Monday, February 7, 2011

Tourism, Heritage, and Sacred Space in China with Bob Shepherd

Monday, February 7, 2011
12:30 - 1:45 PM
The Elliott School of International Affairs
1957 E Street, NW, Room 505

Today, we heard from Professor Bob Shepherd as part of the Sigur Center's new faculty lecture series. Sigur Center Director Shawn McHale opened the talk with an introduction explaining the goal of showcasing our own faculty, especially those whose research the Sigur Center has supported, in addition to outside speakers. The Sigur Center plans to continue the faculty lecture series throughout the spring semester, with upcoming events by Janet Steele, Catharin Dalpino, Ronald Spector, and Bruce Dickson, among others.

Dr. Shepherd opened his talk with a framework of several questions that shaped his research. For example, "What would drive the party to spend so much money reconstructing what the Red Guard had destroyed?" He outlined the process of "destruction, construction, and re-creation of nature" as it plays a role in heritage tourism.

This idea was particularly relevant in Dr. Shepherd's research on Wu Tai Shan, home of the largest conglomeration of religious practitioners outside of Tibet. He stressed that, despite the focus on preserving "sacred space" in China, there is in fact no emphasis on sacred heritage, but rather "historical" and "cultural" preservation. For example, Wu Tai Shan itself was first labeled a scenic area, then a forest reserve, and finally in 2009 a UNESCO site. This is interesting when we consider the Buddhist monasteries being preserved there, and the idea that although 75% of tourists/travelers/pilgrims visit Wu Tai Shan for "Buddhist" reasons, very few identify themselves as Buddhist. It seems that by preserving Buddhist space, history, and culture, the religion undergoes secularization.

Dr. Shepherd examined the process by which 5000 people were displaced from their homes in Shanxi valley, with plans to displace the rest of the secular society by 2015. They have been relocated to a resettlement village outside the south gate of the park with apartments that are much larger and much more modern than their previous homes. Yet people aren't moving there. Why not? Dr. Shepherd proposed several explanations: Cost (based on size, number of windows, etc); economics (those reimbursed for a small house can't afford to buy a new larger one); inconvenient (several hundred meters outside the park where they all work); and state-ownership of the land (farmers can't live off the land if they don't own it). On the other hand, the monasteries are undergoing continual renovation as the designated heritage site generates new modes of income for the monastic people. Heritage sites become places where people do business rather than places where people live. For this reason, UNESCO makes sense aesthetically when the people are separated from the space, but when the two are intertwined, the idea of destruction comes into play.

In Wu Tai Shan secular life is being destroyed, replaced by construction of religious sites, and followed by re-creation of nature. This brings up several questions about who wins and who loses in the process of preserving sacred space.

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