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Management and presentation of Chinese sites for UNESCO World Heritage List (UWHL)

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DOI (Permanent URL): 10.1108/02632771111130924

Article citation: Tao Wang, Luca Zan, (2011) "Management and presentation of Chinese sites for UNESCO World Heritage List (UWHL)", Facilities, Vol. 29 Iss: 7/8, pp.313 - 325




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The Authors

Tao Wang, UCL and SOAS, University of London, London, UK

Luca Zan, University of Bologna, Bologna, Italy


This research benefited from funds by SOAS, London, within the Creative Connections Partner Consultancy Project. Field work benefited from the help of Judy Xu, Li Ding and Guohua Yang.


Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to discuss some of the main UNESCO sites in China. The cases under study offer some insight into the complexity of the management of Chinese cultural organizations, as well as the problem of the presentation of China's heritage in a new global context.

Design/methodology/approach – The paper is based on field research in 2008/2009 on the Chinese sites on UNESCO's World Heritage List (WHL). While details of the research will be provided in a later stage, some interesting findings and patterns are emerging.

Findings – Building on the evidence of several case studies, a preliminary evaluation of the costs, the benefits and the negative outcomes of the listing process is presented in the second section. In a nutshell, the process appears to be increasingly expensive for local government and, despite the expectations for successful inscription onto the WHL, results in terms of increased tourism income are not always guaranteed. On the one hand, being listed raises the awareness of heritage protection among the general public but, on the other, there are also risks connected to tourism overexploitation.

Originality/value – From a methodological point of view the study points out the scarce quality of basic data regarding visitors and financial issues among Chinese World Heritage sites. This is particularly critical for sustainable development if it is considered that a World Heritage site should be accountable to the international audience. In the final section of the paper some open questions concerning sites' management models are presented.

Article Type:

Research paper


Heritage; China; Conservation; Management strategy.











Copyright ©

Emerald Group Publishing Limited



1. Background and methodology

The aim of the study is to collect some of the major findings of wider research on the management and presentation of Chinese UNESCO World Heritage sites. The research project has been strongly characterised by an interdisciplinary approach (the authors of this paper are an archaeologist and a management expert), by a continuous comparison between China and Europe, and, from a methodological point of view, by the implementation of several case studies.

To research the preservation and management of any cultural heritage, an interdisciplinary approach is necessary. Museums and archaeological sites are often complex organisations, where diverse cultural discourses and management practices take place side by side, and are indispensable to each other. However, the integration of archaeological knowledge with managerial skills is a difficult process. All over the world, management and presentation of heritage sites have been divided by the artificial wall that separates the “outsider” and “insider”. Many archaeologists (museum curators and historians) see management simply as an “outsider”, reducing it to an issue of communication and fundraising, while the accountants and marketing experts would view archaeologists as people who often fail to understand the mechanisms of an organisation in the changing world.

There is also a need to compare and contrast different practices of different cultural traditions (Hall, 2004). Both China and Europe have a long tradition in heritage preservation. But, while China is still a developing country, most of Europe is already a post-industrial society. They are faced with different sets of problems that require different agendas. By comparing them, we can learn from each one's experiences and open up new avenues for cross-cultural studies.

Finally, to produce any worthwhile result, field research and detailed case studies are particularly crucial. Much literature can be found on general aspects of cultural heritage, on cultural polices, on law and regulations. But very little research has been done in terms of the impact at the level of individual entities, in the “shoes of the manager”, or “in the mind of the archaeologist”. Unlike the majority literature in the management studies, we do not only focus on policies, but rather in actual transformation in day to day practices. It is first an empirical question whether policies are translated into practice, which needs to be checked against individual cases.

The field of heritage is taking part to a broader process of transformation (Silberman, 2006). The whole world is changing; China is changing (few other countries in the world, and in history, are under such dramatic transformation), the public sector is changing as a whole, but heritage management is changing even more. Heritage – in itself the world of the past in the present – is changing in ways that are subtly and quickly redefining its elements in the changing world, and possibly in the future. Three major issues need to be addressed in order to make explicit the general approach in our research, outlining the kind of questions we were trying to address.

