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China's UNESCO Sites: Cultural Heritage

On December 12, 1985, China ratified the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, and since then has taken important measures to preserve the country’s environmentally, culturally, and historically significant sights, many of which are valuable tourist resources.

With 50 UNESCO world heritage sites, China ranks second in the world, just behind Italy. Out of these 50 sites, 35 are cultural heritage sites, 11 are natural heritage sites, and four are combined cultural and natural sites.

China’s World Cultural Heritage Sites

Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, Shaanxi

Date of inscription: 1987

Just 35 kilometers away from central Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, lies the Mausoleum of the first Qin emperor, the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the founder of the first unified empire in Chinese history during the 3rd century BCE. Despite its impressive size, the mausoleum wasn’t discovered until 1970.

There are over 600 archeological sites in the 56.25 kilometer area, which encompass nearly 200 accompanying pits with thousands of life-size terracotta soldiers, terracotta horses and bronze chariots and weapons. The terracotta warriors are renowned and many people flock to Xi’an to see them.

Ancient Building Complex in the Wudang Mountains, Hubei

Date of inscription: 1994

The architectural and artistic achievements of three Chinese dynasties are represented in this cluster of secular and religious buildings, which includes Taoist buildings from as early as the Tang dynasty.

The palaces and temples of the Ancient Building Complex are located amongst the peaks, ravines and gullies of the picturesque Wudang Mountains.

Mountain Resort and its Outlying Temples in Chengde, Hebei

Date of inscription: 1994

Built between 1703 and 1792, the Mountain Resort was a summer retreat for the QIng emperors. The resort has a complex of palaces and administrative and ceremonial buildings, as well as temples of different architectural styles. Imperial gardens surround the structures, blending in with the surrounding lakes and forests.

The Mountain Resort is a rare remnant of the final stages of Chinese feudal society and is a masterpiece of palace and religious architecture.

Temple and Cemetery of Confucius and the Kong Family Mansion in Qufu, Shandong

Date of inscription: 1994

Confucius was one of China’s most influential philosophers, politicians and educators. His beliefs are the basis for Confucianism, a system of philosophical and ethical teachings that still have a great influence on Chinese people’s lives.

The Temple of Confucius was first built to commemorate him in 478 B.C. and has been destroyed and rebuilt many times throughout the centuries. The cemetery contains Confucius’ tomb and the remains of over 100,000 of his descendants, while the Kong Family Mansion demonstrates this clan’s wealthy lineage.

Temple of Heaven, Beijing

Date of inscription: 1998

The Temple of Heaven complex was built between 1406 and 1420 during the reign of the Yongle emperor, who also ordered the construction of the Forbidden City. The Temple of Heaven occupies an area three times bigger than the Forbidden City and is the largest existing complex of ancient sacrificial buildings in China.

The temple was built for the ceremonies carried out by the Chinese emperor, who was, according to the ancient beliefs, the Son of Heaven. The emperor had to offer sacrifices to heaven in order to show respect to the source of his authority. The ceremony was of utmost importance to Chinese people, who believed that the smallest mistake could result in a bad next year for the entire nation, especially during the winter solstice.

The Capital Cities and Tombs of the Ancient Koguryo Kingdom, Liaoning

Date of inscription: 2004

The archeological remains of Wunu Mountain, Guonei City, and Wandu Mountain City, as well as 14 imperial tombs, and 26 noble tombs, make up the remains of the Ancient Koguryo Kingdom. They belong to the Koguryo, an ethnic group that ruled over parts of northern China and the northern half of the Korean Peninsula from 277 BC to AD 668.

Wunu Mountain City is only partly excavated and is located in Hanren Manchu Autonomous County in Liaoning. It was built in 37 BC as the first capital of the Koguryo kingdom. The city included a palace, a military camp, a watchtower, houses and warehouses, and had a defensive wall with three gates.

Guonei City is located within the modern city of Ji’an and functioned as the “supporting capital” after the main Koguryo capital moved to Pyongyang. It was surrounded with a stone wall, and had separate palace and residential zones. It is one of the sites in the area whose stone city walls are still standing.

