China: Ancient villages, cultures reported being lost

The village of Jiazhao in northern China’s Shanxi Province, surrounded by cement and gas plants due to its close location to Taiyuan, the capital, suffers constant, severe air pollution. The village is known for its exquisite brick carving, which is one of the intangible culture heritages in China.

By Lu Feiran/Shanghai

THE beauty of ancient Chinese villages, as well as the cultural and natural heritages they left, is fading in the face of modernization, according to a field-trip research that spent the past seven months exploring around the country.

The 13-people team was led by three men — designer Liu Fanggang, traditional Chinese painting artist Sun Jinlong and Chen Yu, president of Modocom Group. They visited 91 villages, stretching from Heilongjiang Province in the northeast to Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in the west and Hainan Island in the south.

“We had expected to focus on the relationship of nature and villagers in the countryside, including the architecture, lifestyle and folklore,” says Sun. “But we were heartbroken to find that many of the villages have disappeared or are in the process of disappearing.”

Some villages are almost vacant as all the young people have left to work in big cities. Yanwo Shanzhuang in Anhui Province is a typical case. The nearly 600-year-old village on the top of a mountain has only 11 residents left. Except for a primary school student and a junior high school student, all the villagers are middle-aged or seniors.

“There used to be about 100 people in the village,” says Chen. “The villagers built the stairways from the bottom of the mountain to the top by themselves, and grew tea trees for a living.”

The village has 34 typical ancient Huizhou-style buildings, but most lack maintenance and aren’t needed anymore. Chen says many families moved out for the sake of their children’s education.

“Originally there was a school in the village,” says Chen. “But in 2000, the school was merged with another one down the mountain, so students had to climb the mountain every day.”

Chen says the village actually had very high potential as a tourist destination because of the Huizhou-style architecture, but due to its remote location, no developers are willing to invest.

Meanwhile, other villages have disappeared because of urbanization. When the team reached the village of Lulei in Fuzhou, Fujian Province, they found the 730-year-old place had been almost completely demolished to make way for the new Fuzhou Rail Station.

Valuable ancestral hall

The village is the hometown of Chen Jingrun (1933-96), a mathematician who made significant contributions to number theory. But like most of the buildings, the former residence of Chen was bulldozed into debris.

The research team noted that the only valuable construction left in the village is the ancestral hall of Chen’s family, which is as old as the village itself. More than 1,000 memorial tablets of the family’s ancestors are placed in the hall.

Locals told the team that earlier last year, the entire village, including the hall, was sold to a developer by the government, arousing wide controversy. Eventually the government compromised and started a new master plan for the village.

The team found in some places that even though some villages remain, the living environment of the residents is threatened. For instance, the village of Jiazhao in northern China’s Shanxi Province is close to Taiyuan, the capital. Surrounded by cement and gas plants, the village suffers constant, severe air pollution.

“The village actually is very beautiful because of its brick carving, which is one of the intangible culture heritages in the country,” says artist Sun. “All the housing has delicate brick carving as decoration, but the natural environment is not good enough.”

The villagers told the team that maybe in three to five years, the village will be moved.

Yinjiao, another village in Shanxi, also greatly impressed the research team. It lies deep in the mountains near Taiyuan. The more than 300-year-old village is surrounded by forest and has retained its original appearance and landforms. When the village was first built, residents relied on the silver mine nearby, and that’s why it was named Yinjiao, literally meaning “silver angle.”

The village has Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) architecture, including a temple for Avalokitesvara Buddha, with a detailed fresco painted with natural mineral pigments.

“The villagers told us that Yinjiao is the only completely preserved village around,” says Chen. “There had been more beautiful villages nearby in the mountains, but they disappeared due to all kinds of reasons and the artistic architecture didn’t survive, either.”

Team members say they expected that through the journey, they could attract developers, designers and government officials to plan for restoration.

In 2013, Feng Jicai, president of the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles, said on a forum that every day nearly 100 villages in China disappear.

“Ancient, traditional villages contain the legacy of Chinese agriculture civilization,” he said. “But with the development of the society, the primitiveness of the villages as well as the culture attached to it is collapsing rapidly, and it is calling for our protection.”

Liu Wei, vice chairman of the China Institute of Interior Design, has been devoted to preserving ancient towns and villages in the countryside for years. He says the best way to protect the countryside is to return to its original style and features.

But developers and regional governments, which have strong economic incentives to build, sometimes are doing the opposite.

“I think we should learn from the locals, history and lands with a humble mind,” Liu says. “From my experience, villagers have strong awareness of protection of the old cultures and buildings.”

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