2016 Student-Faculty Fellows Program: Virginia Wesleyan College

Saving China’s Cultural Heritage:
Balancing Preservation
and Development at Wutai Shan and the Yungang Grottoes

Mentors: Steven Emmanuel, Professor of Philosophy and Zizhong Wang, Professor of Computer Science
Students: Brian Hanna-Sauro, Nicholas Hipple, Victoria Laughlin, Ching Lee, Robert McComb, and Alana Peters


Yungang Grottoes, Cave 5 restoration project. The team is standing on scaffolding approximately 50 feet off the ground, just beside the head of the Buddha.

Project Abstract

Our project was focused on current efforts to preserve two important religious heritage sites located in China’s Shanxi province: Wutai Shan and the Yungang Grottoes. Through documentary-style interviews with various stakeholders (including government officials, researchers, members of the Buddhist monastic community, local residents, business owners, and visitors), as well as site visits with engineers involved in the work of preservation, we learned first-hand how the Chinese are attempting to balance the twin goals of preservation and development. Most days were filled with meetings and interviews with local people. The students met a host of Chinese government representatives in both official and informal settings. The highlight was an official state reception and dinner hosted by the Director-General of the Shanxi Office of Foreign Affairs. The students also met many faculty members and students from several different departments at Taiyuan University of Technology, where they attended formal presentations of research on relics preservation, toured working labs, and had ample opportunities to ask questions and engage in discussion with the researchers there. The students also met with staff at the two World Heritage sites, conducting interviews with the directors and engineers, as well as tourists (both cultural tourists and religious pilgrims). At Yungang, the team was given permission to access a cave closed to the public for restoration. We documented the work being done there and interviewed the technicians. While we were in Datong, the students got a chance to spend an evening at the home of Dr. Wang’s father, who lived and worked as a teacher in the village of Yungang. The students were enthralled by the stories he shared with them of his early memories of the village and the grottoes.

            The students also gained hands-on experience designing and implementing a database system – a technology that is essential to modern business, research, and the dissemination of information and knowledge in every field. The purpose of the database is to educate people about the two sites, their cultural and religious significance, and the challenges involved in preserving them. The database will contain educational information about each site (history, cultural importance, threats, and preservation efforts). It will include an extensive collection of digital images documenting the major features of the sites (including evidence of deterioration, preservation, and types of tourist activity). A key component of the database collection will be the video we captured. The story of these heritage sites will be brought to life in a documentary film that explores the issues as they are viewed from various first-person perspectives.

            During the fall semester we will: (1) organize the digital image archive for the database; (2) load approximately 600GB of video into our editing system; and (3) produce a short behind-the-scenes video of the team’s experience in China (created by Alana Peters). Dr. Emmanuel is currently organizing the production of the other video presentations for the database. These will be student-created projects. Our plan is to have all the major components ready to launch by May 2017.

Meeting with students at Taiyuan University of Technology.

Alexander McComb

Modern China faces similar challenges to any major industrialized nation in the world today. The equilibrium between economic promotion, population growth, environmental impact, and preservation of fragile locations and objects of significance requires oversight and management. Our team was given the opportunity to work with groups throughout different levels of Chinese society including government officials, academics, students, religious leaders, pilgrims, and tourists to explore the preservation techniques used for two of China’s most significant heritage sites: The Yungang Grottos and the Wutaishan temples. We learned about the restoration techniques used, as well as the perspectives of the various stakeholder groups. The portion of the project that has been completed is the fieldwork performed in Shanxi, China. The team filmed meetings with government officials and academic groups and carried out field interviews of tourists, pilgrims, and members of the monastic community. Extensive footage and still photographs were collected at the sites, including images of relics acquired by special access to areas not open to the public. Both the amount and content of the footage collected is sufficient for a full-length documentary film, as well as a series of shorter videos on various aspects of our research. Work on the longer documentary will be completed in the winter semester of 2017. Along with the documentary film, team members experienced in programming and database development will develop a database to house all the images and video materials our team collected. This database will be accessible by outside researchers and academic groups. After our materials are loaded into the database, the project will be ready for presentation at a spring research symposium at Virginia Wesleyan College, and at a poster session at the 2017 ASIANetwork conference.

