BEIJING -- The Forbidden City is a spectacular palace that Chinese emperors once called home, but it desperately needs a face lift. Vermilion paint peels from the walls, weeds sprout from the ceramic tile roofs and pieces of broken sculpture lie strewn about one of the courtyards.
In nearby Hebei Province, two sections of the Great Wall -- one dating to the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907) -- were demolished this year to make way for a new road and the expansion of a vegetable company.
As a nation, China bases much of its claim to greatness on its 5,000 years of history and ancient culture, yet at times it treats some of its treasures like second-hand clothes.
"Any Chinese would feel angry at the sight," said Chai Xiaoming, a national cultural relics protection official, referring to the deteriorated condition of the Forbidden City.
Preserving and protecting antiquities has always been a challenge in this poor, sprawling and turbulent nation where incomes are rising but still low and about 150 million people can't read.
Over the years, peasants have stripped countless bricks from the Great Wall to build homes, outhouses and pigpens. During the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, when Mao Tse-tung unleashed a war on the nation's ancient heritage and traditions, Red Guards tore off the heads of Buddhist statues and destroyed hundreds of Tibetan monasteries.
Preservation vs. development
As this nominally Communist country has pushed forward with market economic reforms in the past two decades, though, there has been an increasing clash between development and preservation. For many poor Chinese, it's an easy choice.
Wang, a 61-year-old farmer, tends a grove of peach trees next to the Great Wall in the coastal city of Shanhaiguan. In the fall, local officials ripped out a 115-foot section for a new road that would reduce traffic jams and cut commuting time.
"The plan was to make a tunnel, but there was not enough money," said Wang, stuffing his hands inside the sleeves of his Mao jacket in his small stone-and-earth shack about 20 yards from the Great Wall. "The only option was to tear it down."
Like many in this city of 150,000, Wang thinks the benefits outweigh the costs. The new thoroughfare has reduced the time it takes him and thousands of others to get to the main road. He also points out that this section of the Great Wall -- which resembles a dirt mound because residents have taken away most of the bricks -- isn't all that pleasant to look at anyway.
"From the historic and symbolic perspective, it's the wrong thing to do," admits Wang, who declined to give his full name. But based on the demands of modern life, "I think it's a good thing."
Some Shanhaiguan residents such as Guang, a 62-year-old woman who runs a small Chinese restaurant, disagree. Guang, who also declines to give her full name, complains over cigarettes and cups of hot tea about the short-sightedness of local citizens.
"A lot of peasants don't have any feeling toward cultural relics," she says. "They don't care and even if you show them why they should care, they don't."
Wall comes down
It is easy to see why some people would favor road-building over preservation in Shanhaiguan. A port city wedged between the mountains and the sea, it suffers from high unemployment because of China's failing state-owned industries. Although tourists visit in the summer to see where the Great Wall meets the ocean, cab drivers line up at the railway station on winter nights to fight for fares.
The Great Wall runs through much of Shanhaiguan, and tunnels have been carved in a number of spots to accommodate roads. Local officials, under heavy criticism from the central and provincial governments, now plan to reconnect the severed section by building four arches at a cost of $241,000.
Chai says local governments rarely demolish segments of the Great Wall and that Chinese are becoming more educated about historic preservation as their standard of living increases. He cites a case this year in which nearly 100 residents signed a petition opposing the construction of an apartment building near the foundation of an ancient wall in coastal Jiangsu Province.
"As the economy develops, people will become more concerned about cultural relics," he says.
If the destruction of the Great Wall at Shanhaiguan was due to ignorance, the dilapidated condition of the Forbidden City seems more a matter of neglect and inadequate funding. Each year, it brings in more than $15 million in ticket revenue -- which goes to the government treasury -- yet less than $1 million is spent annually on basic maintenance.
That doesn't seem like a lot of money for a complex that was originally built more than 500 years ago, covers more than 150 acres and is one of the most-visible symbols of the world's most-populous country.
Strolling through the courtyards and among the buildings, visitors can't help but notice the decay. The weeds grow so thick on the rooftops that you could run a lawn mower across them. Graffiti cover the walls of the Hall of Supreme Harmony.
"Hu Wanbin was here for a visit, 1997.7.24," reads one entry which appears to have been carved with a rock. "Wishing to live long and come hundreds of kilometers to enjoy the moon with you," reads another, quoting a Song Dynasty love poem.
In the courtyard below the Hall of Central Harmony, a broken sculpture of a dragon's head has lain for more than two months.
"It could be neglect," says Li Deshan, who oversees the maintenance of the buildings, when asked why the sculpture hasn't been moved.
Li, who earns $1,451 a year, says there is enough money to keep up the Forbidden City. He also notes that the government plans to spend about $72 million to dredge the moat that surrounds it.
Some residents use the ancient canal as a dump. The trash -- which includes garbage, shoes, bottles and window frames -- is more than six feet thick in some sections.
To preserve other parts of the Forbidden City, the government has built an underground vault for relics. It also requires tourists to wear slippers in certain buildings.
Li says that, overall, he thinks the Forbidden City is well kept, but some Chinese visitors disagree.
"It really needs to be repaired in the future," says Xu Chu, a 30-year-old engineer from Beijing. "This is a very valuable part of Chinese heritage."
Pub Date: 12/26/97