Longing for the past


POSTED: Sunday, August 23, 2009

As China casts an eagle eye toward a lucrative global future, instituting a maelstrom of development to position itself at the ready, others with a deep appreciation of the country's culture are looking back at its past with concern.

One such person, an American photographer who documented China's architectural heritage for more than a dozen years, says the country's approach to its future could come at the cost of its centuries-old culture—and the environment. And that, she says, is too big a price to pay.

“;I see China as a very unique country with a cultural legacy that's unparalleled in the world,”; says Elizabeth Gill Lui, who hails from Colorado and made her first trek to China in 1995. “;In the 20th century, China didn't develop along the same lines as Western society, so it still maintains a wealth of culture practices that make it a world treasure today.

“;China's now on a path of rapid development and change, and we're seeing the loss of a world civilization. Preserving people's cultural heritage is a means to maintaining a strong identity, and understanding the past is a way to move responsibly into the future.”;





        » When: 4 p.m. Saturday

» Where: Doris Duke Theatre, Honolulu Academy of Arts


» Cost: Free


» Call: 532-8700




Lui's relationship with China began during an artist-in-residence stint at the Chinese University of Hong Kong's school of architecture. While there she was asked to lead groups of architecture students on tours through China during winter breaks from school. Lui took her charges through southeastern China, their objective being to “;document the vernacular of Chinese architecture in rural areas.”;

“;While I was there, I did my own body of work recording these environs,”; she says.

Lui has witnessed the region being altered dramatically by development through the years. “;Everything was destroyed and built over,”; she says.

In response the university's architecture department began compiling “;this incredible archive,”; and Lui's photography was included in the effort.

An offshoot of her photographic compilations is a beautiful hardcover book, “;Open Hearts Open Doors: Reflections on China's Past & Future,”; a combination of Lui's work and insights from scholars, artists and public servants on the relevance of preserving China's cultural legacy.

The photographer will discuss the role of architectural preservation in maintaining cultural heritage in a lecture at the Honolulu Academy of Arts on Saturday.

Lui says she's concerned that China is choosing to model the Western world in developing its country.

“;We haven't created a sustainable society, so they shouldn't be copying us. They should benefit from our mistakes,”; says Lui.

“;If they look at preserving heritage, they'll be protecting the environment as well. China's traditional philosophy speaks to a harmony with nature. Villages are still in harmony with the environment; they were built intentionally to make man a balanced part of the environment.

“;It's troubling that they're not embracing their own philosophical past. They've lived for thousands of years in this style successfully.”;

Lui says taking cues from the past doesn't mean living in the dark ages.

“;There are benefits to modernity and technology. They make survival so much more comfortable, and the Chinese people deserve that, too. But they could preserve their culture and be sustainable as well.”;

The photographer's concerns about China extend to the rest of the globe. She says the United States' approach to modern life has “;our culture suffering from nature deficit disorder. There is an alienation that results from modern culture. We contend with spiritual and moral problems.

“;I'm not nostalgic about the past,”; she continues. “;It's just that that respect enriches our understanding of where we came from and allows us to draw on that wisdom to live fuller lives today.

“;We need to wake up and pay attention. Thirty years ago we already knew about global warming ... (yet) there's been an inertia of change. There needs to be monumental change now if we want to continue our existence on this planet.”;