In 1999, the Center for U.S.-China Arts Exchange and its Chinese counterparts, including the Yunnan Provincial Association for Cultural Exchanges with Foreign Countries, co-sponsored the Leadership Conference on Conservancy and Development, which brought 180 experts and observers from around the world to Yunnan. The Yunnan Initiative, a comprehensive policy statement, was written as a result of the Conference. Five principles were adopted: Conservation, Inclusion, Education, Tourism and Collaboration. The initiative also stipulated a set of strategies to guide sustainable development in areas with high levels of diversity in biology and culture.

In January 2000, at the invitation of the Governor of Yunnan, the Center sent a delegation of professionals from the United States to visit the Southern Silk Road, a 3,500 year-old trade route which pre-dates the better known Silk Road to the north. Rich in historic sites, the Southern Silk Road played a pivotal role in connecting China with South and Central Asia for at least two thousand years. The Yunnan partners arranged for the group to meet with leaders and professionals at various levels throughout the trip and the delegation developed recommendations for several demonstration projects. Two sites were chosen and the work was carried out over several years. Weishan City was one of the two sites. The second was Gaoligongshan National Nature Park.

Introduction to Weishan City and Heritage Valley

Located in the central western region of Yunnan, 75 kilometers south of the city of Dali, the historic city of Weishan is the governmental seat within the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture. The city has a rich ancient history as an important way-station on the Southern Silk Road. It is the birthplace of the Nanzhao Empire (738-937 AD).

Originally a walled city with four gates, Weishan possesses a rare 14th century townscape with buildings, courtyard and gardens dating from the Ming and Qing Dynasties. A dominant feature of the city is its relationship to the Weishan Valley and the views of the adjacent Sacred (Weibao) Mountain, one of the most important Taoist centers in all of China and home to more than twenty temples.

Weishan Valley comprises the entire area between the mountains, including the foothills, valley floor, villages, towns, hamlets and the City of Weishan. The people of the Weishan Valley depend on a rich and diverse agricultural base for their livelihood. Han, Muslim, Yi, and other minority nationalities are expert farmers of rice, tea, tobacco, fish and corn. In addition, there are rural industries dependent on local natural resources, including small manufacturers of roof tiles, charcoal, tie-dye, and eucalyptus oil. In the first decade of the new millennium, over 450 villages, towns and hamlets were spread throughout the valley. Approximately half of these communities were located in the foothills of the two mountain ranges that define the valley.

The project teams sent under the auspices of the Center were asked to make recommendations to address the challenges resulting from rapid modernization. The entire Weishan Valley was at a crossroads as its scenic, natural and historic features were threatened by the pressures of economic growth. Sprawling modern development replaced traditional architecture, agricultural landscapes and craft industries, placing at risk the historic city’s cultural dignity and sense of place.

Major Projects and Field Work (2001-2008)

September 1999

The Center-sponsored Leadership Conference on Conservancy and Development laid out the policy statement entitled the Yunnan Initiative and launched the following projects.

January 2000

At the invitation of the Governor of Yunnan, the Center for US-China Arts Exchange sent a delegation of professionals from the United States to visit the Southern Silk Road and develop recommendations for several demonstration projects. Weishan City and Heritage Valley was one of the sites chosen.

June 2001

The Center sent a team of professionals from the fields of urban design, tourism and land-planning to Weishan City and the surrounding valley. Their mission was to provide recommendations for preserving and enhancing the city and surrounding agricultural landscape and to identify a strategy for preservation and sustainable development. The members of the team were:

  • Gerald Adelmann, President, Canal Corridor Association, and Executive Director, Openlands Projects, Chicago.
  • Ders Anderson, Greenways Director, Openlands Project, Chicago
  • Ken Hao, Associate Research Scholar, Center for US-China Arts Exchange, Columbia University
  • Cheryl Hargrove, President, The HTC Group, St. Simons Island, Georgia
  • Peter Kindel, Associate, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, (SOM) Hong Kong
  • Kent Taylor, Associate Director of Greenways, Openlands Project, Chicago
  • Sylvester Wong, Senior Urban Designer, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Hong Kong

A final report of recommendations on this project was published in 2002. This bilingual publication includes detailed information including maps, lists of names, etc. 

