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How Xi’an’s Past Became a Blueprint for Its Future

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How Xi’an’s Past Became a Blueprint for Its Future

Public memory as a tool of development in Xi’an.

How Xi’an’s Past Became a Blueprint for Its Future

View from Xi’an’s historic city walls (fall 2017).

Credit: Erin Dunne

When Xi Jinping came to power, he called for “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” This statement offers China’s past as a roadmap for the future. The use of the term “rejuvenation” implied that China’s past greatness was a basis for future power and success. While this rhetoric has been well documented in the case of China as a whole, the trend of looking to the past for the future aspirations of development is also evident in individual cities in modern China.

In Xi’an, perceptions of the city’s future development are directly linked to public understanding of Xi’an’s past prominence as an imperial capital. Through examining how physical history in Xi’an has been presented to the public based on the influence of China’s changing cultural and political environment, it is clear that the Chinese construction of public memory of its own history and tradition emerges not as a tool of simply preserving the past as intrinsically valuable, but rather as a tool for future development. In this broader sense, this study of Xi’an also has implications for better understanding of how China as a nation conceives of its present in relation to its past.

Historical Preservation in Xi’an

Historic monuments and archaeological discoveries in Xi’an and the surrounding area have helped to shape public understanding of China’s past, both domestically and abroad. Narratives of China’s past, understood through the lens of discourse on preservation, however, are not apolitical but rather are shaped by contemporary culture and the current political environment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). To understand how monuments and archaeological discoveries shape modern public perceptions, it is necessary to examine how approaches toward preservation and the value placed on history changed over time in Xi’an following official state changes in policy.

In Xi’an, as in other Chinese towns and cities, historical preservation has only recently become a priority and efforts and policies have undergone tremendous shifts over the past decades in parallel with changing political agendas. As policy shifted, government rhetoric also shifted public perception.

While many sites had already been lost due to events prior to the founding of the PRC, there were still many sites to be protected in Xi’an in 1949. The central government of the PRC recognized the value of protecting historical sites, and issued a series of directives in 1951 instructing local governments to protect significant historical landmarks. While the 1953 Overall Plan for Xi’an explicitly preserved some areas of the city based on historic value, the “key emphasis of the plan was on industrial development and the intention was to change the historic city of ‘consumption’ to a city of ‘socialist production,’” according to Ya Ping Wang’s article “Planning and conservation in historic Chinese cities.”

Beginning in 1961, the State Council published a list of “key national sites” and issued The Provincial Ordinance of Historic Interests Protection and Management providing guidance to local governments on creating organizations to manage important historic sites. Despite these protections, however, there was a lack of funding available for the preservation efforts outlined in the directives. In Xi’an this meant that the City Wall fell into disrepair and parts of its historic brick structure were removed to make way for roads or building materials were repurposed by residents for the construction of housing. Perhaps more costly to the historic landscape of Xi’an, however, was the rapid development of the city, which permanently altered the historic skyline and left historic structures almost completely enveloped by modern development. Preservation radically shifted with the advent of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 as protecting historic sites was considered “reactionary” and many historic sites were targeted and destroyed by the public.

In Xi’an, public and government interest and perceived value in historical preservation surged after the 1974 discovery of the Terracotta Warriors, resulting in the direction of more resources toward preservation. Historic sites, however, still lacked formal protection. The 1980 revised city plan envisioned Xi’an as “a city of advanced sciences, culture and education with textile and machinery manufacturing industries as the main sectors, and tourist trade based on the protection of the city’s historic features.” While preservation was written into the vision of the city, the justification for this preservation was not the intrinsic value of the historic sites but rather their value in the promotion of economic development through tourism.

In 1981, the State Bureau of Historic Interests Management proposed new measures and noted damage to historic sites to the State Council, which eventually led to the creation of new policies. The 1980s also brought a shift in approach to historic preservation away from preserving isolated sites toward protecting historic areas that allowed for the designation of “Historic Cities or Towns.” This signaled a shift in public understanding of the value of historic sites from isolated pockets to areas.

