China’s Heritage Diplomacy in Cambodia Goes Digital

Among the many facets of the Chinese Belt Road Initiative (BRI), heritage diplomacy is fast gaining resonance among partner countries. Liu Yuzhu, head of China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage has stressed that international cooperation in cultural heritage is an important part of the BRI and “serves as a ‘high-speed train’ that propels people-to-people exchanges among China and other countries,” He made these remark at the opening ceremony of the second China-Central and Eastern European Countries (CEEC) Cultural Heritage Forum.

There are visible signs of cultural engagements and cooperation between China and many countries that bestride the BRI. These are being pursued through heritage diplomacy which involves setting up museums, organising cultural expos and festivals, helping restore heritage buildings and monuments, and support marine archaeology for recovering shipwrecks, to enable the present society to obtain a deeper understanding of Chinese cultural connections that spread far and wide across Asia and Europe through land and sea routes.

Earlier this year, President Xi Jinping assured Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen of China’s continued support for closer cooperation in culture, tourism, cultural heritage protection and restoration. China has been a key partner for Cambodia and has helped it restore, renovate and preserve Cambodia’s cultural heritage particularly the temple complex in the Angkor Archaeological Park in Siem Reap.

During the last two decades, Chinese experts from multi-disciplinary fields have provided archaeological and technical support for restoration of heritage buildings in Cambodia. During Phase 1 (1998-2008), they worked on the Chausay Tevada temple; in the second phase, Ta Keo temple was restored in eight years. The third phase is expected to be of 11 years, and involves protection and restoration of the Royal Palace in the temple complex. These temples were built in the first half of the 12thcentury by King Suryavarman II, and are symbolic of Hindu and Buddhist cultural influences in the region. In 1992, Angkor Archaeological Park was placed under UN World Heritage List.

Chinese archaeologists use advanced technologies for heritage restoration. For instance, 3D laser scanning and mapping, structural research and drone recording, are used to create 3D digital model for visualization of the Ta Keo temple. Jin Zhaoyu, a cultural relic protection engineer from the Chinese Academy of Cultural Heritage (CACH), has stated that it is a challenge to search and then match the fallen parts of the temples and putting them back to their correct positions. “Every stone is unique. If one stone is in the wrong position, the gap will grow wider as you restore the structure layer by layer and an accurate restoration will be impossible,”

As far as monitoring the impact of environment on the Angkor Wat temple complex is concerned, China uses its remote-sensing satellites and has provided assistance in setting up a ground station to receive and conduct restoration work which is operated by Cambodia's Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap (APSARA). This initiative is part a multi-stakeholder memorandum of understanding signed in 2014 between Chinese space and heritage agencies, UNESCO and Cambodia’s APSARA.

At home, similarly, the Great Wall, one of the seven Wonder of the World and a UNESCO heritage site, is monitored for any damage; the restoration plan are prepared by using drone technology and AI-powered analysis software. Wuhan University’s Laboratory of Information Engineering in Surveying, Mapping and Remote Sensing (LIESMARS) and China Foundation for Cultural Heritage Conservation in partnership with Intel are creating digital models through a 3D reconstruction algorithm to ensure upkeep of the highly popular tourist site.

3D technology (scanning and printing) has also increased the possibilities for replication and restoration of damaged or ruined artefacts. Qingdao Publishing Group, Zhejiang University and the Yungang Grottoes Research Institute successfully 3D-printed replicas of Buddhist statues from a 1,500-year-old UNESCO World Heritage site.

Digital documentation of cultural heritage is quite common and archaeologists are now using disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence, Blockchain, 3D printing to restore heritage. These are critical for restoration work particularly when such sites and monuments are ravaged by war or ultra nationalist forces engage in vandalism and destruction of heritage of other faiths and communities. Restoration also becomes critical after natural calamities and requires extensive repair work as was the case of the Dharahara (Bhimsen Tower), an iconic landmark in Kathmandu, after it suffered damages due to an earthquake in 2015.

China is leader in the above technologies and appears to be willing to cooperate with other countries engaged in heritage restoration. It is keenly pursuing joint restoration projects under the BRI and sharing expertise in heritage protection and preservation as also training of professionals. Such initiatives can empower humanity to protect and preserve monuments and recreate heritage of the past for future generations who would be able to understand the history of the people who came before them.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja is associated with the Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.

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