Façade of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Macao. Originally built by Jesuits in the seventeenth century, St. Paul’s was the largest Catholic cathedral in Asia. All but the façade was destroyed by fire during a typhoon in 1835. It remains as Macao’s most famous landmark and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

The concept of linking nature conservation and cultural preservation was adopted in 1972 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Consequently, the World Heritage Convention authorized the designation of World Heritage sites by the World Heritage Committee.

With a history of some five thousand years China has a rich legacy of art, architecture, literature, and religion. Not until 1987, however, was China’s application for its first World Heritage site, the Great Wall, granted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which has been actively engaged in endeavors to combine nature conservation with cultural preservation since 1972.

Early Enlistees

The Great Wall (enlisted in 1987) was constructed during the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE) to defend against invaders from the north and has been renovated throughout history. Connecting Shanghaiguan Pass in the east and Jianyuguan Pass in the west, the Great Wall stretches across Liaoning, Hebei, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Ningxia, and Gansu provinces. It is one of the seven wonders of the world and an icon of Chinese national identity.

The Peking Man Site at Zhoukoudian (enlisted in 1987) near Beijing, site of the discovery of a skullcap and teeth from a species dated broadly to 640,000–230,000 years ago engenders archaeological value in the theory of prehistoric human and evolution. The Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor (enlisted in 1987) holds the key to the mysteries of an ancient kingdom. Complex arrays of terra-cotta warriors with horses, chariots, and weapons found in the excavated tombs, each differing in outfit and pose, bear great historical and cultural significance. The Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties (enlisted in 2000 and 2003) signify the art of burial ingenuity, revealing traditional Chinese cosmology (a branch of metaphysics that deals with the nature of the universe), feng shui theory (involving a Chinese geomantic practice in which a structure or site is chosen or configured so as to harmonize with the spiritual forces that inhabit it), and geomancy (divination by means of figures or lines or geographic features).

Palaces and Temples

The Imperial Palace of the Ming and Qing dynasties (enlisted in 1987) in Beijing and Shenyang, the Mountain Resort in Chengde City (enlisted in 1994), the Temple of Heaven (an imperial sacrificial altar) in Beijing (enlisted in 1998), and the Imperial Summer Palace in Beijing (enlisted in 1998) are pinnacles of royal architectural art and the theory of traditional Chinese belief systems.

The Temple of Confucius, the Cemetery of Confucius, and the Kong Family Mansion in Qufu (enlisted in 1994) in Shandong Province commemorate the educator, philosopher, and politician Confucius (551–479 BCE). The cemetery containing the remains of Confucius and 100,000 of his descendants and the complex of monuments within invoke his legacy.

Potala Palace (enlisted in 1994) in Lhasa, Tibet, is a landmark atop Red Hill. The palace consists of two sections—the outer and larger White Palace, built between 1645 and 1653 as the secular administrative center and the winter residential quarters, and the sacred Red Palace of temples and spiritual buildings, built between 1690 and 1693. The complex symbolizes the central role of Buddhism in administering Tibet. Together with Jokhang Temple Monastery and the summer palace Norbulingka, the Potala Palace typifies a sanctuary of Tibetan art and architecture.

The ancient building complex in the Wudang Mountains (enlisted in 1994) in Hubei Province celebrates the secular and religious architectural achievements of the Yuan (1279–1368), Ming (1368–1644), and Qing (1644–1912) dynasties. The Ancient City of Pingyao (enlisted in 1997) in Shanxi Province, founded in the fourteenth century, exemplifies a well-preserved Han Chinese city with the development of its architectural style (especially of banking) and urban planning. Old Town of Lijiang (enlisted in 1997) in Yunnan Province features the blending of ethnic cultural elements through the ages with a working ancient water-supply system. The Ancient Villages in Southern Anhui Province (Xidi and Hongcun) (enlisted in 2000) embody Anhui/Huizhou architectural style of a Ming dynasty rural settlement.

Gardens and Caves

The Classical Gardens of Suzhou (enlisted in 1997) in Jiangsu Province, consisting of nine gardens dating from the eleventh to the nineteenth century, represent the best in garden design of landscape miniatures that integrate philosophical thinking into natural beauty, while Mount Qingcheng and the Dujiangyan Irrigation System (enlisted in 2000) in Sichuan Province, the birthplace of Daoism and a water-control system built in the third century BCE, bear witness to religious legacy and the ingenuity of ancient water management.

The Mogao Caves (enlisted in 1987), strategically located along the Silk Roads in Gansu Province, is also known as “Cave of Thousand Buddhas” and was carved out of sandstone cliffs over a period of eight dynasties. The caves and attached monasteries, decorated with paintings and silk wall hangings, were once a sanctuary of Buddhist art. The Longmen Grottoes (enlisted in 2000) in Henan Province feature thousands of Buddhist shrines carved on marble surfaces dating from 495 CE, after the first peak of Buddhist cave art of the Yungang Grottoes (enlisted in 2001) in Shanxi Province, with 252 caves and 51,000 statues carved out of sandstone rocks in the fifth and sixth centuries. The Dazu Rock Carvings (enlisted in 1999) of both Buddhist and secular subject matter in the city of Chongqing in Sichuan Province, dating between the ninth and the thirteenth century, culminated in the most developed Chinese art of rock carving, manifesting the spiritual harmony between Indian Buddhism and Chinese Daoist and Confucian beliefs.


