Heritage, Identity and Sense of Place in Sichuan Province after the 12 May Earthquake in China

Xuejuan Zhang

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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At 14.28 on 12 May 2008, a massive earthquake measuring 8.0 on the Richter scale struck Wenchuan County in Sichuan Province. Causing widespread destruction, it was considered to be the most severe earthquake in China’s history, and indeed one of the worst in the world. Drawing on the results of an ethnographic study carried out in the disaster areas between 2009 and 2013, this research explores the impact of the earthquake on cultural heritage, popular memory, memorialisation and tourism in Sichuan.

Critically examining the complex, overlapping relationships between heritage, identity and sense of place in post-disaster Sichuan, I argue that historical sites that come to mark tragic events are not simply commemorative or historically important because a disastrous event has occurred, but that they are instead places which are continuously negotiated, constructed and reconstructed into places of meaning through on-going human action. While traditional interpretation of these sites are usually viewed as static ones, they are actually dynamic sites that both generate and are informed by official, popular and individual memory through acts of localised and non-localised place production and consumption.

By focusing on the practice of disaster tourism in post-disaster Sichuan, this study aims to contribute to the growing body of research on ‘dark’ tourism. It demonstrates the central role played in studies of cultural heritage by cultural and geographical concepts of identity and representation, highlighting the politics of heritage. It will also contribute to a growing literature on the significance of embodied practice, in this case with regard to the use and performance of tragic places. To sum up, the research explores culture, the politics of space and the relationship between consumption, memory and identity to reveal the tensions and paradoxical agendas which surround heritage tourism landscapes in a post-disaster context. The findings of this research are relevant to planners, conservationists and other public agencies involved in cultural recovery processes in Asia’s emerging economies, and they also have policy implications for the various levels of government involved.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Gilbert, David, Supervisor
  • Dodds, Klaus, Advisor
  • Minca, Claudio, Advisor
Award date1 Jan 2014
Publication statusUnpublished - 2013


  • Heritage
  • Identity
  • Sense of Place
  • Dark Tourism

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