The multidimensional nature of the management of heritage organisations

The historical-aesthetic dimension has always been the core of heritage and arts organisations: La Scala, the British Museum, or Pompeii have been run as cultural institutions for centuries according to professional discourse in their own specific fields. Rather suddenly, around the 1980s in Europe, new forces and pressures have entered the agenda, with two new dimensions getting increasing attention: a process of market orientation, and attention to the “client”; and a process of resources orientation, both financial and human (Zan, 2006). The dialogue within the multidimensional nature of management of arts organisations (between professional discourse, user orientation, and resource orientation) raises very difficult issue of trade-off, with conflicts emerging all over the world. China would be unlikely to be an exception (McKann, 2001; du Cros, 2006; Wang, 2007).

Globalization in professional discourse, rules, and standards

Although heritage itself is one of the most important elements of “local” identities, professional practices in the field share to a degree the common ideology at the international level. This is a “normal” process in professional contexts: archaeologists also tend to have forms of shared identity as such, despite their specific period or area of specialisation (being Shang/Roman/Pre-Columbian archaeologists). Moreover, the role of international agencies in defining professional standards is a general phenomenon after the Second World War. Not surprisingly, heritage professions are increasingly “ruled” by international agencies. Surely not the only agency at work (Icom, Icomos, and Getty Foundation in the Chinese case), UNESCO in this regard is an ideal example of a process of standardisation and harmonisation of practices across the world.

Profitability and sustainability

When talking about “management” of arts/cultural/heritage organisations, the issue is not necessary one of profitability. The Smithsonian Institution is largely funded (75 per cent) by the US Federal Government; the British Museum is still resisting the idea of charging an entrance fee. Management knowledge in these cases is useful not to achieve an unlikely “break even”, but simply to better manage activities. More than “profit”, the issue is one of long term feasibility or sustainability, and this involves understanding, designing, and managing the conditions of feasibility with reference to the “ongoing concern”. The issue is not so much to find resources for extraordinary investments, refurbishment, or opening of sites or museums. The basic issue is “to make it possible” to allow for current revenues to cover current costs.

Within such a general framework, several aspects at different levels have been tentatively addressed in our research from a methodological point of view. First, we were trying to identify current aggregate policies and procedures for inscription to the WHL) in China, including national pre-nomination practices and procedures. Second, we tried to identify the most relevant case histories to be carried out on ongoing/future applications to the list. By analysing long term management issues at the inscribed sites, we were aiming to identify major problems and propose solutions.

The investigation was based on both desk research (revisiting UNESCO documents available for each site, in case collecting also Chinese additional documents), and field research (on site interviews with local officers). Some case histories of nomination have been selected, analysing successful and more controversial situations. Examples at different points in time have been selected, account for possible changes over time (early inscriptions, more recent ones, applications in progress). On the basis of critical issues both at the application stage and later on (once the inscription is obtained), the management, representation and visitor experience of the individual site have been analysed. Figure 1 provides an outline for semi-structured interviews conducted in 2009.

2. Chinese heritage sites and the UNESCO list: some preliminary aggregate insights

In recent years China has been making a great effort and devoting huge resources to preserve its rich cultural heritage that, to some extent, is seriously threatened by the country's rapid economic development since the 1980s. New regulations have been issued, enforcing administrative solutions for protecting heritage and making it accessible. Amongst various elements, inscription in the WHL has been extensively used by the Chinese government as a tool. A total of 37 Chinese sites have been inserted in the list in the 21 years from 1987 to 2008 (, and each year, around four or five Chinese sites are selected for insertion on the national pre-nomination list. Of the 53 sites on this list, 26 are cultural heritage (16 were selected for our field research plus two projects: see Figure 2).

As a key part of the Chinese government's international and national policy, heritage site recognition and protection has becoming a huge undertaking. Every city in China has the ambition of having a heritage site inscribed on the WHL. Increased national and international prestige and tourism are key motivators alongside the strong competition across Chinese provinces and cities. On a wider scale the Chinese government also considers new listings on the WHL as an important means of “soft power” to place China on the centre of the international stage.

