China is home to many grand monuments and heritage sites, and preserving them all requires a combined effort by government, locals, and tourists. But many of the frontline protectors – people living near the sites – aren’t equipped with funds and necessary equipment, or even any knowledge of cultural heritage preservation.
The Global Heritage Fund (GHF) is a non-profit organization which empowers communities in Asia, South America, and Africa through heritage preservation. The GHF is currently working on two projects in China: the ancient city of Pingyao, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the villages of the Dong people in the southeastern part of Guizhou Province.
Kids are never too young to learn the importance of heritage preservation since it is part of the wider topic of history, and also an important discussion in the areas of conservation and development. So for this month’s When I Grow Up, beijingkids brought Kuanghan Li, the director of the GHF China Heritage Program to the International School of Beijing (ISB), to talk about her work as a preservation architect.
Nicole, 10: Why do you want to do this job?
Li: My dad was an architect, and when I was growing up, I always loved looking at architecture. I like history and love going to museums. I dreamed of being an archaeologist, but in the end, I became an architectural designer. Eventually, I realized that I still love looking at historic buildings, and I changed my profession from architectural designer to preservation architect, so I get to do basically everything I like: architecture, history, and culture.
Jagat, 10: When did you find out that you love studying heritage?
Li: I went to New York to work as an architect. When I was looking for graduate schools, I found out that some had a program in historic preservation, which included conservation of historic buildings and archaeological sites. So I changed my option. Nowadays, this program has become more common, and some Chinese universities offer a major in cultural heritage.
Ophelia, 10: Who’s your biggest inspiration?
Li: I look up to my dad, though I didn’t spend a lot of time with him growing up. But he had tons of books on architecture, art, and he bought me books on Greek mythology and an Egyptian collection from the British Museum. So ever since I was a kid I loved reading books on Greek sculpture and things like that. And later when I went to work, my adviser from university really supported me to go on this path, so I’m actually always grateful that I met a good teacher.
Max, 11: Do you have a favorite historical monument?
Li: I would just say that it’s all the places that I’ve worked on. I have very personal emotions about them, because at every site I would usually spend at least five years. So they’re not just monuments to me anymore. I would get to know the people who live there; I would research very deeply into why their ancestors built the monument that way, and how they were used.
Luis, 9: What were the biggest challenges that you have to face?
Li: Some people are fortunate to have something valuable like a cultural heritage site, which may not bring them immediate profit but is more important in the longer term. But sometimes it’s hard to convince people to see the bigger picture, because they want to see if they can have immediate returns.
Stephanie, 10: When did you start working with the group of women in your current project?
Li: I realized I’d been working with men of the Dong community in Guizhou on the architectural side of the project and hadn’t built relationships with women. I’d be in a meeting with 15 men from the village and I’d be the only woman sitting there. So about three years ago, we brought some designers from Beijing to the village to work with the women in the village, so that they could earn extra income weaving while making their culture more colorful.
Eric, 10: What’s your essential goal or mission?
Li: Well, the main mission is to preserve cultural heritage, because we think it’s important. If we don’t preserve it, then none of you or your children in the future will get to see how our civilization thrived in the past. I think history is important because it reminds us where we come from. But then, besides doing that, we don’t want people to live in the past; we’re not saying you should live in a house that’s broken. We want to be able to see how we can help them to live a modern and comfortable lifestyle which we all deserve, without destroying our history.
Lucy, 10: What’s the most memorable place that you’ve been to?
Li: Right now, the Dong village is very personal to me, because I’ve worked there for the past five years, so I know almost everybody there. Everybody knows me. There have been birthdays, weddings, new house constructions that I’ve attended. I have also seen several elders I’ve come to respect, and people I’ve built relationships with, pass away. This is a very personal project to me; it’s like a second home. When I started studying cultural preservation, my first project was in India, in Ladakh in the Himalayas. I spent six months there. It’s also very special to me because it was the first project that I’d worked on and it was so remote. I was out of contact for six months.
Livia, 10: Do you have any hobbies when you’re not doing your job?
Li: That’s a good question because my life and work are so integrated. I like cats—is that a hobby? I have three cats, and they’re one of my greatest loves in life. I also like to read, I like to watch films. I guess that’s just normal nowadays. A lot of you may like traveling but my job is only on the road, so I don’t really consider traveling as my hobby.
Jayden, 10: What’s the hardest process that you need to do in your job?
Li: The hardest process is working with people. There are a lot of unpredictable factors when you work with people. Some don’t like to live in historical houses, others refuse change. Also, we are a non-profit charitable group, so if somebody else comes in and says, “I want to build a hotel here and I have money to invest,” then we can’t really compete with them. We can only try to inspire the villagers to value and treasure their heritage for reasons other than money or benefit.
Annabelle, 10: What is the best part of your job, and what would you like to change?
Li: I like everything about my job: learning the culture, going to different places, and spending time learning about people’s lives. These are very satisfying to me, but there are a lot of things that I wish I could do differently and better. But you have to understand that whenever I go to these places, I’m an outsider and it’s a new culture to me. So I have to learn their ways and take time to know how people think.
Rachel, 11: Do you know many people who’d like to do your job?
Li: Most of the people I know do similar work to me. I also understand that probably not many people know about this job, or even realize that this is a profession. I just recently went to a village for a magazine shoot about the project, and the photographer said, “I didn’t know that there’s a major called Historic Building Preservation.” I said, “That’s right, I studied it.” That’s when I realized that my profession is probably not that well-known. But more and more people are becoming aware now.
This post appeared in the beijingkids October 2018 Mental Health issue.
Photos: Uni You