Du Baofu knows there's an abandoned temple in his village, but never really paid it any attention.
The 200 residents of the village, surrounded by miles of cornfields, only use the temple during Spring Festival, when they burn incense to the gods. The statues in the temple, some beheaded, some armless, rarely drawn their attention.
Recently, Du saw a figure going in and out of the temple, sometimes alone, sometimes with company, with a camera and note pad.
That person is Tang Dahua, a self-proclaimed "relics enthusiast." He uses social media outlets to share his photos and descriptions of relics. Tang has also organized relic sightseeing trips for the media and Weibo celebrities to, in his words, "pressure the government into taking action."
But his actions have drawn criticism. Xin Yi, another relics enthusiast who also travels around the Shanxi countryside, believes that Tang's actions hurt, rather than protect, the historical sites.
"When we enthusiasts find a tombstone covered with grass, for example, the common consensus is to leave it be, not to take a photo and post it online," she said.
As awareness of the importance of protecting cultural heritage sites grows in China, some people have started to voluntarily repair historical sites, or share information about dilapidated sites on social media. But experts warn that even though the public's participation should be encouraged, they must follow the law and proper procedures.
Making the old new
Many of China's historical relics, such as ancient wooden buildings, temples and statues were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Many were turned into storage spaces, schools or even sheep pens.
But in recent years there have been several cases of residents near historical sites raising money in order to repair and preserve their local relics. However, there are many cases where people have attempted to protect relics and ended up damaging the artifacts instead.
The Guangzhou Daily has reported that many ancestral temples in Guangdong Province were repaired by locals without any outside help. At Dajiang and Dazhen villages, near the city of Foshan, Guangzhou Daily reporters saw that the Ming Dynasty temples had had a makeover, with cement floors laid, newly painted doors and iron gates installed. It's now hard to tell that the temples were from the Ming Dynasty, the article said.
Deng Guangmin, the director of the relics department at the Foshan Cultural Relics Bureau, told the Guangzhou Daily that there are certain principles that need to be kept in mind when repairing relics.
"We need to follow the principle of 'minimum intervention,' we cannot alter the structure of a building, or the materials and construction techniques used when we renovate a historical site," he said.
To protect or destroy
Many of the sites Tang visits are unoccupied. At a village in Jinzhong, grass grows on the rooftops of the temples, and villagers have used the side hall to store coffin boards. The gate to the temple was sealed in a landslide and villagers dug it open. Children duck in and out, playing hide-and-seek.
Tang remembers the Taoist temple for the Jade Emperor, located in Bucun village outside the Shanxi city of Changzhi. He has been there about 10 times, checking on its status. It was totally abandoned, the gate was blocked, and a few times he had to climb over the wall in order to get in.
He has repeatedly called for its protection on his social media accounts. And he's happy to see that the temple is now being restored by the government.
Xin pointed out that what Tang posted online might provide an opportunity for unscrupulous relic dealers to pilfer some ancient artifacts. She said communicating with the local relics bureau is a better way to raise the profile of the relics Tang finds.
In Tang's defense, he is honestly trying to prompt the government to register relics and to repair those that have already been registered.
"It's no use telling the government," Tang said. "They already know. We need to exert pressure on them."
But Xin thinks that exerting pressure on the government will result in actions that don't follow normal repair procedures. The government, under pressure from public opinion, might erect a few sheds to cover up the relics, but that won't amount to a great deal of protection and might actually damage the relics.
China has just completed its third national survey of cultural relics, Tan said. These surveys are conducted every few years and are the most straightforward way that local relics bureaus can register and classify historical sites and relics into different official protection levels.
After the census, relic bureaus on the national or local levels inspect the registered historical sites and go through a process of repair, Tan said. The bureaus recruit companies with the appropriate qualifications that possess the necessary expertise to repair relics, who then inspect the relics and make detailed repair plans before actually beginning repairs. The processes generally takes a few years.
"Citizens can submit applications according to the law if they disagree with the classification of a registered relic," she said. She also encourages the public to report any relic in need of repair to their local relics bureau, or donate money to the bureau to help their work, according to established legal procedures.
Ideally, all repairs would be coordinated through the local government which would ensure that any work was done competently; but, in reality, some authorities are not preserving historical sites for a variety of reasons.
In 2006, Shanxi's provincial government launched a project to protect and preserve wooden buildings that date back before the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) in the southern part of the province. At the moment, there are a total of 226 wooden buildings that have the highest level of official protection in China - 105 of them are in the south of Shanxi.
Xu Gaozhe, the director of the policy and regulation office at the Shanxi Cultural Relics Bureau, told the Global Times that the amount of money spent on preserving relics increases every year. In 2011 Shanxi spent 33 million yuan ($5,39 million) on its historical sites, but in 2012 and 2013 the expenditure totaled 120 million yuan. The national bureau has also spent 530 million yuan in Shanxi over the last two years.
But this only works out to around 20,000 yuan for each of Shanxi's 28,000 registered relics.
"What can you do with 20,000 yuan? Almost nothing." Xu said.
Another issue is that there is a lack of expertise in the field of repairing ancient architecture in China, Xu said. Only qualified workers can do this kind of repair work, but fewer and fewer people are entering that field.
Considering the government's struggle to take good care of China's tangible historical heritage, recruiting the public to help might be a solution to this problem. There are several examples that show how combining the efforts of locals and the authorities can lead to the successful preservation of irreplaceable relics.
Xu Yitao, a professor at Peking University's archaeology department, told the Global Times that there have been cases of groups successfully gaining governmental recognition of their local relics and pushing for effective repairs using official channels.
At the beginning of 2013, two courtyard houses in Lingjing Hutong, Beijing's Xicheng district, were set to make room for new developments. In order to prove these were important historical sites, Cui Jinze, Xu's student, researched the history of these houses and found that they once belonged to the last Qing emperor's tutor.
In March 2013, he sent his report on the houses and an application for their registration as cultural relics to the relics bureau in Xicheng district, and after a wait of one year the courtyard houses were registered as important historical sites and accorded the protection they deserve.
The Hangzhou Cultural Relics Bureau in East China's Zhejiang Province is reaching out to cooperate with the public. It has an office that educates volunteers on protection law and procedures so the volunteers in turn can report information on the relics when the government workers aren't able to.
But such campaigns require enormous enthusiasm and professional skills. Even though there are some successful examples of the public petitioning the government to carry out their duties, there are many heartbreaking examples of China's unique heritage being lost forever.
Bai Wanmei, a woman who lives next to a Buddhist temple in Shanxi's Yangqu township, said she married into a local family in the 1970s and has lived in the area ever since.
Over her 40 years in the township, she had seen residents slowly pick the temple apart - taking statues, bricks from the walls, or pieces of wood.
She doesn't think the government has the energy to protect every temple in Shanxi. There are many cases where temples are hidden inside small villages with only 200 residents. Her hope is that young people to start turning to religion, and this might lead to people paying attention to these sites.
"The temple might be gone, but the gods are not," she said.