The priority and importance placed in China on having its heritage listed on the WHL is demonstrated by the effort in preparing dossiers for submission on the tentative list (at present 53 properties). Investigating the effort put on individual sites for getting listed is however very difficult. Few data was provided to us, without the support of any official written document, simply memories of the interviewed officer. What is included in cost figures is not made explicit. From previous research (Guo et al., 2008) our understanding is that normally these costs do not include the labour cost of people already working inside the institution that prepares the dossier, and also not including, probably, costs of supervision of central offices of SACH (State Administration for Cultural Heritage) in Beijing.

With these cautions, some comments can be tentatively provided. Costs presented are very inexpensive for some of the sites (e.g. Xidi and Hongcun 10 million RMB in 2000; Koguryo Kingdom 4 million RMB in 2004), even for important sites (Mogao cost only 16 million RMB, albeit in 1987; and Suzhou cost 10 million in 1997-2000). In the latter case – we are told – the amounts were small because both sites had already spent extensive resources for long-term preservation, even before starting the submission procedure. Other sites show however a more expensive process: Longmen 300 million RMB in 2000; Yin Xu 250 million RMB in 2006; Tulou 120 million RMB in 2008[1].

With an exchange rates of 0.9 RMB/, these are relatively inexpensive procedures, even for the most important sites, compared to what is normally assumed – even when considering resources in terms of local purchasing power[2]. However in terms of dynamics, an increase in the average cost can be pointed out. In addition to inflation, this is perhaps a consequence of the adoption of the Cains Decisions in 2001, according to which only two nominations (one must be natural site) are allowed for each country: the ever increasingly acute internal competition (amongst potential Chinese candidates) tends to inject high investment to ensure a successful nomination.

Costs are significant not only due to the extremely high direct investments required in developing and managing sites to meet the required selection criteria: there are many additional indirect expenses incurred, such as relocation packages for people on surrounding lands. The Yin Xu site is an example. It is one of China's more recent WH sites that demonstrates how expensive WHL approval can become as the application posed huge management and financial problems. In particular, farmers in the surrounding area had to be “bought out” to make way for the site development, which added significantly to the complications and expenses involved. An official local quote for the cost of the Yinxu application placed the overall investment at 2 billion RMB.

What benefits does the UNESCO notion of World Heritage bring to the sites? At the general level, ratifying the World Heritage Convention can bring general benefits for a country, as stated on the UNESCO web site:

  • to belong to an international community of appreciation and concern for universally significant properties that embody a world of outstanding examples of cultural diversity and natural wealth;
  • for developing countries in particular, to have access to the World Heritage Fund (annually, about US$4 million) available to assist States Parties in identifying, preserving and promoting World Heritage sites;
  • to benefit from the elaboration and implementation of a comprehensive management plan with technical training from international experts to the local site management team; and
  • to bring an increase in public awareness of the site and of its outstanding universal values, thus also increasing tourist activities at the site and bringing important funds to the local economy.

However, more direct benefits for the individual site are related to the expectation of tourist income, the most tempting reason behind the increasingly intensive inner competition in China between various sites. At most Chinese World Heritage sites investigated, the status has been translated into a new and powerful tourism marketing brand in order to promote local economy. But the concomitant pressures from increased tourism on the environment and local society are common issues that need to be tackled. In the process of safeguarding World Heritage Sites, UNESCO plays a considerable role in deciding nomination, supervising the practice of conservation and development and providing training and technical assistance. But, on the site level, part of the advantage (or disadvantage) of being on the WHL is also to follow international advices and receive guidance. For the local administration, supervision and examination from UNESCO are a powerful incentive to adapt new ways of thinking and management styles. But, it also creates tensions between the local planners and international agencies.

Another negative factor to be considered: the cost of the whole procedure of inscription in the World Heritage List can be very high, if not prohibitive, yet the real impact of being inscribed as on the WHL is somehow taken for granted. Despite high expectations for successful inscription onto the WHL and the massive investments put into the process, returns are not guaranteed. Many applications have resulted in much frustration and disappointment when the inscription on the WHL results in very few or even reverse benefits. The expectation of increase in visitors numbers for example is not always achieved (e.g. the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang did not experience such increase), while other important effects could also pose serious problems in the long run, such as the risk of being moved to the “Danger List”, List of World Heritage in Danger (see Lijiang with 6 million visitors).

