Last weekend, the 43rd session of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee was held in Baku, Azerbaijan. The committee, first convened in Paris in 1977, is tasked with formally elevating sites of cultural, historical, and natural importance to its independently maintained World Heritage Site list, which as of last week’s session includes 1,121 sites in 167 countries.
29 new sites were added to the list during the recent session, including two in China: a series of migratory bird sanctuaries in China’s Bohai Gulf, and the archaeological site of Liangzhu in modern-day Zhejiang province, whose ruins date back more than 5,300 years.
UNESCO world heritage sites in China as of July 2019 (Wikipedia)
Following these two additions, China now has the most UNESCO-designated World Heritage Sites of any modern nation-state, at 55 total. (Italy is now runner-up, at 54.) China’s entries on the list include some archaeological greatest hits (such as the Great Wall and the Mausoleum of the first Qin Emperor, where the Terracotta Soldiers reside) alongside sites of natural or ecological significance (such as Wulingyuan, where Avatar was filmed, and the Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries).
At the conclusion of the 43rd session, it was also announced that Fuzhou, the capital of the southeastern coastal province of Fujian, will host the committee’s 44th meeting next year. Fujian province currently has three sites on the UNESCO list: Wuyi Mountain, added in 1999; Fujian tulou, a distinctive type of roundhouse architecture characteristic of the region’s Hakka people; and danxia, a unique petrographic landform concentrated in southern China. Sanfang Qixiang, a network of lanes and alleys in central Fuzhou dating to the Tang dynasty, was added to the World Heritage Site’s Tentative List in 2013, and given an Honorable Mention in 2015.
Chinese State newspaper Xinhua reported from the announcement ceremony in Baku:
[Chinese Vice Minister of Education] Tian [Xuejun] was elected as chairman of the 44th session of the committee. In his speech, Tian said that China would work to fully cooperate with the World Heritage Center to host a successful session next year and make contributions to world cultural exchanges, sustainable development and the building of a community with a shared future for humankind.
In recent years, China has shown increased interest in global, multi-national organizations such as UNESCO. China’s expanding role within UNESCO was made more pronounced by the January 1, 2019 withdrawal of the United States from the organization, which the U.S. co-founded in in the aftermath of the Second World War. “China values the importance of Unesco and would like to contribute more to the organisation’s cooperation,” a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry said at a press briefing in Beijing soon after the U.S. announced its plan to withdraw, according to the South China Morning Post. Dr. Hao Ping, who from 2013-2015 served as the first Director-General of UNESCO from China, is now the Communist Party Secretary of Peking University, China’s most prestigious institute of higher learning.
To learn more about how the Chinese State’s official narrative about its own history and cultural importance might intersect with the status conferred by bodies such as the World Heritage Committee, read the first installment in RADII’s new Archaeology column, Testing the Past, which examines how the recently UNESCO-certified site of Liangzhu is reviving China’s claims to “5,000 years of continuous history”:
China’s “5,000 Years of History”: Fact or Fiction?
Cover image: Sanfang Qixiang, Fuzhou (photo by Jake Newby)
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