Prof.AOKI Nobuo: Cultural Heritage Conservation Knows No Borders


Editor’s Notes: AOKI Nobuo has been a distinguished professor at Tianjin University’s School of Architecture since 2006. He established the International Research Center for Chinese Cultural Heritage Conservation of Tianjin University and serves as the center director. After graduating from the University of Tokyo with a Ph.D in architecture, Prof. AOKI has successively served as a visiting scholar of Tsinghua University (1996-1997), assistant professor at the Department of Environmental Information of Keio University, research fellow of the SFC Research Institute (1997-2002), research fellow at the Institute of Industrial Science, The University of Tokyo (2007-2010), and adjunct professor of the School of Architecture at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, etc. Prof. AOKI Nobuo won the Chinese Government Friendship Award in 2019 for his efforts in Chinese Cultural Heritage Conservation.

It has been 15 years since AOKI Nobuo began his career at Tianjin University’s School of Architecture in 2006. He is the one and only foreign expert who has been dedicated to cultural heritage conservation in China for such a long time. In 2019, he won the Chinese Government Friendship Award, the highest award established by the Chinese government to commend foreign experts who have made outstanding contributions to China's modernization and reform and opening up.

“This (award) is the biggest reward to my 13 years’ work in cultural heritage conservation and reflects the Chinese government’s regard in this respect. I am greatly honored and feel happy from the bottom of my heart.” said AOKI Nobuo.

AOKI Nobuo from Japan, graduated from the University of Tokyo. He visited China in 1986 for the first time and served as a visiting scholar at Tsinghua University in 1996. He has a great passion for Chinese history and culture, and the book Romance of Three Kingdoms has been one of his favorites in his school days. His love for Chinese culture sets the stage for his career in cultural heritage conservation and his resolution and pursuit of perfection leads him to put his heart and soul into the cause.

Dedicated Guardian of Cultural Heritage

Speaking of cultural heritage, what exactly is it? A pile of dilapidated walls? Or a decrepit shipyard? In many people’s eyes, these “old things” are not worth mentioning, as they consider that, with time passing by, it is more meaningful to redevelop them for business rather than to keep traces of the past.

However, as the old saying goes, deep resource propels a river to run endlessly; deep roots can nourish luxuriant trees. For Prof. AOKI, “Cultural heritage is the witness of history, the symbol of civilization, and our shared spiritual home”. He has been committed to protecting China’s cultural heritage for a long time. Preserving as much cultural heritage as possible became his belief from the moment he set foot on China, and has been the theme of his life abroad for more than a decade. He has jointly presided over the protection plans of Maijishan Grottoes, a world cultural heritage site, and Zhangye Giant Buddha Temple, a national key cultural relic protection unit. These relics are important sites in China that constitute the Silk Road world cultural heritage.

What Prof. AOKI mentioned most, though, was the story about how he helped to preserve the Dagu Dockyard, an industrial heritage site in Tianjin.

“It represents the sharp contradiction between development and cultural heritage protection in China’s urbanization process. As similar conflicts are inevitable, it is necessary to find a constantly improving solution that seeks the balance of values. Now that Japan has both experience and lessons in this aspect, I hope to provide reference for China.”

As one of the most ancient industrial heritage relics in China, Peiyang Navy Dagu Dockyard is the first modern shipyard in northern China. However, in 2008, it was once in danger of demolition as a central avenue had been designed to run it through during the construction of Tianjin Binhai New Area.

By the time Prof. AOKI Nobuo learnt about the plan by chance, it had been approved by relevant institution and awaited the approval of cultural heritage experts.

After exhaustive investigation, Prof. AOKI judged that the construction plan would destroy the site. "As a building born in the Self-Strengthening Movement, Dagu Dockyard has witnessed the Chinese history of taking the independent industrialization road. It deserves comprehensive protection".

AOKI Nobuo started his efforts to save the Dagu Dockyard. Things took a turn for the better at a forum on the architectural heritage of the 20th century, where Nobuo AOKI and his wife Xu Subin, also an expert in this field, gave a report about Dagu Dockyard, arousing the concern of most experts present. Shan Jixiang, then director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, threw his weight behind it and proposed that Dagu Dockyard apply for World Heritage together with Fujian Mawei Shipyard and Shanghai Jiangnan Shipyard.

Prof. AOKI was greatly inspired and soon drafted a proposal appealing for the protection of Dagu shipyard. The proposal with the signature of many experts was transferred by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage to Tianjin Municipality government who quickly made the decision that the construction could not begin without the approval of the cultural relics department.

The head of the local cultural relics department also supported Nobuo AOKI, "Seeing a foreigner’s great efforts to protect Dagu Shipyard, shouldn’t we do more?” With the joint efforts of many parties, the site was preserved and then designated as a national key cultural relics protection unit in 2013. Professor AOKI calls for continuous public concern about this site whose protection still faces a great deal of problems.

“The protection of heritage has a long way to go. It is well recognized that ancient buildings like the Forbidden City should be protected, but for relatively new types of heritage like industrial heritage, it takes some time for the idea to settle in. We hope that the media and the public join hands in promoting the recognition of the need to better protect different types of cultural heritage and pass them on to future generations,” Professor AOKI said.

Mr. Wonderful in the eyes of his students

Professor AOKI is strict with students and even with himself. “To teach students how to solve problems in a major featuring none fixed teaching materials and to cope with its changing development, I must go to great lengths to study more."

In 2008, Tianjin University formally established the International Research Center for Chinese Cultural Heritage Conservation, and Prof. AOKI was appointed as the director. Integrating scientific research, teaching and think tanks, the center has conducted multiple international exchanges with institutions and universities like the University of Tokyo, Politecnico di Milano, National University of Singapore and UNESCO.

As an international and interdisciplinary high-level research institution, the center has trained batches of first-class talents in the discipline of cultural heritage protection.

Prof. AOKI attached great importance to course construction. He was in charge of several cultural heritage protection courses such as Asian Cultural Heritage Protection, Cultural Heritage Protection Methodology, and World Cultural Heritage and Related Case Studies. To enrich the teaching content, Prof. AOKI initiated the China Cultural Heritage Protection Tianjin Forum- Experts Forum and invited renowned experts at home and abroad to deliver lectures.

"Overseas experts are very concerned about China's cultural heritage protection, which constitutes both local and international issues," Prof. AOKI noted. He entertains many ideas about future development, such as building an international cooperation platform for the training of heritage protection experts and implementing the academic concepts of "authenticity" and "integrity" according to the world standard of heritage protection...

"What is exceedingly significant is to cultivate talents who can truly take on the work of cultural heritage conservation. Traditional education system can no longer keep up with the times. So an interdisciplinary and international comprehensive education system is a must. Tianjin University is well aware of the fact and has already been practicing an education system combining theory with practice, which gets improved every year."

Professor AOKI is conscientious. He hosts every regular meeting with students in person and commented each student's paper carefully. He believes that slack in teaching would fail to nurture outstanding students. Hard work pays off. Prof. AOKI is the Mr. Wonderful in students’ eyes and their appreciation in turn inspires AOKI to devote more to the teaching work.

"Only when we invest great amounts of time in our business can we score success." On the road of cultural heritage conservation, Professor AOKI wants to do more.

By Chen Nannan & LI Min

Editor: Eva Yin