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Special> China's Tibet: Facts & Figures> Beijing Review Archives> 2004
UPDATED: April 25, 2008 NO.40 OCT.7, 2004
Maintaining Tibet
Protection of ancient Tibetan buildings given top priority

In Tibet today the skyline of golden roofed monasteries are intermingled with structures of a different kind. A spider web of scaffolding has appeared around many of the region's older buildings as operation face-lift gets into full swing and renovation returns the important historical structures here back to their former glory.

Tibet Autonomous Region boasts over 1,700 monasteries and palaces, mostly centuries old, and mainly located in Lhasa, Xigaze and Shannan. Lhasa and Xigaze are respectively the residences of the Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas, the two religious leaders of Tibetan Buddhism, while Shannan is the birthplace of Tibetan culture.

According to Renqing Cering, Director of the Tibet Cultural Relics Bureau, Tibet boasts one relic site on the world cultural heritage list, three ancient cities graded as state-listed famous historical and cultural cities, 27 key cultural relics units under state protection, 55 key cultural relics units under the region's protection and 96 under county-level protection.

Renqing Cering said that protection and maintenance of Tibet's ancient buildings has been an arduous task, which has been generously supported by the Central Government and other provinces and municipalities.

Generous Investment

The Potala Palace Administration held a ceremony for the completion of the two renovation projects of the Potala Palace on July 28. These two projects, which cost a total of 4 million yuan ($483,100), are only part of a 12-project renovation program on Potala for 2004. Besides the completed two projects, the other 10 are still underway.

The renovation of the Potala Palace marks the first completion of the massive renovation project of three major cultural heritage sites in Tibet, initiated three years ago.

The Central Government has earmarked 330 million yuan ($39.9 million) for this renovation project since it was officially launched on June 26, 2002. The three major cultural heritage sites are the Potala Palace, the Norbu Lingka Monastery and the Sagya Monastery. Of these three precious historical relics, Potala and Norbu Lingka are the Dalai Lamas' winter palace and summer palace, respectively, while Sagya is the symbol of the Central Government's sovereignty over Tibet in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). The renovation of the three monasteries is expected to take five years and is scheduled for completion in 2006.

According to Cering, every year the Central Government allocates 4-5 million yuan ($483,000-604,000) to the daily maintenance of Tibetan cultural heritage sites. "Since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the Chinese Government has spent over 600 million yuan ($72.5 million) on the renovation of Tibetan cultural relics," said the bureau head.

The renovation of the three major Tibetan cultural relics is the second phase of massive restoration of Tibetan ancient buildings.

The first phase, to which the Central Government allocated 300 million yuan ($36.2 million), lasted from the 1980s to late 1990s and restored and renovated over 30 monasteries. During the first phase, from 1988 to 1993, the largest renovation project of the Potala Palace was completed, using a large amount of expensive materials, like gold and silver, worth a total of 55 million yuan ($6.6 million).

The World Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization sent experts to do field research on the renovated Potala in May 1994. The experts agreed that the renovation of Potala was well carried out, and a great contribution to the protection of Tibetan and world culture. Due to Potala's historical value and protection, it was listed as a world cultural heritage site by the world heritage committee in the same year.

"There were altogether six renovation projects nationwide in that period, three were in Tibet," said Cering. The three other key ancient buildings included the Palace Museum, or the Forbidden City.

"New problems will keep popping up and maintenance of many ancient buildings requires long-time efforts. It is impossible for such a large scale project to be solely financed by the Tibet Autonomous Regional Government," said Cering.

In addition to support from the Central Government, heritage protection is also on the agenda of aid-Tibet projects of other provinces and municipalities. The renovation of the Sangtsu Tsezung Palace in Xigaze, a 30-million-yuan ($3.6 million) project to be commenced soon, will be fully financed by aid-Tibet funds from the Shanghai Municipal Government.

Built in 1363, the palace is the oldest building in Xigaze. Its four-storey main body, more than 120-m tall, looks quite like the Potala Palace in Lhasa, thus, earning it the nickname of "Mini-Potala Palace." A place of residence to many religious leaders throughout history, the Sangtsu Tsezung Palace fell into disrepair and is now on the verge of collapse. Most of the contents have been removed, but the palace foundation is still intact.