            Personally, the experience provided by the opportunity to research Chinese world heritage sites and the cultural exchange it provided has been and will continue to be invaluable in my academic and professional development. The availability of such research grants to undergraduate groups is important to the continued cultivation of an appreciation for Asian studies in American higher education.

Team photo at the summit of the North Terrace, Mt. Wutai (10,043 feet).

Alana Peters

I am a communications major, but before this trip I had no idea what that meant for my future career and what I wanted to do after graduation. This trip allowed me to apply skills that I’ve learned through my major (filming and interviewing) into real life scenarios, which in turn helped me practice these skills and learn more about what I like and might be interested in in the future. I enjoyed capturing footage of ancient Chinese heritage sites, and other tourism aspects of China. I also enjoyed working through language barriers to interview the native Chinese and interact across cultures. My academic career has greatly developed since this research trip, because I have a more in-depth understanding of our world and the Chinese culture, a heightened sense of my future career path, and more experience with cameras, video software, and interviewing than ever before.

Being able to speak directly with experts in China who were either researching or directly involved in relic restoration and preservation truly enhanced our project. The knowledge of their respective artifacts, sites, or structures was unending. Their willingness to speak with us, and answer questions, has given our project a well-rounded concept of the work being done in China. We could see that there is careful planning when it comes to balancing the respect of visitors and religious practitioners at heritage or religious sites, as well as the value of the public interest of keeping these sites or artifacts in good and safe condition.

This was the absolute best opportunity for me to narrow down my interests in the communications major and discover more about myself in the academic field. Now, our group is coming together to create the platform for which we will post information and videos from China, and allow for public discussion of what we found in our research. This will be a wonderful way for us to share what we found, and continue our research back in the United States.

Interviewing Buddhist pilgrims at Tayuan Temple, Mt. Wutai.

Brian Hanna-Sauro

The balancing of economic development and the preservation of ancient historical sites is no easy task. After  spending three weeks in Shanxi Province observing and interviewing countless people, it put into perspective how much work and effort goes into accomplishing both. We visited many ancient sites including the Great Wall and Forbidden City, but our project’s focus is on Wutai Shan and the Yungang Grottoes so that’s where we spent the majority of our research efforts. We interviewed and worked with many people ranging from government officials overseeing the preservation of the sites to graduate students at Taiyuan University using 3D mapping technology along with Buddhist monks and tourists.

            Economic development and history are both equally important. We found that this is especially important to the Buddhist communities in China. Both Wutai Shan and Yungang hold immense cultural and religious significance to the people of China and I think our research captured that in a big way. With the completion of the database and application, we aim to share their value with the rest of the world. I hope that raising awareness of these two sites will lead to similar efforts for preservation of historical sites around the world.

            My time in the Navy brought me to many places around the world, but this trip was truly unique and valuable. It has helped me see that no matter where you go, you will find people just trying to live their lives in peace. I met a number of great people in my field studying things like big data, machine learning, and speech recognition, all areas that I’m considering specializing in once I move onto graduate school and the software industry. This program helped me expand my worldview and grow academically and professionally. I’m thankful for this once in a lifetime experience.

Climbing 108 steps to Nanshan Temple, Mt. Wutai.

