The conservation practice in China, termed “Chinese stylistic restoration” in this study, has been influenced by the traditional Chinese philosophy and construction principles, the modern Chinese conservation theory of Liang Sicheng and Liu Dunzhen, and Western and international theories and policies concerning conservation. This study uses three case studies, namely, Shanghai Zhenru Temple, Jianfu Palace Garden, and Angkor Wat Chau Say Tevoda Temple, to demonstrate the main characteristics of the Chinese stylistic restoration, including its emphasis on style over authenticity, pursuit of a gestalt form, and flexible attitude toward reconstruction. Accordingly, these practices have shaped the current Chinese conservation theory as reflected in the case studies reported in “Principles for the Conservation of Heritage Sites in China” and the Qufu Declaration.


Architecture conservation ; Chinese stylistic restoration

1. ‘Renovating the Old as Old’: the central principle of the Chinese stylistic restoration

Restoration is a component of all evolution stages of architecture; thus, all topics regarding architectural heritage conservation are rooted in restoration. However, in modern culture, the new ideologies that emerge with value rationality have made restoration a controversial topic on the value of conservation that has been debated for over 200 years. The argument between “stylistic restoration” and “anti-restoration” reached its climax from 1830 to 1880. On the one hand, “stylistic restoration” was represented by Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814–1897), who attempted to restore the historical image of important French churches. On the other hand, “anti-restoration” was represented by John Ruskin (1819–1900), who called for maintaining architecture in its original form and objected to any fantasy about its original style (Jokilehto, 2002 ; Glendinning, 2013 ).

Eastern conservation theories and approaches entirely differ from Western ones. The spread of Western thought in the modern era has resulted in many Chinese social values and methodologies being brought in line with those of the rest of the world. However, the intrinsic cultural character of China continues to shape its heritage conservation activities. The restoration traditions and values of China, which are built on the ancient principles of cultural–relic conservation and are influenced by Taoism and the philosophical concept of Qi, remain intrinsic to the Chinese culture even though heritage conservation in China has been extensively influenced by the West. These traditions and values are also based on conservation theory in the late Qing dynasty, affected by Western learning, and influenced by the modern ideas of cultural–relic and architectural-heritage conservation that have emerged during the Republican period. Such naturalistic ideal of accommodating the past and present is reflected in the ancient Chinese principles of “renewing the decayed,” “revitalizing the abandoned,” and “completing the deficient.”

Research on the architectural heritage of China can be traced back to Zhi Qiqian’ establishment of the Yingzao Society in 1930. Most of these studies have adopted the academic system approach introduced by Liang Sicheng and Liu Dunzhen. As the father of modern Chinese architecture, Liang served as an architectural history instructor and became a prominent figure in the restoration and conservation of priceless monuments in China. His thoughts on architectural conservation were first published in 1986 by Chen Zhihua in the Architectural Journal article titled “A Pioneer in the Conservation of Building Relics and Historic Sites in China” ( Chen, 1986b ). To commemorate his 90th birthday in 1991, a research group from the Tsinghua University School of Architecture published several papers on Liang׳s ideas about ancient city conservation and urban planning. In 2001, Liang׳s approach to architectural conservation was discussed in several articles, such as Liang Sicheng׳s “Thoughts on Building Relics Conservation” (Lv, 2001 ) and “Historical Investigation on Liang and Chen Plan” (Wang, 2001 ). In addition, several overseas scholars have analyzed Liang׳s design theories from various perspectives ( Lai, 2009  ;  Li, 2012 ). These scholars have summarized Liang׳s ideas on architectural conservation as follows.

First, Liang introduced the architectural conservation principle of “renovating the old as old” (i.e., renovating old architectural works while retaining their original style) in “A Plan for Renovating Wanshou Pavilion on Jingshan Mountain of the Imperial Palace” (Liang, 1934 ). He noted that “in terms of fine art, the most important principle of the conservation of relics is to retain the original exterior, so color paintings on parts not renovated should not be renewed but retained. Newly added beams, columns, rafters, purlins, sparrow braces, doors, windows and ceilings and so on should be painted and patterned following the old tradition, thus ensuring consistency with the original parts” (Liang, 1934 ).