For Xi’an these policies meant that greater attention was paid to how historic sites could be protected, including increases in funding. The City Wall became a focus of this protection and the entire site was to be rebuilt and used as park land. Additionally, city plans called for height restrictions on buildings inside the wall within a certain distance. Today, these preservation efforts have rendered the Xi’an City Wall a major tourist attraction and a site of local cultural activity.

Despite these preservation efforts, Xi’an lost much of its historic character to development. One stark example of this is Nandajie (South Great Street), which was a thriving central urban street framed by the South Gate on one end and the Bell Tower on the other; none of the original buildings that lined the avenue were taller than these landmarks. During the redevelopment process, however, the street was winded and the low buildings were replaced with taller modern constructions that altered the character of the street.

Redeveloping History for Tourism

By the end of the 1980s increased tourism demand and an emphasis on attracting outside investment led to the construction of high-rise joint-venture hotels that “were the first modern tower blocks to encroach upon the traditional skyline,” according to Ya Ping Wang. Throughout the 1990s, especially after Xi’an was declared an “open city,” development boomed and modernization dominated the agenda. Part of this modernization effort was removing structures that were seen “by many politicians as symbols of poverty and backwardness” despite their historical value.

A new plan for Xi’an began to be developed in 1993 and in the 1995 version of the plan, Xi’an’s future was now defined as “a world famous historic city; an important base for scientific research, higher education and high-tech industries within China; the largest central city in the west and central of north China; and the capital of Shaanxi Province” by the Xi’an Municipal Urban Planning and Management Bureau. From this choice of phrasing, it is obvious that historic preservation has become a priority and many of the previous emphasis on manufacturing, particularly that of textiles, has disappeared. Public perception had shifted as a result of the potential for economic development as a result of tourism.

In the 1990s developers pressured the city officials to allow buildings of up to 50 meters to be built within the old town area. This resulted in the inclusion of more high-rise buildings and shifted emphasis away from the preservation of the old city as a whole, and toward the protection of specific areas and “visual corridors.” While these efforts were partially successful, the allowance of further development altered the historic skyline of Xi’an even more fundamentally. As Wang writes, “unless a visitor stands near the City Wall or one of the main historic buildings it is difficult to imagine that this was once a great ancient city.” This shift reinforces the ideas that public value of historic preservation was tied to economic development as profitable high-rise buildings were allowed to encroach on historic sites.

Since the 1990s a number of new sites have been developed and new preservation work has been done on existing sites in Xi’an. Sites such as the Great Wild Goose Pagoda, the Small Wild Goose Pagoda, and the City Walls have undergone extensive restoration to present these structures as appealing for tourists. In many ways, these efforts have been successful and today they are wildly visited by tourists and promoted by city. In each of these sites, visitors can see historic photographs of how the site looked prior to restoration alongside praise for the valuable preservation work undertaken by the government to make the restoration possible. The position of these narratives supporting government action, while leaving out most of the fraught story of preservation in Xi’an, is unsurprising but also indicates how even recent history can be glossed over to bolster political narratives of legitimacy.

Additionally, renewed focus on preservation has led to the halt of plans for further archaeological excavations. During the initial excavations of the Terracotta Warriors, the pigmented paint decorating the individual figures was lost due to inadequate technology to preserve the fragile coloring. This resulted in heavy criticism of China’s archaeological efforts and also triggered official revaluation of preservation methods. The result of this criticism has been that China has largely stopped excavating new sites in Xi’an and has instead opted to wait until both more revenue and increased technology allow for domestic excavation efforts to continue. With this decision, it is important to note that China rejected offers from foreign specialists, in particular Germany, to help with further excavation. This decision reflects a nationalist narrative in historical preservation by preventing further discovery until China can claim credit for both the discovery and preservation without having to share recognition with foreign powers and, in the process, implicitly acknowledge its own lack of resources.

Nationalist narratives are also evident in the creation of the museum itself, which includes a self-laudatory collection of items and photographs highlighting the museum’s founding and rise to prominence. This room, located right next to the room holding the famous chariots, reinforces to visitors the importance of not only the Terracotta Warriors but also the Chinese government in their preservation.