If the above provide some preliminary insights on the aggregate situation of Chinese WHL, a more in depth micro investigation was one of the aims of our research. Amongst the 16 Chinese cultural heritage sites selected for our investigation, some are particularly relevant, and will be addressed individually, as case studies in the future:

  • Qin Emperor site (Terracotta warriors Museum and the tomb complex). Located in Lingtong, near Xi'an, it is a large archaeological site setting between urban and rural environments. There are many different stakeholders at the site: local farmers, factories, and the museum. The site provides an interesting example of institutional fragmentation (with two entities in the past), addressing the tension between exploitation and conservation in different ways. Moreover, the current situation presents an unusual “dual structure”: a well known, highly visited site, with high visitor pressure (the Terracotta Warriors); and the Qin mausoleum, which at this moment is at very early stages of concept development and re-design. Finally, the site is addressing the issue of improving visitors' experience according to international standards.
  • Mogao Caves. This site is in comparative isolation, under the management of an “academy”. It is a provincial site, but because of its cultural significance, the site has a state level entity, presenting unusual degrees of autonomy from an administrative point of view, coupled with a long experience in preservation and planning from the inside (the provincial level).
  • Xidi and Hongcun. Two historical villages in a mountain area, listed as cultural sites but sharing many elements of intangible heritage (local community and culture), in a fragile state. This situation poses very delicate challenges for the development of the site, while unusual solutions of total externalisation/outsourcing are at place.
  • Lijiang. A small town with the majority population from an ethnic minority group (the Naxi). The site is one of the cases of over-commodification (actually a town of shops, restaurants and inns), though tangible and intangible aspects are involved (in rather conflicting ways). A difficult challenge in itself, coupled with the variety of solutions in running the three locations of this fragmented site, make it particularly intriguing for organisational scholars.
  • Yin Xu. An area which has undergone the transformation from rural to urban. It is one of the most important (and the first) archaeological sites in China, a perfect opportunity to understand the process of evolution of archaeology in the country, also in terms of relationships (jurisdictions and tensions) between professionals, given the anomalous role played by CASS (China Academy of Social Sciences). Efforts towards presentation of the site have been huge in the last 15 years.
  • Daming Palace. A huge reconstruction project in the busy city of Xi'an. It is so far a successful story of raising enormous funds from both public and private sources. The reconstruction and presentation of the site is “in progress” (a real time example). It has the ambition as a “world-class” site. Its pivotal role in the WHL inscription process of the “Silk Road” also gives it an important “international” role to play.

Unfortunately, an intermediate level of analysis (between macro phenomena and individual cases) is not allowed by the data gathered in our research: which is in itself a research question to which we are now turning.

3. China's cultural heritage: barriers to systematic investigation

Data gathering in field research is particularly difficult in China for autonomous and independent researchers. Understanding obstacles and barriers to information disclosure is however an important outcome of our research, despite the frustration of missed opportunities to get relevant data. In such a preliminary investigation, some observations concerning procedural aspects can be made, as follows.

Knowing the unknown

Consider for instance visitors number. While in substantive terms the question that any reader might have in mind is “what is the impact of visitor numbers whether a site is listed?”, at a meta level the issue of how data on visitors can be collected by external independent researchers must be raised. It should be raised before the former question can be answered.

In general, visitor numbers are provided in ways that are difficult to check: sometimes data are missing for early inscriptions (asking for data from before 2000 is almost impossible), sometimes they are very approximate (too many “zeroes”), sometimes they lack exact dates and trends, and very rare are tables provided as such, but rather emerge from internal documents. The normal need to “double check” and triangulate information by the analyst seems to have no relevance for our interviewees. More than the right to information – as part of a customer orientation – here a total trust in the data provided is required, in a situation that can be described as lack of transparency.

The situation is even worse concerning financial information: reconstructing investments in conservation, preservation and other major initiatives, and above all yearly expenditures and income is beyond what can be normally asked[3]. It is perhaps not surprising that almost every site we have interviewed is reluctant to open its books. Nonetheless, we explicitly asked for financial data, in order to be in a position to systematically point out that these data are not provided, making any serious investigation on the management and inner economy of World Heritage Sites impossible.