Wandu Mountain City was another capital of the kingdom and has many important vestiges, including a large palace and 37 tombs. Both Guonei City and Wandu Mountain City are located in the Ji’an municipality, in Jilin province.

Kaiping Diaolou and Villages, Guangdong

Date of inscription: 2007

The Diaolou are fortified multi-storeyed watchtowers, the first of which were built during the Ming dynasty and which became more popular during the 1920s and 1930s. Diaolou are normally made of reinforced concrete and are mostly found in Kaiping County, in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong province. The diaolou are the result of a fusion between Chinese and Western structural and decorative forms.

There are approximately 1,833 diaolou in Kaiping alone, while another 500 can be found in Taishan.

Fujian Tulou, Fujian

Date of inscription: 2008

The people of Fujian first built strongholds on top of mountains to repel the bandits that wrought havoc in southern China from the 12th to 19th centuries. The Tulou evolved from these strongholds. The Tulou are large, rectangular or circular structures with thick walls and a shared courtyard in the center. They are three to five stories high and can house up to 100 families. The Tulou were designed to be impenetrable, using only one main gate guarded by 4-5 inch thick wooden doors reinforced with an outer shell of iron plate.

Mount Wutai, Shanxi

Date of inscription: 2009

Mount Wutai is one of the four sacred Buddhist Mountains of China, and the global centre for Buddhist Manjusri worship. There are 53 monasteries in Mount Wutai, the two most famous of which are the East Main Hall of Foguang Temple, a high ranking timber building from the Tang Dynasty, and the Ming Dynasty Shuxiang Temple, which has a huge complex of 500 statues representing different Buddhist stories.

The temples blend in with the mountain landscape, which includes high peaks covered with snow for the most part of the year, vertical pine forests, poplar and willow trees, and grassland.

For a thousand years from the North Wei Dynasty (471-499), nine Emperors made 18 pilgrimages to honor the bodhisattvas. This tradition of pilgrimage to the five flat peaks of Wutai started by the Emperors is still alive and well today.

Historic Monuments of Dengfeng in “The Centre of Heaven and Earth”, Henan

Date of inscription: 2010

The city of Dengfeng was one of the early capitals of China. The city is thought to be associated with an area closely related to the concept of the centre of heaven and earth, right to the south of Mount Shaoshi and Mount Taishi, the two peaks of Mount Songshang, the central sacred mountain of China. Many believed that this was the only point where astronomical observations were accurate. The emperors worshipped Mount Songshang to reinforce their power.

There are eight clusters of buildings and sites at the foot of Mount Songshang, including the Han Que Gates, vestiges of the oldest religious edifices in China, the Zhougong Sundial Platform, the Dengfeng Observatory, and several temples.

These buildings were constructed over the course of nine dynasties and are fine examples of ancient Chinese buildings dedicated to ritual, science, technology and education.

Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor

Date of inscription: 2014

A 5,000 kilometer stretch of the Silk Road network from Central China to the Zhetsyu Region in Central Asia was listed as a World Heritage Site with the collective name Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor. The corridor passes through China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and encompasses 33 components, including capital cities, palace complexes of different empires and Khan kingdoms, Buddhist cave temples, posthouses, passes, beacon towers, religious buildings, and many other significant sites.

The corridor took shape between the 2nd century BC and 1st century AD, and remained in use throughout the sixteenth century. The 5,000-kilometer stretch linked multiple civilizations, which in turn facilitated trade, and the exchange of religions, scientific and technological knowledge, as well as cultural practices and art.

Grand Canal, Beijing to Zhejiang

Date of inscription: 2014

At 1,794 kilometers in length the Grand Canal is the longest canal or artificial river in the world. The Grand Canal is also known as the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal. It extends from Beijing in the north to Zhejiang province in the south. It passes through the city of Tianjin and the provinces of Hebei, Shandong, and Jiangsu. In total, the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal runs through eight Chinese provinces.

The Grand Canal serves as the link between the Yellow River and the Yangtze River, and has its highest point in the mountains of Shandong province. Throughout its history, the Grand Canal has been admired from people from different countries, including Japan, Korea, and the former Persian Empire.

