Case Studies

Posted: 26 August 2020

Documenting historic temples and wall paintings in Shanxi, China

  • Programme:

    Preserving endangered culture

  • Focus:

    Heritage Sites

  • Grantee:

    University College London - Institute of Archaeology

  • Project:

    Shanxi Digital Documentation Project

  • Grant awarded:


  • Years:

    2018 - 2023

Shanxi Province in north-west China is home to some of the country’s richest architectural heritage. The wooden and earthen temples represent two millennia of cultural development. Many of these buildings contain wall paintings which are endangered due to neglect, encroachment and looting, and most are unrecorded.

The Shanxi Digital Documentation of Endangered Temple Wall Paintings Project (SDDP) will record the region’s historic temples, which are scattered in remote villages across an area of 156,000 km2 – larger than England and Wales combined. So far, the team have mapped 89 temples based on their vulnerability and historical significance. The project is a partnership between University College London’s Institute of Archaeology and Zhejiang University. The Shanxi Provincial Bureau of Cultural Heritage (SBCH) and an international advisory board guide the survey and research.

The SDDP uses high-resolution multi-spectral imagery technology to document the structures and wall paintings. These paintings illustrate stories from Chinese folk beliefs, Buddhism and Taoism, and reflect the syncretic qualities of regional religious practice. The project will contribute to the understanding of how these three belief systems have influenced each other.

The project will create a digital archive of the paintings and associated architecture. This database will be freely available in Chinese and English. The project will also produce high-resolution 3D data for virtual reality models of temples, allowing it to engage with different audiences from schoolchildren to conservation professionals.

In addition to creating a free and permanent public record of the Shanxi temples, the SDDP will help to train local expert teams to improve the continuing recording and management of endangered heritage within China, push the boundaries of research practice, and enhance digital recording technologies and methodologies for future research and conservation.

© All images courtesy of the SDDP team

Project examples

Yang Family Ancestral Hall, Dai county

This shrine dedicated to the ancestors of the generals of the Yang family is a provincial protected historic building complex in Lutijian village, Dai county. According to the steles in the Hall, it was built in 1329 and repaired several times from the Ming dynasty to the Qing dynasty.

This painting along with the one on the other side of the entrance are thought to be portraits of two of the seven brothers of the Yang family. It is a restored version of a style of painting typical of the region.

Temple of King Wuling of Zhao in Daixian County

The project’s photogrammetric recording not only captures high resolution images of the paintings, but also digital surface models of the walls on which they are found. These models help to assess the condition of the wall painting, displaying features like cracks, holes and peeling layers of paint, which are often invisible to the naked eye. For example, this is the main mural in the Temple of King Wuling of Zhao in Daixian County. The bare wall surface model (top) shows irregularities that allow professionals to better assess its condition, while the textured model (bottom) overlays that surface with extremely high-resolution colour imagery.

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