From the point of view of administrators (and accountants in particular), such a notion of secrecy is easily understood. To be honest, it would not be so different in Italy with any State museums (either they do not have financial statements at all, or archaeologists are not interested in these data; in any case they will be reluctant to provide you with these information). However, from the point of view of international agencies or an independent researcher, there are some serious problems:

  • On the one hand, one could argue, if a site is listed as “World Heritage”, its officers and administrators should be ready to provide information to the outside world. It is not an issue of local business and local interests. As a counterpart of being inserted in the worldwide list, basic information should be available to the stakeholders, to international/worldwide audience (including independent researchers).
  • What emerges in this situation is a serious misunderstanding in capacity building and the failure to publish extraordinary data gathering and information disclosure as a routine. While preparing the dossier itself (for the pre-nomination at the national level, and then at WHL) is an opportunity to provide systematic insights on major aspects of a site, this is far from beginning a normal procedure of producing information on a current, yearly basis. As it stands, seen from UNESCO point of view (and from worldwide perspective), an opportunity has been lost.

Ambiguity of human resources data

Asking for human resources data in some ways corroborates previous research, sometimes providing differences. Similar to what has been already discovered elsewhere (Guo et al., 2008), ambiguity exists about the number of permanent, on contract, and seasonal employees. Moreover, references to issues of personnel are very rare, and different from what one would find in any research/paper/book on the management of World Heritage in the West. Simply, management of people does not seem to be perceived as a problem at the micro level. Unlike in the previous research, the issue of overstaffing was never referred to in our interviews. This is probably more related to issues of (lack of) information disclosure, than to a different situation in substantive terms.

Even in the presence of important development projects, references to the need for human resources (by quality and skills and number) are rarely found. The right staffing of a huge project such as, say, Daming Palace is still far from being determined despite the relative late stage of the overall planning process (it is due to open in 2010).

In short: human resources seem to be a non-issue in the organisations we interviewed: this is quite surprising, considering both changes in professional discourse at the worldwide level, and the pressure for downsizing human resources in public sector all over the world. It is a quite recognised aspect that more efficient uses of labour forces in the public sector are associated with severe cost-cutting exercises. From this point of view one could argue that China's heritage sector is the exception to the rule, because of the rather deliberate use of heritage as a tool for national identity building (see the amount of money provided by the 11th five-year plan, and the development of “big sites” and museums). In any case, resources are less than infinite (and the needs are consistent and increasing), and skills are missing.

The “management model”

“Management model” is an appealing but ambiguous term. Explaining to archaeologists what management scholars mean by a “management model” gives rise to a lot of misunderstandings. But looking at the section on “management” in the UNESCO dossier, one finds a great deal of description, mainly related to legal issues in the case of China (with the always similar listing of constitutional articles and national, provincial and sometimes local laws). The impression is that the compiler of the dossier does not understand the question. Indeed, even the reader, on the other hand, is likely to misunderstand what the question was trying to achieve.

Governance structures, and the associated financial “business” model, are crucial issues that tend to get no answer in the research. Understanding where money comes from and where money goes even only in qualitative terms, is a very difficult task in this context. While financial autonomy seems to exist to various degrees (total autonomy for Mogao's grottoes; partial autonomy for the Qin Museum of Terracotta Worriers), in many other situations the issue is still far from clearly understood.

However, forms of “outsourcing” or even actual privatisation can be found in our sample. The use of external entities – even firms – in the Chinese public sector seems to be well developed; though unfortunately it is difficult to understand the ways and patterns of the process – in fact almost impossible – because of the obstacle of “secrecy” among the participants. In this case, more than elsewhere, a careful reconstruction of few cases, if not ideal types, will be necessary.

The issue of “management unit”

One of the most controversial and recurrent issues in WH sites all over the world is the issue of the “management unit”, i.e. the unit that is in charge of the site. Perhaps the case of Machu Picchu provides the most explicit example, also in terms of a conflict or misunderstanding between UNESCO and national governments: UNESCO asked for a “unitary” entity to manage the whole site; Peru responded by setting up a second-level entity for coordination, with no direct responsibility or budget (Zan and Lusiani, 2011). Ravenna (Italy) is another good example of messy solutions: eight (!) UNESCO sites in one single town (which is not a UNESCO town as such), involving different administrations: the municipal government, the national government, the Church, and various villages around Ravenna. Creating a unitary master plan in such a context is extremely expensive, in organisational terms: even introducing a joint ticket seems to have been impossible so far.