Tusi Sites, Hunan, Hubei and Guizhou

Date of inscription: 2015

The Tusi were hereditary tribal leaders who were recognized as imperial officials by the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. The Tusi ruled over certain ethnic minorities in southwest China and the Indochinese peninsula.

At many points throughout history, the Tusi ruled behalf of the central government in an arrangement generally known as the “Tusi System” or “Native Chieftain System”. The purpose of the Tusi System was to unify Chinese administration while allowing ethnic minorities to continue with their customs. The Tusi ruled from the thirteenth to the early twentieth century, and some of their most representative sites include Laosicheng, Tangya, and Hailongtun Fortress.

Zuojiang Huashan Rock Art Cultural Landscape, Guangxi

Date of inscription: 2016

These 38 examples of rock art painted on limestone cliff faces are the only remaining cultural trace of the Luoyue people, who existed in the period from the 5th century BCE to the 2nd century CE.

Ancient City of Ping Yao, Shanxi

Date of inscription: 1997

Founded in the 14th century, Ping Yao is an exceptionally well preserved example of a traditional Han Chinese city. Over five centuries of evolving architectural styles and town planning are represented in Ping Yao.

Ping Yao was a major banking center during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The 4,000 shops and traditional dwellings still standing today bear witness to Ping Yao’s economic prosperity. Along with the temples, ancient walls, and streets, Ping Yao is home to the Wanfo Shrine, the main shrine of Zhenguo Temple, which is one of China’s earliest and most precious timber structure buildings.

Classic Gardens of Suzhou, Jiangsu

Date of inscription: 1997

The Classical Gardens of Suzhou, located in Jiangsu province, were built over almost one thousand years, from the Northern Song to the late Qing dynasties. Mostly built by scholars, the gardens contributed to the standardization of the key features of classical Chinese garden design, which ultimately sought to strike a balance between man and nature. In traditional Chinese garden design, landscapes imitate the natural scenery of rocks, hills, and rivers with strategically located pavilions and pagodas.

The four most famous gardens are the Fisherman’s Net Garden, Lion Grove, the Humble Administrator’s Garden, and the Lingering Garden.

Dazu Rock Carvings, Chongqing

Date of inscription: 1999

The Dazu Rock Carvings are located near the city of Chongqing and contain five clusters of rock carvings dating from the 9th to the 13th centuries. The Dazu Rock Carvings are well known for highlighting the peaceful coexistence between Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. One of the best examples are the late 11th century carvings at Shizhuanshan, which depict a rare tripartite arrangement of these different religions.

Imperial Palaces of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, Beijing and Shenyang

Date of inscription: 1987

Located in the heart of Beijing, the Forbidden City was home to 14 Ming emperors and 10 Qing emperors during the 500 years of its existence as the capital of the Chinese empire. Its construction took 14 years to complete. For many centuries, Chinese people could only dream of what was inside the Forbidden City’s walls, since access was denied to everyone except for the emperor, his family, and his most senior officials and servants. However, it’s status as China’s political center came to an end in 1912, when emperor Puyi abdicated. Puyi remained in the Inner Court until 1924 when he was evicted during a coup. The Palace Museum was established in the Forbidden City and opened to the public in 1925. The Forbidden City is the largest palace complex of the world.

The Imperial Palace of the Qing Dynasty in Shenyang consists of 114 buildings built between 1625 and 1783. This Imperial Palace contains an important library and is representative of the foundation of the Qing dynasty, the last dynasty to rule China.

The Great Wall of China, Beijing and beyond

Date of inscription: 1987

The Great Wall of China is the longest defensive fortification in the world. Despite what you might think, the Great Wall is not an uninterrupted wall, but a series of fortifications built over the course of 1,800 years. The series of walls were meant to protect China from the nomadic armies. The best-known and best-preserved sections of the Great Wall were built during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).

Historic Center of Macao, Macao

Date of inscription: 2005

Over 400 years of exchange between China and the western world, predominantly the Portuguese, have made the historic center of Macao’s a special place. Urban squares, streetscapes, and churches with predominantly Portuguese features coexist with Chinese architecture. Macao is also home to a fortress and a lighthouse, the oldest in China.

Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing dynasties, across China

Date of inscription: 2000 and 2003

The Ming and Qing Imperial Tombs (1368-1911) combine the architectural arts of the Han and Manchu civilizations, and were built according to the principles of feng shui. The Xiaoling Tomb, the tomb of the first Ming Emperor, set the basic design for the subsequent tombs in Beijing, the Xialing Tomb of the Ming Dynasty in Zhongxiang, and the Western Qing Tombs and Eastern Qing Tombs. The tombs are located in Beijing Municipality, Hebei province, Hubei province, Jiangsu province, and Liaoning province.

Longmen Grottoes, Luoyang

Date of inscription: 2000

The “Dragon’s Gate Grottoes” contain the largest and most impressive collection of Chinese art from the late Northern Wei and Tang Dynasties (316-907). The Longmen Grottoes are composed of more than 2,300 caves and niches carved into steep limestone cliffs over a one-kilometer-long stretch. The grottoes contain almost 110,000 Buddhist stone statues, over 60 stupas, and 2,800 inscriptions carved on steles. These works constitute the high point of stone carving in China and represent the harmonious balance between man and nature.

Lushan National Park, Jiangxi

Date of inscription: 1996

Thanks to its cool temperatures, Lushan National Park is a world-renowned summer resort. It occupies a total area of 30,200 hectares and its highest peak, called Hanyang, is 1,474 meters above sea level.

There are many scenic attractions in Lushan, including the Wulaofeng (Five Elderly Men Peaks), the Xianrendong (Immortal’s Cavern), and White Deer Cave Academy, which was built around the beginning of the seventh century and was one of the earliest institutes of higher learning in China. In addition to natural wonders, there are over 200 historic buildings, including prayer halls. The Yangtze River passes through the north of Lushan National Park, while Poyang Lake sits right at the south.

Mogao Caves,Gansu

Date of inscription: 1987

Also known as “The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas”, the Mogao Caves are situated to the southeast of the Dunhuang oasis in the Gobi desert, a strategic point along the ancient Silk Route. One thousand years of Buddhist art is contained within the 492 cells and cave sanctuaries, which include wall paintings and over 2,000 painted statues.

The Mogao Caves are a melting pot of religious, cultural, and intellectual influences. Confucian, Daoist and Christian texts have been found in the caves, as well as documents written in Chinese, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Old Turkish, and Hebrew. The Mogao Caves represent the link between China, Central Asia, India, and Europe.

Summer Palace, Beijing

Date of inscription: 1998

First built in 1750, the Summer Palace is the largest and best-preserved royal garden in China. It is one of the four most famous gardens in the country and one of the finest examples of Chinese garden architecture. Kunming Lake in the Summer Palace was created by extending an existing body of water in order to replicate Hangzhou’s famous West Lake.

The Summer Palace has more than 100 examples of traditional architecture, including pavilions, terraces, temples, pagodas, covered corridors, and the famous Marble Boat, a legacy of Empress Dowager Cixi, who ordered it built with funds diverted from the imperial navy. Some of the most famous spots of the Summer Palace include the Long Corridor along Kunming Lake and the 41-meter-tall Tower of Buddhist Incense, which stands at the top of Longevity Hill, and is the garden’s highest point and most recognizable symbol.

Xanadu, Inner Mongolia

Date of inscription: 2012

Xanadu is located in the Zhenglan Grasslands of Inner Mongolia and is over 740 years old. Xanadu refers to the remains of Kublai Khan’s city, which was established in 1256 and was the place where he established the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Temples, palaces, tombs, nomadic encampments, and the Teifan’gang Canal can all be found among the remains of the old city, which lies north of the Great Wall.

Xanadu is culturally important because the nomadic and agrarian civilizations of Asia were able to assimilate with each other here, which also helped spread Tibetan Buddhism to northeast Asia.

