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Protection of Cultural Heritage amid Construction Craze

For the residents of some ancient Chinese cities like Beijing, Nanjing and Xi'an, which are in the throes of redevelopment, memories of their past are fading rapidly.

Hutongs, or narrow alleys lined with traditional Beijing courtyard houses, and place names are being replaced by modern buildings.

Nowadays, it's almost impossible for a Beijing local to remember that the city once boasted more than 3,679 hutongs in the 1980s, a number that has been cut down by 40 percent to give way to urban roads and skyscrapers.

As a result, old place names have been fading from maps and memories.

At an old central community of Beijing's Xuanwu district, the walls of several rows of courtyards are etched with the Chinese character of "Chai", meaning "to be dismantled".

"The hutongs have been winding around here for hundreds of years, but they will disappear in weeks now," said a sad local.

In East China's Nanjing, once the capital of six ancient dynasties, more than 180 old places names have disappeared in the past 15 years and the number of new place names has grown at a speed of 200 per year since 2001, according to an earlier report by the People's Daily.

Some place names have been reduced, changed and even eliminated in an arbitrary way despite the historical touches contained within them, said the paper.

In North China's Hebei province, the name of the Wanxian county, with "wan" meaning "perfect rivers and mountains" in ancient Chinese, was changed into "Shunping (county)" in 1993, simply because some overseas businessmen said the pronunciation of "wan" in modern oral Chinese may be understood as "got finished".

"Place names are an important part of China's national cultural heritage," said Liu Baoquan, head of the Place Name Research Center under the Ministry of Civil Affairs. "An old place name usually tells an unique story."

For China, he said, every place name bears a special link with history. "With the disappearance of the old place names, there will come a day that we can't trace our culture and history."

For most old Chinese, old place names serve as lively records of the ups and downs of the dynasties during China's 5,000-year-long history.

According to official statistics, China has more than 700 counties, more than 1,000 towns and more than 300 cities with a standing of more than 1,000 years as well as more than 100,000 ancient villages that even their own residents can't tell how old they are.

"Most of them bear a name that reflects the features of a special period of the Chinese civilization," said Liu. "They can be called 'living fossils' of the traditional Chinese culture."

To combat the serious situation, the Chinese government has started a national program to prevent old place names from being scrapped at will. The program will work to find, sort out and analyze the remaining old place names on the basis of field work and thus form an assessment system to classify them according to their importance, said Liu.

"Civil affairs authorities at different levels will review the application for place name changes in more strict ways and experts' suggestions will be taken as the key basis," said Liu.

As part of the program, an expert group has set out a series of standards for the appraisal of "ancient cities". By late 2005, 15 counties and cities in Hebei province had been approved as China's first batch of cities with the title of "Thousand-Year-Old Cities".

(Xinhua News Agency May 8, 2006)

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