Second, Liang opined that “restoration is complex, and can be carried out only when the person in charge has the most solid understanding of the shape and structure of the original building; if the restored is not true to the original, it is better to retain the existing parts and avoid reflecting the effects of time on the architecture. The restoration of ancient architecture has become a major controversial issue among architecture archeologists, and has not yet been settled by the Ministry of Education of Italy; in my opinion, the best way to preserve ancient architecture is to retain its existing form. Restoration should not be implemented hastily or without absolute certainty” (Liang, 1932 ).

Third, with regard to the use of new materials and technologies, Liang believed that the key objective of conservation design was “to remedy as far as possible the defects in the existing architectural structure of Confucian temples, benefiting from today׳s new knowledge of mechanics and new materials, while trying our best to maintain or restore the original shape and structure of the existing temple form” (Liang, 1935a ).

The preceding quotations reveal notable similarities between the views on restoration of Liang and Sir George Gilbert Scott, a British ecclesiological architect. Both experts not only had a profound understanding of the value of ancient architecture and acknowledged the harm done by previous restoration efforts but also took practical steps to correct the mistakes of their predecessors. Liang׳s restoration plan for the Liuhe Pagoda and Scott׳s design for the restoration of the Westminster Abbey seem to have been cast in the same mold. Scott behaved extremely differently in theory and practice, while Liang expressed paradoxical ideas regarding architectural conservation. He argued that adherence to ancient styles and use of new materials and structures were within the scope of conservation, and that the restoration of original shapes and structures was an important conservation process. However, this argument contradicts his statement that “the best way to preserve ancient architecture is to retain its existing form” (Liang, 1934 ). Liang could be considered “modern” because he had received Eastern and Western education. The contradiction in his thoughts on architectural conservation emerged from the limitations of his own education system and philosophical ideas. Such contradictions could also be attributed to the Beaux-Arts teaching system, which emphasized the pursuit of formal beauty in architectural design. Although Liang also taught modern Japanese theories of architectural conservation, he still sought to restore ancient buildings to their original state, thereby developing the principle of renovating the old as old.

In summary, Liang׳s ideas on architectural conservation were complex and reflected modern theoretical advancements and limitations of traditional history. Such ideas were similar to his paradoxical ideas on design, which received considerable attention from scholars in recent years. Liang׳s ideas were advanced because he recognized the evolution of historical buildings, used scientific techniques to record and investigate historical relics, and encouraged society to participate in systematic architectural conservation. The limitations of his ideas were evident in his obsession with formal and harmonious beauty, as well as in his preference for buildings from specific historical periods. The complexity of his thought emerged from the conflict between intellectual traditions, particularly between traditional Chinese culture and Western education, and awareness of historical approaches to conservation.

2. Beneficial hints

The Venice Charter was introduced in China over 20 years after its publication in 1964. In 1986, Chen published the paper titled “An International Charter for the Conservation of Building Relics and Historic Sites” (Chen, 1986a ) in World Architecture , which included the full text of the Venice Charter. Chen, a professor at the Tsinghua University School of Architecture, is a Chinese authority on the history of foreign ancient architecture and conservation of architecture heritage. This issue of World Architecture focused on “the conservation of building relics.” Chen gathered and translated articles written by world-renowned scholars on architectural conservation, such as “Conservation of Historic Buildings” by B.M. Feiden ( Feiden, 1986 ) and “Some Opinions on International Cultural Heritage Conservation” by Jukka Jokilehto (Jokilehto, 1986 ). Chen also published his own article titled “On the Conservation of Building Relics.” In September 1986, he published “A Pioneer in the Conservation of Building Relics and Historic Sites in China” in Architectural Journal , in which he compared Liang׳s ideas on architectural conservation with the principles articulated in several documents, such as the Venice Charter. Chen may be considered the first to systematically introduce Western conservation theory to China, thereby revitalizing the existing Chinese understanding of architecture (which has long been predicated on the principle of renovating the old as old).