Xidi and Hongcun, the ancient villages of Anhui

Date of inscription: 2000

The Ming dynasty villages of Xidi and Hongcun were born during a period of economic growth. Both villages have over 600 years of history and were deeply influenced by the traditional culture of pre-modern Anhui province, and their cultural legacy extends beyond the tangible heritage. Hongcun was originally laid out in the shape of an ox, and its west end resembles an ox head, with two huge trees planted to resemble an ox’s horns. Xidi and Hongcun occupy 730 hectares crisscrossed by alleyways, buildings, and waterways. Much of the architecture, which survives to this day, is unique to the region.

Yin Xu, Henan

Date of inscription: 2006

Yin Xu is an archeological site about 500 kilometers south of Beijing. The site was an ancient capital of the late Shang Dynasty (1300-1046 BC). Yin Xu represents the golden age of early Chinese culture, craft, and science, founded on the great prosperity of the Chinese Bronze Age.

Yin Xu is divided into two sections: The Palace and Royal Ancestral Shrines Area, and the Royal Tombs Area. It is located on both banks of the Huanhe River, to the northwest of Anyang, another famous ancient city.

Yungang Grottoes, Shanxi

Date of inscription: 2001

This massive complex consists of 252 caves and 51,000 statues, representing the most prominent achievement of Buddhist cave art in China in the 5th and 6th centuries.

The caves were built under the Northern Wei Dynasty and show a distinctive Chinese view of Buddhism. Within the complex, the Five Caves created by Tan Yao, a famous Buddhist prelate who received the patronage of 54 merchants engaged in trade along the Silk Route, are deemed one of the classical masterpieces of Chinese Buddhist art.

Zhoukoudian, Beijing Municipality

Date of inscription: 1987

Just 42 kilometers southwest of Beijing is Zhoukoudian, the place where the remains of Sinanthropus pekinensis were discovered. The Sinanthropus pekinensis, or Peking Man, lived in the Middle Pleistocene era.Along with the Peking Man, remains of other Homo sapiens sapiens, dating back to 18,000-11,000 B.C., and various other objects were also found in Zhoukoudian.

West Lake Cultural Landscape of Hangzhou, Zhejiang

Date of inscription: 2011

Since the 9th century, Hangzhou’s West Lake and its surrounding hills have been the source of inspiration for poets, scholars, and artists alike. It is home to many temples, pagodas, pavilions, gardens, ornamental trees, and artificial islands. West Lake has exerted a considerable influence on garden design not only in China, but in Korea and Japan as well.

Mount Qingcheng and the Dujiangyan Irrigation System, Chengdu

Date of inscription: 2000

Mount Qingcheng is the place where philosopher Zhang Ling founded the doctrine of Chinese Taoism in 142 CE. Qingcheng means green city and altogether the site has 36 peaks covered with thick forests of trees and bamboos, 72 caves, and 108 scenic spots.

The Dujiangyan irrigation system was first built during the 3rd century, and is located in the Chengdu flatlands at the junction between the Sichuan basin and the Qinghai-Tibet plateau. The Tang, Song, Yuan, and Ming dynasties all recognized its importance and modified it accordingly.

The Dujiangyan irrigation system uses natural topographic and hydrological features to divert water for the purposes of irrigation, draining, sediment, and flooding and flow control without the use of dams. The modern system comprises two parts known as the Weir Works, located at the highest point of Chengdu at 726 meters, and the irrigated area.

Old Town of Lijiang, Yunnan

Date of inscription: 1997

Located at an elevation of 2,400 meters in the southwestern province of Yunnan, the Old Town of Lijiang is the meeting point of several different local cultures and customs.

The Old Town of Lijiang comprises Dayan Old Town, and the Baisha and Shuhe housing clusters.

Dayan Old Town was established during the Ming dynasty as a commercial center and became an important hub for trade between Sichuan, Yunnan, and Tibet. It was also the place where the ancient Silk Road joined the Tea and Horse Roads. The houses in Dayan Old Town combine elements of Han and Zang architecture, as well as the Naxi Culture.

The Baisha housing cluster was established during the Song and Yuan dynasties, and is eight kilometers away from Dayan Old Town. The Baisha housing cluster includes a religious complex that is home to over 40 paintings depicting subjects related to Buddhism, Taoism, and the life of the Naxi people, as well as cultural elements from the Bai people. The Shuhe housing cluster is located about four kilometers northwest of Dayan Old Town.

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