Bringing China’s Dying Villages Back to Life
Some of China's most beautiful hamlets are threatened with extinction, but a fledgling tourist industry -- and a facelift -- may save the day.
On a bamboo-covered mountaintop, the mud-walled houses of Diaotan village are just barely visible through the thick fog that often shrouds this remote hamlet in Songyang County, in China’s southern Zhejiang Province. Worn but sturdy earthen walls still enclose the ancestral hall, or citang, the largest structure of Diaotan. Inside, a few lanterns and red couplets hang above a stone courtyard covered with moss and weeds. Xu Tiantian, an architect from Beijing who has come here to help restore old houses, marvels at the serene landscape of bamboo and five hundred year-old trees. “It’s like the taohuayuan [peach blossom garden],” she says, referring to the fourth century story that describes “the Chinese version of a Utopia hidden in the mountains.”
Despite its poetic beauty, however, Diaotan and other Songyang County hamlets, like thousands of traditional villages across China, are now threatened with extinction. Although nearly half of China’s 1.4 billion people are still classified as rural, the government has recently laid out ambitious plans to move around 250 million villagers into cities and towns by 2025, pushing the national urbanization rate towards 70 percent. In doing so, they hope to reduce entrenched rural poverty and transform the economy from its current investment-driven model to a more consumption-powered one. As villagers move to apartment housing, the logic goes, they will spend more on services and other modern conveniences like appliances and utilities. But the mass exodus of village residents to the cities would leave traditional architecture and ways of life abandoned.
To help preserve Songyang villages, the local government has invited a team of architects and professors from top-notch Chinese universities: Tsinghua University, Central Academy of Fine Arts, and the University of Hong Kong. They want to implement small-scale design interventions and renovations aimed at reviving dying villages and turning them into destinations for tourists and artists. The idea of using small-scale design interventions to effect larger transformation of Chinese villages recalls the “urban acupuncture” concept that some designers have championed as a way to spur changes in cities. In Medellin, Colombia, for example, libraries and small museums have been built in slum communities in the hope that they will revitalize formerly neglected areas. Such projects can serve as a powerful signal to residents and officials that these communities are worth investing in. “We need to expand our concept of tourism,” says Luo Deyin, a professor of architecture at Tsinghua University who is leading the overall planning for the project. “It’s not just eating and sleeping, but many activities like cultural and creative industries that can be put into these villages.”
Indeed, the planners will need to be creative to attract tourists; Songyang already faces stiff regional competition. The remote Zhejiang county is far off the well-worn tourist trail that many tourists traverse in search of “authentic” villages — the most popular of which are the water towns near Suzhou in Jiangsu province, and the Huizhou villages of southern Anhui province. Often, the very remoteness that has allowed old buildings to survive is also the obstacle that makes tourism development so difficult. In Huangkeng, a nearby hilltop enclave that has begun to attract artists because of its panoramic views, a tour bus has deposited a group of middle-aged amateur painters in the village for the afternoon. But they have no place to eat or sleep, so they will return to the city afterward. Within five years, a new high-speed rail station will make Songyang much more accessible. But local officials also want to avoid the rampant commercialization that has characterized other similar attempts in China: many towns across the country have become cluttered with vendors selling the same tacky trinkets, crowding out the local culture that they aimed to preserve in the first place. “We want to preserve the local qualities of Pingtian,” says Wang Jun, the county chief of Songyang, an energetic man in his early forties. “We want to make sure the materials used are not too foreign to the style here.”
Preserving traditional architecture presents major technical difficulties. “This is one of the most challenging projects I’ve worked on,” says Xu, Founding Principal of DnA _Design and Architecture, best known for the Songzhuang Art Museum outside Beijing. Xu, Luo, and several architecture students envision additions like glass enclosures to provide shelter for exposed earthen courtyards. Their plan calls for transforming old homes, some abandoned, into exhibition spaces and a gift shop for local crafts, and residences for artists. Part of the design strategy involves creating public areas such as a villagers’ center and library by linking small structures to create larger contiguous spaces. The new designs called for inserting more windows to bring light into structures that had been used as storehouses. But there is a delicate balance that must be struck in restoring earthen-walled, or hangtu, homes because any additions that increase the load could cause walls to collapse.
In addition to his work in Songyang, Luo is one of the experts leading a national initiative of the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development to designate historic villages, in hopes of building stronger protection for local architecture. Luo has also developed renovation plans and designs for restoring traditional structures in over a hundred villages. His work has taken him from the rice terraces of the Hani minority in Yunnan to historic Ming-dynasty garrison towns in northern Hebei province outside Beijing. In many villages, he has advised officials on how to develop tourism while maintaining the quality of traditional buildings. As of January 2015, there are 2,555 listed villages nationwide, with 50 of them in Songyang County. Luo believes that many villages in China will have no future if they fail to develop tourist infrastructure. “At this stage, tourism is the most effective and the easiest way to make an old village survive amidst rapid urbanization,” says Luo.
In many villages, however, the outmigration of residents makes it hard to imagine how they will ever recover any of their former vitality. In Diaotan, accessible only by one narrow road that winds up the mountain from the valley below, an estimated 100 people still reside there despite an official population of 400, according to a township official. Many residents don’t think their crumbling old houses are anything worth celebrating. And most of those who remain are elderly and children too young to work. “Once Professor Luo is done working here, hopefully some of our young people will choose to come back and open up small businesses,” says Wang. But large-scale relocation projects underway across much of the country undercut this aspiration. Villagers are moving to new apartments in cities and towns faster than tourism can be developed to draw them back. Just down the road from Pingtian, new apartment blocks rise up from fallow fields. And even the village restoration plans will require some families to give up their hillside homes and relocate to apartments in the valley below.
But development of the tourism still seems to the village’s best option for survival. “Tourism brings people from the outside into old villages and creates opportunities for contact between citizens and villagers,” said Luo. “Ultimately I believe this will help change the villagers’ value of cultural heritage, from wanting to destroy their old houses to wanting to protect them.”