The inconsistencies between the Venice Charter and the Chinese architectural conservation practices were clarified, and the awareness of such conflict became increasingly acute after 2000. In 2002, the China Cultural Relics News organized a series of discussions on the contradictions between the Venice Charter and the existing practices in China. Several of the resulting articles had titles that resembled tongue twisters, such as “On the Restoration of Ancient Chinese Buildings: An Understanding of Relevant Articles of the Venice Charter,” “Research on the Restoration of Hu Xueyan׳s Former Residence Challenges the Venice Charter” (first published by Guangming Daily ), “Deliberate before Using the Word Challenge,” “Reflection on ‘Deliberate before Using the Word Challenge,’” and “What to Challenge: Reflection on ‘Reflection on Deliberate before Using the Word Challenge.’” These articles considered the contradictions from the Venice Charter as protocols for restoration. In defense of the Venice Charter, Chen translated and published “Must Stick to the Principle of ‘Identifiability’” in August 2002. The most relevant section of this article is quoted as follows: “The Venice Charter is brief, with 16 articles and no more than 3000 words, and formulated as principles. I asked Mr. Lemaire, the first drafter, why he had not written the charter in more detail. He answered that space should be left for practitioners to innovate” ( Chen, 2002 ). Lemaire׳s answer echoed the Western view of the Venice Charter. In this and other debates, Chinese architectural conservationists critically accepted, applied, and reflected on the Western conservation theory represented by the Venice Charter.

3. Practical characteristics of the Chinese stylistic restoration

Compared with the West, China has limited experience in historic architecture conservation, and the local efforts in this area have faced several setbacks. Over a few decades, China has circumvented 300 years worth of exploration undertaken by Western conservationists.

3.1. Emphasis on style over authenticity

Chang Qing argued that traditional Chinese architectural practices have constantly emphasized style and neglected authenticity (Chang, 2011 ). This so-called “emphasis on style” refers to a preference for the styles of certain dynasties, such as the Han, Tang, and Song dynasties, which resembles the Western cultural mentality of stylistic restoration. “Neglecting authenticity” refers to the tendency to ignore the age value of architectural components. Modern conservation specialists judge the value of cultural relics or historic sites according to their historical origins; thus, they neglect numerous architectural components with unknown origins to achieve a unified architectural style.

The restoration of the major hall of Zhenru Temple in Shanghai (Fig. 1  ;  Fig. 2 ) presents a typical case. The construction of Zhenru Temple began in the seventh year of the reign of Yanyou during the Yuan dynasty (1320s), and continued in the subsequent dynasties. Liu Dunzhen׳s analysis of relevant documents revealed that the major hall was damaged in the 10th year of Emperor Xianfeng׳s reign during the Qing dynasty (1860s), and was restored twice during the reign of emperors Tongzhi (1880s) and Guangxu (1900s), during which the style of the hall was transformed from Yuan to Qing. In their review of cultural relics in 1961, the Shanghai Commission for the Conservation of Antiquities and the Jiading County government decided to implement urgent conservation measures in the major hall, which suffered from severe water leakage and tilting roof. However, this conservation form can essentially be categorized as restoration design.

Fig. 1.

Fig. 1.

South facades before restoration. Zhenru Temple, Shanghai.

Fig. 2.

Fig. 2.

South facades before restoration. Zhenru Temple, Shanghai.

Most of the earliest components of the hall had been damaged because of the numerous additions made to the temple over many centuries. To restore the so-called “original Yuan dynasty look” of the major hall of Zhenru Temple, designers used the Yuan Dynasty Stone House on the Tianchi Mountain in Suzhou, Sanqing Hall in Yongle Temple, and Xuanmiao Temple in Suzhou as points of reference. Liang proposed a similar restoration method for the Liuhe Pagoda in Hangzhou. In particular, Liang recommended the following techniques to restore the ancient pagoda as accurately as possible: use the pagodas that were built in the same period as analogies, infer the pagoda׳s external form from its interior structure, and collect objects with similar shapes and technical manuals that were published worldwide approximately at the same time for comparison (Liang, 1935b ). Liang׳s scientific methods of comparative and rule research provided theoretical bases for the Chinese stylistic restoration.

“Beauty” is undoubtedly prioritized over “truth” in the stylistic restoration process. However, such “beautification” often entails a denial or distortion of historical information as witnessed repeatedly in the West. The negative consequences of the Chinese stylistic restoration not only emerges from the designers’ pursuit of beauty but also from the Chinese architects’ preference for and strained interpretation of the Tang and Song styles.

3.2. Pursuit of gestalt

The pursuit of gestalt is another characteristic of the Chinese stylistic restoration. In the traditional Chinese culture, ruins are associated with social unrest and poverty, whereas new constructions reflect national economic prosperity and cultural vitality. By contrast, the ruins of ancient Rome elicit respect for the great imperial era from Westerners, and the ruins of churches arouse a yearning for the medieval religious life. Therefore, ruins are endowed with aesthetic significance in Western culture. By contrast, ruins are considered undesirable architectural forms in Chinese culture and can only be meaningful in the present day when they are completely renovated. Hence, the Chinese stylistic restoration entails the stylistic restoration of gestalt.

The restoration of the Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia presents an example of overseas Chinese stylistic restoration. However, the outcome of this restoration was controversial. In 2009, the restoration efforts were criticized by the architecture blog, abbs.com. The author sarcastically noted that the restoration of the Chau Say Tevoda by the Chinese cultural relics conservation team was a shortcut to gestalt and yielded poor results. In particular, the new sandstone components differed from the original mottled stone, and the skintle of the other components was inconsistent with the existing pattern (Fig. 3 ). This post incited considerable debate in which critics argued that the restoration of any relic according to the principles of the Venice Charter would inevitably result in inconsistency whether in China or elsewhere. As an example, they cited the French restoration of Baphuon Temple, which evidently reflected the contrast between the old and the new. Such controversy reflects the misunderstanding of international conservation theory and the excessive pursuit of gestalt characteristics in the Chinese stylistic restoration, which arises from the traditional view of ruins as symbols of the collapse of traditional Chinese culture.

Fig. 3.

Fig. 3.

Restoration of Chau Say Tevoda.

The Chinese cultural relics team that restored the Angkor Wat followed the Venice Charter, which explicitly mandated that the “replacements of missing parts must integrate harmoniously with the whole, but at the same time must be distinguishable from the original so that restoration does not falsify the artistic or historic evidence.” However, the outcome of the restoration was considerably unsatisfactory because the Chinese conservation team over-emphasized difference and neglected oneness, which is a central principle of the Venice Charter. Such emphasis on restoring the original not only derived from the principle of anastylosis, as presented by Giovannoni (Giovannoni, 1998 ) but also from Brandi׳s important concept of “oneness” (Brandi, 2005 ). The Italian word unità was translated in the English version of the charter as “oneness.” However, “unity” may accurately represent the original meaning of this term. Therefore, guaranteeing the oneness of architectural art during “key restoration” is equivalent to distinguishing the new from the old. The inability to recognize this idea led to several problems during the restoration of the Chau Say Tevoda.

Since the large-scale introduction of conservation theories from the West, practitioners of the Chinese stylistic restoration have become considerably cautious. The “Principles for the Conservation of Heritage Sites in China” (“China Principles”) states that “the aesthetic value of cultural relics and historic sites derives mainly from their historical authenticity, so the original state of cultural relics should not be changed in pursuit of completeness and magnificence.”

