Preservation and progress: Qianfo Cliffs

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Qianfo Cliffs, Guangyuan, Sichuan, 1930s. Credit: China Heritage Quarterly

The Qianfo Cliffs ( (千佛崖摩崖造像) are a case study in the uneasy choice between preservation and progress.

According to the China Heritage Quarterly, when China’s vital artery, the Sichuan-Shaanxi highway, was built in 1935, nearly 10,000 carvings in the cliffs above Guangyuan (广元) were destroyed in the construction. After that, looters from home and abroad chiseled out figures and heads. The Cultural Revolution followed. In 1991, state preservations installed grates to protect what was left, “a small act of vandalism to prevent a greater vandalism,” the Quarterly quotes a former park official lamenting. And now, as I’ve seen in my travels in the region, they will have to contend with a much more intangible menace in the acidic atmosphere that eats away at the sandstone.

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Qianfo Cliffs, Guangyuan, Sichuan today. Credit: China Heritage Quarterly

So much of travel writing tends to rest on the trope of lamenting what once was. (They only do this now for tourists. It was charming before the plumbing. Go before too many go!) In China, in the glare of its frantic development, it’s especially easy not to see what is still left—structures that have stood in the same place for millennia. Stones polished to craters by feet tracing the same steps. Inconveniences. There are still cultures within cultures, distinct and entirely diverse languages, and enduring common threads underlying seemingly new traditions. It is easy to miss this and just complain about the new paint. There are still 7,000 of these 1,500-year-old carvings in Guangyuan.

In other places, sometimes it seems like old things are treated better and with due reverence, polished like rare gems and endlessly documented. Often in those places, those old things are so few. In much of the world, the choice was already made a long time ago.

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