In our research, very interesting findings emerge, with examples of fragmentation (but sometimes also of unitary solutions despite “inner” fragmentation) that need to be understood. For example:

  • Qin site. In the past showed a curious fragmentation of the single sites in two entities (the Terracotta Warriors Museum and the Mausoleum), run by the local level of the Cultural Relics Bureau, and a Provincial Tourist Company (the conflict between these two deserves further description in the future).
  • Lijiang. This is a site made up of three towns or villages (Dayan, Shuhue and Baisha), reporting to different administrations, run under different business models, and lacking any unitary entity for coordination.
  • Yin Xu. This Is one site run by two different institutions, with a very unusual (and conflictual) relationship: the local station of the CASS, which runs the museum and largely involved in the overall site management, and the local administration.
  • The Imperial Palace. Though very few people know that there is anything in addition to the Forbidden City, the UNESCO site is made up of two different entities (Beijing and Shenyang), with no relation at all between them.
  • The Great Wall. Though the man in the street expects that the Great Wall is a site “as such”, the UNESCO site is something stranger, from an organisational point of view. It is made up by three different locations: the Great Wall at Badaling (under the administration of Yanqing County Badaling Special Zone Office, Yanqing County, Beijing), at Jiayuguan Pass (Jiayuguan Pass Cultural Relics Management Station of Gansu Province), and at Shanhaiguan (Shanhaiguan District Bureau of Cultural Relics Shanhaiguan District, Qinghuangdao City, Hebei Province). No relationships at all seem to exist between these three locations, while the rest of the Great Wall as such – in physical and administrative terms – is not included in the WH site.

On the other hand some sites that are fragmented from the physical and relics point of view are nonetheless managed under a unique/unitary entity: Qingcheng Mountains and Dujiangyuan Irrigation exhibit a joint administration of the two “sub”-sites. Despite the intrinsic fragmentation (five grottoes make up the UNESCO site, plus another 70 caves in the area) the whole Dazu complex is managed unitarily under one body (inside one County). Despite the dispersion of various units, a unitary managerial structure was established in Tulou.

Different solutions can be found at the same time. The impression is that such a variety is largely “random”, suggesting that policy towards unitary entities was not perceived as a problem in the past.

Tourism impacts

According to our interviews, the whole issue of getting inscribed on the WHL is supported by the State Administration as a way of improving professional practices and the preservation and interpretation of the sites, more than an issue of economic development.

In the absence of systematic visitors and financial data, the assessment of the whole process is – simply put – impossible (visitor numbers before/after the listing and data about “investments” and returns are missing, as well as yearly costs and revenues). An investigator may be frustrated by this finding, but, at the same time, he/she will find this information interesting on its own: no systematic monitoring exists about these aspects (or, at least, is made available to independent researchers, which is the same thing from our point of view).

The issue of carrying capacity has never been referred to in our interviews: another non-issue in the Chinese context. It is a worrying trend, considering the dangers of the potential number of visitors on fragile archaeological sites. An excess of visitors, a perverse effect on WH sites, can be found as well: Lijiang is an example of this kind, with explicit warning addressed by UNESCO about the over-commercialisation of the site, with a wave of 6 million people on such a small and delicate village. Disco and karaoke pubs are still there, despite what the outcome of the UNESCO mission in 2008. This provides new insights on an overlooked phenomenon, i.e. acoustic pollution in heritage sites (Zan, 2011; Zan and Wang, 2011).

In this direction, furthermore, a serious issue that also emerges is that of the impact of tangible on “intangible” heritage. Sometimes, particularly in the case of villages, sites are listed as tangible heritage, but sustain the effects of destruction of the social fabric of the villages (local people moving out to makespace for business, inns, and shops, mostly run by outsiders), as in the case of Xidi and Hongcun, and Tulou. But the problems are even more acute in Lijiang, where both tangible and intangible sites are represented and managed separately by different governmental bodies, putting energy and money on the preservation of a culture (the intangible) that is seriously being undermined by those managing the tangible site (Zan and Wang, 2011).

