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The Relic Hunter: One Man’s Race to Save China’s Old Cultural Landscapes

Amateur conservation Yang Fan has explored thousands of little-known historic sites in China, while trying to raise awareness for the need to protect these treasures before they disappear

“We’re here,” Yang Fan says as he parks his car next to the road. “Here” is the middle of nowhere in a bamboo grove up in the mountains of southeastern Sichuan province. The road ahead is occupied by a flock of geese.

A small path by the side of the road paved with crude stone slabs leads deeper into the lush bamboo thicket. It’s been raining for a few days and the cool, crisp smell of wet leaves is in the air, but Yang has no time to soak up the atmosphere. He rushes through a moss-covered stone gate and past a small waterfall. There are no signs, no hints of what lies ahead until Yang reaches a small shrine with smoking incense at the end of the path, signaling that he is approaching his destination: a 50-meter long crescent-shaped rock wall with 222 Buddhist statues and figurines from the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644) intricately carved into the red stone.

Yang, who calls himself an “amateur relics conservationist,” has been seeking out treasures like this for the past two decades: hidden places and traces of China’s past that he believes are more and more difficult to find. “You can see the rapid development of China over the years, the whole country seems to be changing its face, and many historical sites are disappearing too quickly,” he says.

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The Relic Hunter: One Man’s Race to Save China’s Old Cultural Landscapes is a story from our issue, “Promised Land.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.


author Roman Kierst (小罗)

Roman Kierst is a staff writer and editor at The World of Chinese based in Beijing but much more at home in Chengdu, where his own China story first began as a high school exchange student in 2006. Likes to pick up a film camera occasionally to take pictures of (mostly) old places.

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