Xi’an’s urban development over the years has shown that the local government is rebuilding an imagined ancient Chinese capital associated with Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD) to highlight the splendid Chinese civilisation. In 2005, the municipal government of Xi’an initiated the Tang Imperial City Renaissance Plan, which ambitiously intends to invest 50 billion yuan in transforming the densely populated areas of Xi’an downtown into a contemporary functioning replica of the Tang Imperial City by 2050 (Zhao, Ponzini & Zhang, 2020). Today, Xi’an has seen the creation of many new heritage spaces and various forms of tourism practices, which allow people to immerse themselves in the life of ancient Chang’an. The unique local identity and cultural ethos have made Xi’an a world-renowned historic city and an international tourist destination.

People in market of Drum Tower, Xi’an, China. Photo by Harrison Qi on Unsplash

This renewed emphasis on historical and cultural heritage in China stems from the sense of cultural anxiety and identity crisis in the face of the rapid urbanisation and globalisation of the last three decades. Many cities in China have undergone intense modernisation, with thousands of historic districts, unfortunately, caught in the throes of demolition or irreparable destruction and the mass reproduction of the urban design, creating a thousand cities with one faceRem Koolhaas proposed the concept of the Generic City, arguing that contemporary Chinese cities are without history and are superficial and repetitive. Larkham (1996) states the importance of urban heritage preservation: ‘a city without old buildings is like a man without memory.’ Several scholars, planners, and enlightened local authorities have begun to question the sustainability of such a development pattern.

Like other major cities in China, land and housing reforms have put great pressure on the development of this north-western city since 1980. As the capital of 13 former dynasties, a major node on the Silk Road, and the cradle of Chinese civilisation, Xi’an’s nearly 3,000-year history has left a rich legacy of ancient monuments and cultural resources. However, during massive property-led urban redevelopment, numerous historical sites and traditional houses have been relentlessly demolished for being considered obstacles to development. The city’s skyline is increasingly dominated by modern hotels, offices, and commercial blocks rather than ancient temples, pagodas, and towers. As Wang (2000) writes, ‘unless a visitor stands near the City Wall or one of the main historic buildings it is difficult to imagine that this was once a great ancient city.’

People walking on Xi’an’s old city wall near high-rise buildings. Photo by Camillo Corsetti Antonini on Unsplash

Xi’an’s modernisation agenda today draws on the city’s historic power, spreading positive values of beauty, pride, and pleasure through various heritage activities, restoring the city’s characteristics and strengthening its cultural identity. Whether it is the narrow inner-city streets that have been extended to mimic the wide boulevards of the Tang capital, the restored ruins of the Daming Palace, the reconstructed Tang West Market, or the more than a dozen faux Tang-dynasty cultural theme parks (e.g. Tang Paradise), it is evident that Xi’an’s urban development has been deeply stamped with the history of the Tang Dynasty. 

Historical heritage, both tangible and intangible, is indisputably a significant social, cultural, and economic asset for a city or a nation. It can reinforce national ideas, collective identity, and social inclusion and contribute to historical continuity and economic revival. However, the heritage-making process has given rise to many debates about the nature of heritage. For instance, what is heritage? What should be preserved, and what should be deconstructed? Who dominates this process? And for whom is heritage protected? 

The process of heritage-making is fraught with conflict, contestation, and negotiation. ‘Contestation is at the core of numerous discourses about heritage, be it in commemorating past violence, ancient greatness or everyday life’ (Schramm, 2015). Harvey (2001) has referred to Bender’s comment that heritage is ‘never inert, people engage with it, appropriate it and contest it.’ In this sense, it is potential for individuals, groups, and nations to revisit, modify, negotiate, or even reject the heritage of the past in order to serve the needs of the present. China is now witnessing a heritage boom. In this process, what role does heritage play? How is China making use of its past? And what is the reaction of society? The case of Xi’an provides a typical perspective.

After 30 years of reform and opening up, China has entered a new era of modernisation which President Xi has defined as the Chinese Dream. With the political slogan of building a socialist harmonious society and rejuvenating the Chinese nation, heritage is used as a tool to create a refurbished but splendid past. Xi’an’s urban development has chosen the heritage of the Tang Dynasty because, for many Chinese, the Tang Dynasty represents one of the most advanced, enlightened, and prosperous capitals in Chinese history. The solid official support for restoring the glory of the Tang Dynasty articulates its political objective of promoting cultural revival and restoring national confidence. In this respect, heritage-making becomes a political instrument. 