The renovation of the Sangtsu Tsezung Palace also includes restoration of castles on top of the nearby mountains, the building of the Xigaze Historical Museum and the Gallery of Tibetan Arts.

Cering said the protection of Tibetan cultural relics had been standardized since the 1980s. Currently, all the renovation projects follow strict procedures, including filing an application, on-the-spot survey, releasing survey results, registering a renovation project, drawing up a renovation plan, ratification of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) and open tender for design and construction units.

Choosing the Best Renovation Team

The construction companies working for the renovation of three major Tibetan cultural relics are all chosen through a national bid. According to Cering, this is to guarantee that these projects are worked on by the most qualified artisans available.

Qamba Galsang, Director of the Potala Palace Administration, was involved in the first phase of the renovation of Potala several years ago. He said, compared with the first phase, the second phase now underway is more expensive, of a larger scale and more technically demanding.

According to Galsang, the total investment in the renovation of three major Tibetan cultural heritage sites is 330 million yuan ($39.9 million), of which the renovation of the Potala Palace will cost 130 million yuan ($15.7 million). The total investment may rise as new projects are added to the list in the process of renovation.

Galsang said the first phase of the renovation on Potala focused on the restoration of its seven-storey building above ground, especially the White Palace, the Dalai Lamas' living quarters and the Red Palace, where the Dalai Lamas' held court. The first phase also invested 10 million yuan ($1.2 million) to update Potala's security facilities, such as installation or updating of firefighting facilities, lighting circuit and a TV monitor system.

The second phase of the renovation focuses on the underground part of the building. In addition, the renovation of stupas (religious monument) of the eighth and ninth Dalai Lamas and the restoration of murals are also part of the second phase project.

Gracing the Red Hill in the center of Lhasa, the big complex of the Potala Palace was built against hills. The architectural structure of Potala is very complicated and no blueprint is left for reference. "Without experts in ancient buildings, we could not have figured out the architectural structure of Potala," said Galsang.

Before the second phase of renovation of Potala began, a year-long survey on the Red Hill was carried out to determine the solidity of Potala's foundation.

Many ancient Tibetan buildings are decorated with colorful murals. The mural themes vary from legends to historical scenes. However, a large number of murals have begun to crack or blister. According to statistics, the murals which need to be renovated in the Potala Palace, the Norbu Lingka Monastery and the Sagya Monastery cover a total of over 5,000 square meters. Restoration of murals is the most technically demanding task in the renovation of the three major Tibetan cultural relics.

After comparing the bidders carefully, SACH finally decided to give the job of restoration and protection of murals of the three Tibetan monasteries to Dunhuang Culture Heritage Protection Technological Center under the Dunhuang Academy.

Through its long-term protection and management of Dunhuang Grottos, the Dunhuang Academy has accumulated rich experience in mural protection and their technique is among the best in China.

The renovation of murals in Tibet is now proceeding smoothly, with more than 1,000 square meters of murals being restored. Li Zuixiong, Vice President of Dunhuang Academy, also the project manager of mural renovation of three Tibetan monasteries, said that since 2002, Dunhuang Academy had selected the best technical personnel to conduct surveys, experiments, design, appraisal and fieldwork to guarantee the quality of the project and all work finished had strictly followed the state's related regulations.

Maintaining Original Appearances

Part of the renovation work involves the Tibetan traditional architectural technique of building roofs and floors by stamping "agar." This is manually stamping a mixture of earth, crushed stones and cement on ground or on roofs, resulting in a surface as solid and smooth as marble. The procedure involves about a dozen people standing in two lines, each with a wooden log in hand to stamp the earth and crushed stones beneath their feet. They move rhythmically while chanting in unison, which makes the tough work resemble a dance performance.

This traditional architectural skill was adopted to maintain the original look of floors and roofs in these ancient architectures. But one shortcoming of the "agar" is that it is not waterproof and can be damaged by rain. To solve this problem, in this round of renovation, experts have improved the formula of "agar" by including new additives. As a result, the new "agar" is able to resist more pressure, is water resistant and will not freeze.

Many Tibetan craftsmen participated in the renovation of their ancient buildings. "Tibet is the home to many traditional architectural techniques, which can be conducted only by experienced Tibetan craftsmen," noted Cering. He believed that since all renovation was conducted on the basis of retaining its original appearance, the historical value would not be sacrificed in the process. n

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