Reference: “The Weishan Heritage Valley: Recommendations for Preservation and Future Growth,” published by Yunnan University Press, 2002. (Yunnan Provincial Association for Cultural Exchanges with Foreign Countries, Center for US-China Arts Exchange, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) and Openlands Project, Chicago.

May to June of 2004

The Center sponsored a team of students and faculty from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Master of Science in Historic Preservation Program to travel to Weishan City. Over a three-week period, the team developed a plan for a visitors’ center based on the adaptive re-use of the Dongyue Temple from the late Ming-early Qing dynasty.

November of 2004

A team from New York University, organized by the Center, traveled to Weishan to develop a content plan for the proposed Dongyue Temple Visitor Center.

June 2006

Students of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago collaborated with the Yunnan Provincial Department of Culture in carrying out a photographic survey of courtyard houses in Weishan City. The project resulted in the publication of a book of photographs of ancient architecture.

Reference: “Weishan-Chinese Old City,” book of photographs published in 2006. Edited by Fan Jianhua, Yunnan Province Department of Culture.  

July 2007

The Center organized a team of planners from architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), Farr Associates, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, to travel to Weishan for an on-site review of a draft master preservation plan undertaken by Tongji University, Shanghai, for the City of Weishan. The Center team expressed concern with certain recommendations presented in the Tongji University plan which projected visits by 10,000 tourists a day and proposed the following:

  • Demolition of ancient buildings along the south and west walls of the old city;
  • Wholesale transformation of courtyard houses to lodging and boutiques;
  • Reconstruction of historic monuments;
  • Construction of massive ring roads and single-use districts adjacent to the historic city.

December 2007

Team members Gerald Adelmann and Ken Hao travelled to the city of Dali in Yunnan to attend another official review of the draft master preservation plan for Weishan City. Based on the information and feedback which the participants gathered at this review, the architecture firm SOM produced a second set of comments and recommendations.

Final Report: Yunnan Sustainable Development Forum 2008

At the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October 2007 in Beijing, it was announced that environmental conservation and sustainable development, as well as the alleviation of poverty in rural areas, were to be among the most urgent policies to be implemented in the next five years. Responding to the Congress’ declaration and the designation of Yunnan Province as a demonstration site for environmental conservation and sustainable development, the Center consulted with its colleagues in the Yunnan government and the Southwest Forestry College to initiate a two-day forum for discussion of sustainable development practices and policies. This was held in the City of Dali on June 30 and July 1, 2008. Joining the Center as principal organizers of the forum were the Yunnan Province Bureau of Tourism, the City of Dali, Southwest Forestry College in Kunming, and the Yunnan Province Office for Cultural Products. The Forum in Dali was made possible by a Conservation and Sustainable Development grant awarded to Columbia University and the Center by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The Center sent a delegation of ten international leaders in cultural tourism, conservation, adventure travel, historic preservation and resource management from the United States and Indonesia to meet with Chinese officials to discuss and debate solutions for sustainable development in Yunnan Province. The goal of the two-day Yunnan Sustainable Development Forum was to address time-sensitive issues related to over-development and commercialization of natural and cultural sites that result in loss of authenticity and sustainability and create a severe disruption of community life. The forum focused on three specific areas in Yunnan Province: Weishan Valley; Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve, a World Biosphere Reserve; and Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

At the end of the forum, the following five recommendations were presented to the Yunnan Provincial Government, the central authorities in Beijing, and global organizations, including UNESCO:

  • Protect Yunnan’s fragile and limited natural and cultural resources or China’s opportunity for world leadership in sustainable development will be lost;
  • Position China as a world leader in sustainable development;
  • Raise international awareness of China and Yunnan’s unique heritage and resources and break down misconceptions about the country;
  • Use best practices and lessons learned from other places to guide Yunnan’s efforts in sustainable development;
  • Build on foundation of collaborative work already established through the Center for US-China Arts Exchange;

In May of the following year the Center published the recommendations in a report.

Reference: “Sustainable Development: Opportunities and Challenges for Yunnan Province,” published by the Center for US-China Arts Exchange, 2009.