EYESHENZHEN  /   Opinion

Cultural heritage protection waits for no man

Writer: Winton Dong  | Editor: Jane Chen  | From:  | Updated: 2019-04-22

A colossal fire broke out at about 6:30 p.m. April 15 at the Notre Dame Cathedral in central Paris, and destroyed the wooden roof of the 850-year-old UNESCO world heritage landmark, whose Gothic spire later collapsed in huge flames.

Notre Dame Cathedral is not only an iconic symbol of French culture, but also an outstanding treasure of human civilization. The first stone of the magnificent cathedral was laid in 1163 and its second-phase construction was finished in 1345, which means the whole building process lasted for nearly two centuries. As a famous scenic and cultural spot, it now attracts more than 13 million visitors from all over the world every year. Most Chinese people know the cathedral from French writer Victor Hugo’s work “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” which was firstly published in 1831, and are deeply impressed by the novel’s hero and heroine, the hunchback Quasimodo and the gypsy beauty Esmeralda.

If Paris is the Eiffel Tower then France is Notre Dame. At the scene of the fire, French President Emmanuel Macron showed deep grief and vowed an immediate fundraising drive to rebuild the immense and symbolic building. “We will rebuild this cathedral all together and it is undoubtedly part of the French destiny and the project we will have for the coming years,” he said.

Many wealthy French entrepreneurs have pledged massive donations. Francois-Henri Pinault, chairman and CEO of the Kering Group, which owns Gucci, Saint Laurent, Balenciaga and other fashion brands, took the lead to donate 100 million euros (US$113 million). Following his suit, chief executive of LVMH Bernard Arnault and Bettencourt Schueller Foundation affiliated to L’Oreal both agreed to donate 200 million euros. Giant French oil company Total and U.S.-based Apple Inc. also pledged to donate for the rebuilding efforts. It was estimated that more than 700 million euros was raised in only two days after the fire disaster.

On April 16, Chinese President Xi Jinping sent his condolences to Macron. “Chinese people feel deeply saddened by the fire, just as the French people do. I believe that with the efforts of French people and support from the international community, the cathedral will be repaired well and regain its glory,” Xi said in the letter.

It is heartbreaking to see the monumental French architecture engulfed in flames. At the same time, the Notre Dame fire is also a fresh and painful reminder of the vulnerability of cultural relics all over the world. Time and tide wait for no man. The protection and preservation of cultural heritage items also wait for no man. Given China’s ancient civilization and its large amount of cultural monuments, concerned Chinese authorities should learn a serious lesson from the French tragedy, urgently heighten their vigilance and tighten safety checks in and around those important cultural heritage items nationwide to prevent fire hazards and other damages from happening. China’s National Cultural Heritage Administration also held a meeting on the night of April 16 to discuss the Paris fire and six major fires that have taken place at various Chinese cultural sites this year.

Moreover, Western companies and tycoons have a good tradition of helping preserve cultural relics. For example, in June 2013, chairman and CEO of the Kering Group Pinault bought in an auction two 18-century bronze fountainheads — a rabbit and a rat — looted from China’s Old Summer Palace by invading British and French forces during the Second Opium War in 1860, and returned them to the Chinese Government. Like their Western counterparts, Chinese billionaires and entrepreneurs should also be encouraged to donate for the country’s culture heritage preservation and restoration fund. Such donations will not only serve as a complementation to State funding, but also help promote the image of their brands and align with good corporate social responsibility practices.

(The author is the editor-in-chief of the Shenzhen Daily with a Ph.D. from the Journalism and Communication School of Wuhan University.)