Economically, heritage tourism, as a by-product of historical and cultural heritage, provides opportunities for local economic development while reshaping the city’s image. In addition to the multiplier effect on the local economy, heritage investments can induce real estate appreciation. For example, Qujiang New District in southern Xi’an, a suburban wasteland a decade ago, has enjoyed the highest land and property values in Xi’an since the construction of a series of spectacular heritage parks.

However, many recent articles have criticised the optimistic view of heritage-led urban redevelopment in Xi’an. Criticism mainly focuses on the tension between the old and new, the risk of excessive commercialisation of local historical heritage, the intensification of gentrification, social stratification, and unequal power distribution.

Many historic traditional neighbourhoods have vanished in the process of transforming Xi’an’s urban landscape. The construction of the historic city has been more about using heritage as an image and landscape, creating a visual, spectacular, and consumable built environment under the discourse of public interest, with the result that the authentic history of ordinary inhabitants has been squeezed to an invisible edge. Xi’an’s dramatic urban redevelopment is, according to Ng (2009), ‘just a nostalgic twist of an increasingly consumptive orientated society, turning history into a commodity to suit the taste of the affluent classes.’ 

Some local residents are disturbed by the rapid changes in their hometowns. In 2014, several Xi’an residents organised a private exhibition displaying the street life and culture that is disappearing owing to the dramatic changes caused by the Tang-theming of the city (Zhu, 2018). One of the participants said: the city centre used to be full of small shops, restaurants, and old bookshops. These are the memories of my generation. Now the government is promoting commercialisation in the name of our historical heritage, but nothing of our memories has remained. Many of my friends have also moved to other areas because of redevelopment projects. Through the photographs in the exhibition, we hope to recall a little of what we have lost in our hometown.

In Xi’an’s renaissance plan, the population of the old downtown area is planned to be reduced from the current 700,000 to around 200,000. Several villages around the redevelopment area in Qujiang New District have also been demolished in order to undertake heritage activities. The original inhabitants were voluntarily or forcibly relocated to other parts of the city. And the new heritage parks with groves of trees, artificial lakes, and high-end residential buildings attracted an affluent class. This presents a process of gentrification in which one class is evicted by another. As one villager said, ‘the beautiful park is for outsiders, not for us.’ In addition, we can see that local residents are excluded from decision-making and benefit-sharing in redevelopment projects due to relocation and the lack of channels for participation.

Unfortunately, the discontent, tensions, and disputes embedded in these criticisms are obscured under the discourse of heritage preservation. In China, the authorities dominate and control heritage knowledge and practice and can, therefore, strategically choose what can be protected and demolished. The value of historical heritage and its associated ideas, such as beauty, pride, and pleasure, not only legitimise the logic of capital accumulation behind urban redevelopment but also effectively silence the contestation and resistance of local residents.

Reflecting on the history of heritage preservation in China, it is much rather a political and economic project controlled by the state than a public good. However, heritage preservation should not be used merely as a means of capital accumulation by empowered investors or as heritage commodification to build a new identity and consensus for the social elite. Instead, it should be a more complex and deliberate activity that contributes genuinely to historical and cultural continuity, public participation, and constructing a sense of place and belonging. Therefore, there remains a long way to go for sustainable heritage preservation in China.


Harvey, D. (2001) Heritage pasts and heritage presents: Temporality, meaning and the scope of heritage studies. International Journal of Heritage Studies 7(4): 319-338.

Larkham, P. (1996) Conservation and the City. London: Routledge.

Ng, M. K. (2009) Tales from two Chinese cities: The dragon’s awakening to conservation in face of growth? Planning Theory and Practice 10: 267-271.

Schramm, K. (2015) Heritage, power and ideology. In: Waterton, E. and Watson, S. (eds.) The Palgrave Handbook of Contemporary Heritage Research (pp. 442-457). Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Wang, Y. P. (2000) Planning and conservation in historic Chinese cities: The case of Xi’an. Town Planning Review71(3): 329-350.

Zhao, Y., Ponzini, D. and Zhang, R. (2020) The policy networks of heritage-led development in Chinese historic cities: The case of Xi’an’s Big Wild Goose Pagoda area. Habitat International 96: 102106.

Zhu, Y. (2018) Uses of the past: Negotiating heritage in Xi’an. International Journal of Heritage Studies 24(2): 181–192.

About the author

Jingwen Huang has recently completed her MSc in Regional and Urban Planning Studies at the LSE, where she focused her research on heritage preservation and urban redevelopment. She previously studied Urban Planning and Economics and Finance at the University of Liverpool and Xi’an Jiaotong Liverpool University, respectively. Her broader research interests include urban regeneration, housing and displacement, and the right to the city.