Historic monuments and archaeological finds in contemporary Xi’an have thus shaped public perspectives on the value of the past while also being shaped by the dominant political and cultural beliefs of the era. The result, however, was not preservation for the sake of protecting historic artifacts, but rather preservation in support of development. Not only did interest in protection not experience an upsurge until after the discovery of the internationally acclaimed Terracotta Warriors as a tourist draw, but developers were also able to then build hotels and other commercial properties at the expense of preservation by tapping into city officials’ desire for economic growth. Moreover, the specific sites that were preserved were done so with the guidance and support of the central government, thus privileging sites that furthered official narratives about China’s united and powerful past.

Future Aspirations from Past Prosperity

Modern development initiatives in Xi’an draw on references of the historical power of the city. Indeed, the very project of forging a modern metropolis is embedded in the cultural memory of Xi’an as the great cosmopolitan capital of the Tang dynasty. Demonstrating the difficulty of recapturing the past, however, it was only recently that the modern city of Xi’an pushed beyond the boundaries of Chang’an during the Tang dynasty. Moreover, the use of cultural capital in rhetoric promoting further development demonstrates that public perception of the past has been marketed as an asset for the future.

This is evident in rhetoric on the recent development of the Xi’an Economic & Technological Development Zone (XETDZ). An official presentation on the site to an international group of scholars in November 2017 opened with the “cultural capital” offered by the Terracotta Warriors and the introduction of the accompanying brochure citing “Xi’an Originally known as Chang’an” as “One of the top four ancient capitals in the world.” These prominent references suggest that the prowess of more than two millennia ago should be a kick starter for modern investment.

Likewise, the presentation mentioned a call for the “openness of the Tang and Han” dynasties to characterize the future international development of the city. This signals again a search for the future in the past.

Xi’an’s history as a center of commerce and trade among far flung regions is particularly important to modern-day development plans. This idea of a global city, filled with foreigners helping to bolster Xi’an’s prospects, is evident in presentations of Xi’an’s growth. One presentation advised modern day foreigners that “it is your wise choice to come to Xi’an and invest in XETDZ. We can join hands and bring about a bright future.”

For residents and officials alike, there is a sense of pride in Xi’an’s history. This pride is translated into rhetoric for economic development and also helps to forge the identity of the city as residents, tour guides, and factory executives all remind visitors that they city had served as the capital of 10 dynasties.

Conclusion: Finding the Future in the Past?

The introduction of historic monuments in contemporary Xi’an indicates that public memory has been constructed to bolster future aspirations of the city based on perceptions of the past. In short, Xi’an seems to have convinced both its population and its officials that it is possible to forge a prosperous future for Xi’an based on its past prominence.

Spending time in Xi’an, however, reveals that the history and historic monuments claimed as beacons for the future are hollow. These monuments have largely been created not to preserve the past but to perpetuate economic development through tourism and, secondly, to advance a narrative about China’s prosperous past. This approach is evidenced in the visions for the future of Xi’an in city plans, the trajectory of preservation efforts, and the attention paid to specific sites with distinctly nationalist objectives.

The combination of past prosperity as a basis for future development and the hollow nature of many of the sites claimed as valuable for history but preserved for the sake of tourism renders the call to find Xi’an’s future in its past weak. Moreover, such a claim, like the narratives curated in museums, leaves out the more problematic parts of the past that contradict the presented narrative: while Xi’an was a historic capital, it was an ancient capital. The “openness of the Tang and Han” and the economic capacity to produce the Terracotta Warriors are buried deep in a history that has since recentered wealth and prominence elsewhere.

Despite their glossy brochures and impressive PowerPoints, perhaps the people of Xi’an also recognize the holes in their story linking the past and the future. Indeed, this was evident when presenters and the tour guide repeatedly implored visitors to come and invest and to “help us do some promotion in your country.”

If the future could be seen from the historic but tourist-centered City Walls it was obscured by a thick haze of pollution. From that vantage point, the past vanished into the distance despite the efforts for its preservation.

Erin Dunne is a Yenching Scholar at Peking University. Her research focuses on historical memory and preservation.