Also inscribed as World Historical sites are Mount Taishan (enlisted in 1987) in Shandong Province, Mount Huangshan (enlisted in 1990) in Anhui Province, Wulingyuan Scenic & Historic Interest Area (enlisted in 1992) in Hunan Province, Jiuzhaigou Valley Scenic & Historic Interest Area (enlisted in 1992) in Sichuan Province, Huanglong Scenic & Historic Interest Area (enlisted in 1992) in Sichuan Province, Mt. Emei Scenic Area (including Leshan Giant Buddha Scenic Area) (enlisted in 1996) in Sichuan Province, and Mount Wuyi (enlisted in 1999) in Fujian Province. Lushan National Park (enlisted in 1996) is a renowned summer resort. Many of these sites are National Natural Preservation Zones famous either for their natural beauty, historical cultural significance, or habitat for rare and endangered wildlife and plant species.

Three Parallel Rivers

Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas (enlisted in 2003) host the richest biodiversity of a temperate region in China. Including the upper reaches of the three great rivers in Asia—Yangzi (Chang), Mekong, and Salween, running parallel from north to south—the areas present geological spectacles and natural beauty. The Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctu
aries (enlisted in 2006), botanically the richest site in the world outside of rain forests, consist of nine scenic parks and seven nature reserves among which Wolong is the most famous. Hosting more than 30 percent of the world’s endangered giant panda population, the sanctuary is also home to other endangered species, including the red panda, the snow leopard, and the clouded leopard.

Architectural Wonders

The Capital Cities and Tombs of the Ancient Koguryo Kingdom (enlisted in 2004) are tombs of three cities of the Koguryo Kingdom (37 BCE–668 CE), which ruled part of northern China and Korea. They bear witness to the kingdom’s artistic and architectural ingenuity.

The Historic Centre of Macao (enlisted in 2005), a port of international trade, is an example of the fusion of Chinese and Western architectural styles and the port’s colonial history after the return of its sovereignty to the Chinese government from Portugal in 1999.

Yin Xu (enlisted in 2006) in Henan Province is an archaeological site that preserves the ruins of the ancient capital city of Shang dynasty (1766–1045 BCE). It is the most culturally and historically valuable of all the royal tombs and palaces excavated. The script present on oracle bones there offers a sample of the earliest known form of written Chinese.

Kaiping Diaolou (watch tower) and Villages (enlisted in 2007) in Guangdong Province integrates defense and residence with a fusion of vernacular Chinese and Western architectural styles. It bears witness to the influence of a rich population of overseas Chinese during the Ming dynasty. Built of brick, stone, and pise or concrete, the multistoried Diaolou has the common defensive characteristics of narrow metal doors and windows, thick walls with gun holes, and a watch tower on the top floor equipped with defensive devices against local banditry.

The South China Karst (enlisted in 2007) has the common characteristics of a karst (an irregular limestone region with sinkholes, underground streams, and caverns) geological formation across Yunnan, Guizhou, and Guangxi provinces in south China. The karst landscape in each province, however, is different. The Shilin (Stone Forest) in Yunnan Province, for instance, presents a mountain range of exposed pinnacles with more varieties of shapes, whereas the karst landscape in Guangxi centered around Guilin typifies independent verdant hills with caves and (underground) rivers punctuated by flat pastoral fields.

As one of the world’s earliest civilizations, China is endowed with more qualifying cultural and historical legacies than with the number of sites currently inscribed by the World Heritage Center. Thus the list of China’s World Heritage sites seems destined to grow.

Further Reading

Bonneville, P., & HeÏmono, P. (2006). The world heritage: UNESCO’s classified sites. Saint-Hubert, Canada: Bonneville Connection.

Brockman, N. C. (1997). Encyclopedia of sacred places. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Ebrey, P. B. (1996). Cambridge illustrated history of China. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Guo Changjian & Song Jianzhi. (Eds.). (2003). World Heritage sites in China. Beijing: China Intercontinental Press.

Leask, A., & Fya, A. (Eds.). (2006). Managing World Heritage sites. Oxford, U.K., and Burlington MA: Butterworth-Heinemann.

National Museum of Chinese Revolution History. (Eds.). (2002). Treasures of mankind: World Heritage sites in China. Beijing: Cultural Relics Publishing House.

Schellinger, P. E., & Salkin, R. M. (Eds.). (1996). International dictionary of historic places: Vol. 5. Asia and Oceania. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). World Heritage list. Retrieved January 16, 2008, from http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization & World Heritage Convention. (2007). World heritage: Challenges for the millennium. Paris: UNESCO World Heritage Center.

Source: Rioux, Yu Luo. (2009). World Heritage Sites. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2464–2467. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

World Heritage Sites (Shìjiè yích?n ????)|Shìjiè yích?n ???? (World Heritage Sites)

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