Victoria Laughlin

From June 24th to July 15th, I along with five of my peers and two instructors traveled to Beijing, Taiyuan, Mount Wutai, and Datong in order to collect information on World Heritage sites at Mount Wutai and the Yungang Grottoes. With the assistance of local experts at the sites, we were able to document their preservation and restoration efforts. During the trip, I learned about the balancing of interests among different stakeholders, from those who are immersed in a religious practice to those who are motivated by secular concerns to preserve China’s cultural heritage. This trip was meaningful to me personally, because it was my first opportunity to travel abroad and experience a different culture. As a computer science major, I was especially interested to learn about the information and technical studies at Taiyuan University, and to meet some of my professor’s Chinese students there. I was able to see the practical applications of my profession in the development of 3D scanning technology and the construction of massive databases at Taiyuan University. As a result of this trip, I am now considering the possibility of doing graduate study in China. The more a programmer can expand his or her cultural horizons, the more effectively he or she can work and create products in a global environment. Our project is far from over. Throughout the course of this semester and winter session, we will be editing the video documentary and compiling our information. Brian Hanna-Sauro and I will create the database in web format and possibly app format as well.  

Interviewing visitors at Nanshan Temple, Mt Wutai.

Nicholas Hipple

In a three-week trip, I have benefitted enormously from the opportunity to study the impact of tourism and development on the preservation of China’s cultural and religious heritage. As a business major, I was mainly interested to learn about the funding of the preservation work being done at Mt. Wutai and the Yungang Grottoes. Although I had anticipated that some funding would come from the private sector, I discovered that it derives almost exclusively from the government, so my focus turned to the process by which those funding decisions are made. The sites are managed by the Shanxi provincial government. However, all major funding requests need to be approved at the national level, essentially making the provincial Department of Cultural Relics a middle man between the two sites and the national department. At Wutai, which is a living religious community, a variety of local committees representing different stakeholders are involved in overseeing the site and making funding requests. At Yungang, this is chiefly done by the staff of the Yungang Research Institute. Our team was able to interview people participating in this process at every level, from the local committees at Wutai to the highest levels of the provincial government. All of them shared with us their own perspectives on the process and the roles they play in it.

            In terms of my career preparation, I gained valuable practical experience and intercultural communication skills through our daily interviews and interactions with people. In particular, I had to learn how to engage with government officials and inquire about how decisions are made in the context of the Chinese system, while being sensitive to the cultural and political issues involved. I have already written about my experience in China for our Honors & Scholars publication. By the end of January, I plan to complete a short documentary that highlights the results of my research. But I will continue to work with the team on the construction of our project database, which will be finished in early spring. Formal presentations of our research will be made to our campus community and at the ASIANetwork conference in 2017.


Interviewing the restoration team at Cave 5.

Ching Lee

Although Wutai Shan and Yungang Grottoes are both inscribed as UNESCO world heritage, there are distinctive features that set them apart. Mt. Wutai is a living pilgrimage site, with major temples and a monastic community. Yungang Grottoes is also an ancient Buddhist sacred site, but it is classified as a Cultural Landscape with tangible assets of hundreds of caves and tens of thousands of wall carvings and statues.  Throughout our field study, we collaborated with government officials and academic researchers, who gave us ample assistance. The government gave us special access to the sites, and faculty from various departments at Taiyuan University gave us presentations of their research on the history and preservation of Chinese relics.

            My main focus was to learn how school-age children are educated about the environmental issues affecting the preservation of these cultural heritage sites. Preliminary research indicated that current efforts to educate the general public are confined to materials that are mainly historical in nature or created specifically for tourism. They do not touch on the environmental issues or details of the preservation work. My research in China confirmed this. Although many student groups make field trips to the sites throughout the year, the educational materials and tours do not really address the environmental issues. Perhaps this is so because of the political implications. Nor is there any formal community outreach or partnership with local K-12 schools for either site at the present time, even though education is an essential part of heritage preservation, and key to protecting the future of these cultural treasures.

            During the trip, I collaborated with team members to collect information that will be used to educate the general public about the challenges involved in preserving fragile cultural relics. As a future secondary education teacher, I am focusing right now on creating instructional materials that are suitable for a younger audience.

            The opportunity to participate in this project has definitely helped me gain valuable practical experience in formulating and designing the sort of instructional materials I will use in my career as an educator in earth and environmental science.