3.3. Flexible attitude toward reconstruction

The Chinese stylistic restoration has recently received renewed attention from scholars, who argue that as this approach to conservation gains its vitality from traditional Chinese culture, regarding all reconstruction and renovation projects as “fake anti ques” would be reductive. For example, with reference to the reconstruction of Beijing׳s Imperial Palace, Luo Zhewen claimed that the original and complete state of the Forbidden City belonged to “the flourishing age under the reigns of Kangxi and Qianlong.” On the reconstruction of the Jianfu Palace Garden (Fig. 4 ), Luo argued that “if the original shape, structure, materials, and technology can be retained, the original value of the ancient building as a cultural relic is retained, enabling the building to remain a cultural relic” (Luo, 2005a ).

Fig. 4.

Fig. 4.

Reconstruction of Jianfu Palace Garden.

In summary, the reconstruction of buildings is a problem that requires careful consideration. Reconstructing ancient ruins is dangerous if the information about their basic structure has disappeared without a trace. However, if several clues remain, then reconstruction can be attempted with care. Hence, the Chinese stylistic restoration does not exclude reconstruction altogether. Nevertheless, proposals for reconstruction are expected to be serious, rigorous, and grounded in historical fact.

4. Conclusions: future of the Chinese stylistic restoration

The aforementioned restoration practices have also influenced the expression of the modern Chinese conservation ideology. Compared with Western approaches to stylistic restoration, the Chinese stylistic restoration is based on different interpretations of “original” and “restoration.” The semantic and conceptual evolution of these two key terms is evident in documents that articulate Chinese ideological concerns with conservation, such as the Qufu Declaration ( Luo et al., 2005b ) and “China Principles” with its associated case studies. Qufu Declaration, which is also known as “a consensus on the theory and practice with Chinese characteristics for the conservation and maintenance of cultural relics and ancient architecture,” has begun to emphasize the specificity of the Chinese wood structure. The “China Principles” are proposed based on China׳s long-term conservation experience and international principles, particularly the Venice Charter that was formulated in 1964. These principles have been extensively accepted in China since their enactment; thus, the cultural background of the Chinese stylistic restoration must not be neglected. Moreover, the mechanism of the feedback on restoration practice must also be considered.

The architectural heritage conservation practice in China reveals three distinct interpretations of the term “original state.” First, the original state of a building may be that at its construction. Second, a building׳s “original” architectural features may be derived from a certain historical period (which reflects the aforementioned emphasis on style over authenticity). Third, all additions to the building throughout history may be regarded as components of the building׳s original state, which is the “truth.” The third interpretation is similar to the conservation principles in the Venice Charter.

A document that was published in 2002 and revised in 2012 elaborated several important points in the “China Principles” to draw together the aforementioned definitions of “original state.” However, this endeavor raised several questions. First, if “the state before conservation projects were implemented” also resulted from chaotic renovation, should the original state be maintained? Second, how should the “original construction and structure” and “a state of value” be defined? These issues warrant further investigation because of the complex and contradictory perceptions of “original state” among architectural conservationists; the aforementioned document leaves considerable space for this discussion.

Numerous methods for restoring the original state of cultural relics and historic sites have been implemented because the “original state” is perceived and interpreted differently. In the latest literature, the word “restoration” has been deliberately avoided and replaced with other terms, such as “key renovation” and “partial restoration,” to reduce sensitivity. Various terms have also been used to describe restoration in practice, thereby reflecting the present direction of the Chinese stylistic restoration. However, the Chinese stylistic restoration cannot be simply regarded as a type of stylistic restoration in China but as a strategy of conservation and renovation that is intrinsically shaped by the Chinese culture. This restoration process also leads to certain problems. However, as the conservation context becomes culturally diverse, the Chinese stylistic conservation is expected to receive substantial reasonable theoretical feedback and considerable practical applications through discussion and criticism.


This study is supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant No. 51508361 ).


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