2002 World Monuments Watch
The Shaxi Market Area in China’s Yunnan Province is the most complete surviving example of a trading center along the historic Tea and Horse Caravan Trail, which linked Tibet with Southeast Asia between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries. Founded by an early Tibetan Buddhist sect, the site includes an intact theater, guesthouses for merchants, and a temple precinct. Impressive defensive gates surround the complex. A Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) mural of a female Buddha within the complex offers insight into the cultural and social makeup of Shaxi and suggests that it was a matriarchal society with a multiethnic population. Following the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, trade between Tibet and Yunnan ceased and the market area fell into decline. By the time of the site’s inclusion on the 2002 World Monuments Watch the mountainous region was primarily inhabited by the Bai, a Sino-Tibetan ethnic group which once dominated large parts of Yunnan Province. The area had become increasingly poverty-stricken since the 1960s, and the traditions of the Bai had steadily faded.
Restoration of the theater stage and museum
A multi-phased undertaking called the Shaxi Rehabilitation Project had been established before the Market Area was included on the 2002 Watch. The first phase addressed the restoration of the two most prominent buildings on the town’s market square: the theater stage and the museum. The work was supported by the Robert W. Wilson Challenge to Conserve Our Heritage and lasted from November 2003 to October 2004. The second phase involved restoration of the contiguous Xingjia Temple district including the Historic Tea and Horse Caravan Trail Inn. An award from American Express supported the completion of this phase, which took place between November 2003 and October 2006. All of the historic commercial buildings and guesthouses within the town’s impressive defensive gates benefited. In addition to restoration, our work contributed in a broader sense to other improvements made at the site through the Shaxi Rehabilitation Project, including the sustainable development of the valley, poverty alleviation, sanitation improvements, and dissemination of information about the town to the public. The transformation of Shaxi was so complete that it was recognized by UNESCO, which awarded its 2005 Asia-Pacific Heritage Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation to the Shaxi Rehabilitation Project.
Marketplaces like the one at Shaxi served a variety of functions for travelers along the historic route, providing them with trading outposts, shelter areas, entertainment, and houses of worship. The restoration of Shaxi Market Area allowed an increased understanding of the town’s cultural, ethnic, and religious traditions.