4. Concluding remarks

The influence of World Heritage status on the listed sites has certainly been great. In some sites (e.g. Lijiang, Xidi and Hongcun), the inscription on the WHL turns into a real privilege and status throughout the practices of Chinese heritage administration at all levels. To the “living settlement” type of site such as Lijiang, Tulou, or Pingyao, the natural and rural uniqueness of ancient villages and towns requires attention to broader heritage protection issues. A participatory management approach is very much desired. Some sites have already involved local communities in the management process. But in local site management, to both conform to international standards and keep the local characteristics in everyday practice is a serious challenge. Each site is using different approaches based on their understandings. To take monitoring as an example, Lijiang is a case where UNESCO is deeply involved and the site authority is taking some action to establish a monitoring system step by step (though effectiveness is still an open issue). To Lijiang, monitoring means the control of commercialization and excessive mass tourism. For the Fujian Tulou, which is the most recent listed site, monitoring means the 3 million RMB remote monitoring and control system to collect data and ensure the safety of the property. In Xidi and Hongcun, to monitor the site is in a more technical and legislative term. The site staff needs to pay random visits from time to time to find out whether any houses are endangered or are any illegal construction activities taking place among the households. These are few of the various questions facing Chinese World Heritage sites management authorities today, and they are learning to understand more throughout the interactions with UNESCO and its notion of World Heritage. Most Chinese sites started from a standard nomination document but have moved eventually to increasingly diversified ends.

As a programme specialist of the World Heritage Centre observed, UNESCO has paid little attention to “local government” by assuming that they knew everything. To the contrary, the local authorities are the group of people who need more specific training and effective communication. It is good to hear that UNESCO is now taking more self-reflective approach toward re-inventing the institution itself, in order to produce more digestible programmes and ideas.

As the WHL has a top-down approach, the site management structure and practices are incorporated into the existing administrative system in most cases, which means the government authority takes the leadership in the process. However, under the supervision of the government, various heritage management models are practiced at different sites:

  • managed by local villagers such as Xidi;
  • developed and managed by external private companies such as Hongcun and Shuhe; and
  • directly managed by government agencies such as Dayan, Suzhou and Fujian Tulou.

Moreover, there are several approaches to community participation: local organizations such as village committees take charge of daily maintenance (e.g. Tulou); tourism management companies such as Xidi, house owners repair and preserve the historic houses with a compensation; family business operate in the tourism industry by producing tourist commodities, using traditional craftsmanship or running home inns and restaurants.

There are still many questions that need to be addressed: what are the differences among the different models? How do they conform to the local context? What are the implications of those practices on local sites and communities? Does it lead to any difference in site interpretation and how do visitors receive it? These are interesting questions that would help us understanding better the real picture of World Heritage sites in China – when, and if, information is provided.

ImageFigure 1Data gathering in individual sites
Figure 1Data gathering in individual sites

ImageFigure 2Chinese cultural heritage (2008) and sample selection
Figure 2Chinese cultural heritage (2008) and sample selection


  1. In the case of Tulou, the local government (Nanjing county) has spent 87 million RMB on environment improvement (i.e. demolition of inharmonious buildings, cleaning the area and renovating public toilets), 30 million RMB plus on the project of “invisible pipelines” and another 3 million RMB on a remote monitoring and control system. There was also an expenditure of 360 million RMB on a new highway connecting the county and the prefecture-level city Meizhou in neighbouring Guangdong Province, making a total amount of 480 million RMB. That was only the cost of one of the three participating counties.

  2. According to one of the anonymous referees of the paper – which we would like to acknowledge – the average cost of application is informally estimated by UNESCO officers around 500,000 USD, including salaries of Government officials for developing the dossier.

  3. Only in one case were financial figures provided (the Qin Emperor site) because they have already published a book on the first 25 years of the site, and are in the process of publishing the updated version for the 30-year anniversary.


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Corresponding author

Luca Zan can be contacted at: