakes,” says Niu Ning, the former deputy director of the Ancient Architecture Preservation and Research Institute of Henan Province. According to Chinese law, cultural heritage is categorised either as immovable or movable. The former comprises archaeological sites, ancient tombs and architecture, cave temples, stone sculptures, mural paintings, modern historic sites and key buildings; the latter includes artefacts, works of art, manuscripts and books.

According to Lv, the causes of damage to buildings and monuments can be complicated, but should be investigated thoroughly before recovery. For example, the partial collapse of the Erwang Temple in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 was due to landslide. The position of all architectural components should be recorded before being removed. “Negligent clearing, such as discarding the architectural components by mistake, may lead to irreversible loss,” says Lv. In 2008, after the earthquake, non-professionals such as monks and the military were involved in the clearing of cultural heritage sites. The recent recovery process after the Lushan earthquake was more prudent in Lv’s opinion. “By the time the investigation team arrived at the site, the affected buildings had been supported. This is essential in post-disaster rescue,” Lv said.

Another lesson learned from the 2008 earthquake is to store artefacts and works of art in high-standard warehouses, such as the Ya’an Museum’s storage facility. Artefacts used to be kept in regional warehouses of varying condition and quality. As a result, some suffered greatly in natural disasters. After the 2008 earthquake, artefacts were gathered and stored in better-equipped warehouses, which reduced the damage in the recent Lushan earthquake.

International support and expertise are also invaluable to the protection of cultural heritage in China, particularly from countries such as Taiwan and Japan whose cultural heritage structures are similar to that of China.

According to the first “Research Report on International Co-operation in the Recovery Process of Disaster-affected Cultural Heritage”, published in 2010 by the Japan Consortium for International Co-operation in Cultural Heritage (JCIC-Heritage), China received 1.5m RMB (around $250,000) in financial aid from Unesco.

“Information sharing is vital to the recovery of cultural heritage. Nothing can be done if you don’t understand the circumstance,” Rei Harada, JCIC-Heritage’s researcher told The Art Newspaper China. “Different countries operate different cultural heritage protection systems, laws and policies. Only when we are all aware of each other’s circumstances can we help each other when in need.”

On 23 April, 1m RMB (around $160,000) was provided to the earthquake-stricken Ya’an, Lushan and Baoxing regions for the rescue and conservation of heritage sites. Of this, 800,000 RMB came from the State Administration of Cultural Heritage and 200,000 RMB from Sichuan’s provincial cultural heritage protection system. “We are expecting more funding, as 1m RMB is not enough,” said Fan Jialing.


The collapsed Qinyanlou Tower
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