As a 2011 Rothman Faculty Summer Fellow, Assistant Professor Guolong Lai conducted research in Singapore, Beijing, and Taipei. With the support of the Rothman endowment, Prof. Lai has begun a new project on how the art, architecture, and significant places of early China have been preserved and curated in modern China. His research greatly advances our understanding of how the political climate of a country can influence its perceptions of the past. Prof. Lai began his summer research by investigating how Singapore has used its Asian Civilizations Museum to educate the public about their cultural heritage and overcome ethnic conflicts. In China and Taiwan, Prof. Lai visited further cultural heritage sites and acquired materials to continue his studies.
In his preliminary research, Prof. Lai has focused on the evolution of the concept of “cultural heritage” and other related notions in modern China from a historical and legal perspective. Wenhua yichan (cultural heritage) was a new phrase first used officially in the 1990s, but the related concepts such as gudong (antiques), guwan (curios), guji (historic monuments), guwu (ancient relics), wenwu (cultural relics) have a long history in China. Prof. Lai has traced the development of these concepts in major legislative documents on cultural heritage since the late Qing (1644-1911) and the transformation of cultural property from imperial and mostly private ownership in traditional China to public and state stewardship in the Republic (1911-1949) and People’s Republic periods (1949-present) through the use of state legislations and administrative orders. In more recent decades, the legal protection of cultural heritage in China has undergone significant revision in response to the expansion of the antiquities market.
Prof. Lai notes that Chinese notions related to cultural heritage developed independently from Western traditions of cultural heritage. Western traditions of the conservation and restoration of heritage monuments and sites were codified in a document known as the Venice Charter of 1964. Although this document has been endorsed by international organizations, including UNESCO, Prof. Lai argues that its Eurocentric approach to cultural heritage seems to differ from Chinese traditions. His current research will contribute to informed international discussions on cultural heritage and conservation policies.
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