|A stone lion missing limbs stands among ruins at the Fahai Temple, Haidian district. Surveillance cameras and a fence are to be erected to prevent relics from being damaged or looted. (Photo: Li Hao/GT)|
It was about a Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) stele that was smashed by thieves trying to rob it from the ruins of Fahai Temple near the Fragrant Hills in Haidian district. The broken slab was originally noticed on January 17 by staff at Jinshan Cemetery, who then reported it to the Haidian Cultural Protection Commission (HCPC). Local police investigated vandalism of the stele, which they suspect thieves had planned to sell on the black market. Legal and cultural heritage experts said the case highlighted flaws in cultural relic protection in Beijing.
On January 28, a 60-year-old man surnamed Ying uploaded photos of a broken stele on his Sina Weibo account. The HCPC said they were alerted about the damaged stele on January 17, adding they had reported the case to police the same day.
Liu Yang, a lawyer from the Beijing Tianyi Law Firm, said that the thieves faced severe punishment if arrested and convicted. "The extent of the stele's damage will determine the level of punishment for the thieves," he said, noting that the thieves could face up to 10 years in jail if convicted.
Liu said that although current laws regarding cultural relic protection are strict, law enforcement is lax and authorities responsible for their protection are often "derelict in the performance of their duties."
The back story:
This was not the first story I'd reported about ancient steles being ruined or left in disrepair. While reporting the story Neighbors complain ancient steles left to rot nearby garbage dump that appeared in Metro Beijing on August 28, 2012, I heard residents voice their concern about two vandalized steles left in weeds near a public toilet and garbage dump in Chaoyang district. The district's cultural protection commission response following media coverage was to remove weeds, though not the steles.
The Fahai Temple stele, which stood about 3 meters tall and is engraved with dragons, horses and an inscription from Emperor Shunzhi (1638-1661), lacked any protective fence around it, although the HCPC has since vowed to build one.
Had there been no media coverage, it's doubtful any action would have been taken at all. I couldn't help but think while reporting this story how many more ancient steles must be stolen or vandalized before tougher relic protection is enforced.
After getting in touch with Ying via Weibo, I contacted the HCPC. Zhao Yang, an official with the commission, was agitated when I questioned him about the vandalized stele.
"You don't have to report this hastily. You have a social responsibility you must respect," he told me over the phone. He revealed the commission planned to install surveillance cameras at the temple's gate, but warned of the perils of this being reported by the media.
"What if thieves know about [the cameras] beforehand and break them? The media will only make our job harder. Why do you want to broaden media coverage by reporting it in English?" Zhao asked.
During our interview it became clear Zhao wanted to distance the commission's responsibility over the vandalized stele. I decided visiting the temple to inspect the damage firsthand was essential.
I took a taxi to Fahai Temple, located in Jinshan Cemetery on Xiangshan Nanlu. After entering the cemetery, we passed through two checkpoints manned by security guards who neither stopped nor questioned us.
Wandering around the ruins nestled on a hill, I was greeted by a sight that resembled more of a battlefield than collection of cultural relics. Rocks, faded steles and stone lions missing limbs or heads were strewn everywhere. The only structure intact was a modern red gate with a sign informing visitors about the history of the ruins.
The split stele was sprawled unceremoniously on the ground in two broken pieces not far from the gate. Even in the wake of the vandalism, no measures had been taken to salvage or protect the stele from further damage.
Security guards at the cemetery said that the thieves struck at night when nobody was on duty. Later on that day, I contacted Zhao again. I pressed him about the lax security before and after the vandalism. Rather than again questioning my motives for reporting the story, he offered a more constructive response.
"We will install fences and repair the stele later," he pledged. "How the stele was broken by the thieves is not known." Zhao admitted that the HCPC's dependence on guards and cemetery staff to ensure the protection of ruins was far from ideal. "Our lack of sufficient financial support makes our work difficult," he said. After our interview, Zhao requested a transcript of his quotes be e-mailed to him to review what he had said. However, his concern over how the story would be reported continued to escalate.
"You have to send me the whole story once it's written for my inspection," he demanded. "I need to know how you plan to report this because it could be the last contact between us over [cultural relic protection] matters. Why don't we [cooperate on the story] perfectly?"
Zhao was obviously worried about the commission's reputation and perhaps even the fate of his own job. After all, the HCPC had been exposed for failing to protect the Fahai Temple ruins.
Liu Zheng, a member of the Chinese Society of Cultural Relics, said that because steles weighed tons, they were not considered ideal targets by thieves. Nevertheless, their sheer size isn't a strong enough deterrent against theft.
"These days, with trucks and special equipment, it's easier to rob these steles," said Liu, adding that an ancient stele can fetch hundreds of thousands of yuan on the black market.
On February 18, 2012, two thieves were captured by local residents trying to take steles from a temple in Qinglonghu township in Fangshan district, the Beijing Evening News reported. They were convicted of stealing national-level relics.
Suspects in the Fahai Temple case remain at large.
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