Pro­fes­sor pri­or­i­tizes pro­tect­ing old houses Re­tiree’s ef­forts have con­vinced vil­lagers they can im­prove liv­ing stan­dards with­out de­mo­li­tion, new build­ings

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CHINA - By HOU LIQIANG and LI YINGQING in Kun­ming

Zhu Liang­wen, a white­haired re­tired ar­chi­tec­ture pro­fes­sor from Kun­ming Uni­ver­sity of Science and Tech­nol­ogy, is in a race against time to pro­tect tra­di­tional houses in Yun­nan prov­ince.

His ef­forts to pro­tect Yun­nan’s Li­jiang old town started 16 years be­fore it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

Af­ter a mag­ni­tude-7 earth­quake rocked the town in 1996, Zhu’s dis­tri­bu­tion of hand­books il­lus­trat­ing con­struc­tion styles and fea­tures of lo­cal tra­di­tional houses proved to be ef­fec­tive in sav­ing the build­ings from be­ing dam­aged in the post-dis­as­ter re­con­struc­tion.

Yuanyang county in­vited the 79-year-old to help pro­tect the tra­di­tional mush­roomshaped houses of the Hani eth­nic group. Zhu ac­cepted the in­vi­ta­tion, but the task be­came ex­tremely com­plex.

Zhu started his work in Yuanyang in early 2013 when the lo­cal gov­ern­ment was at­tempt­ing to have the county’s Land­scape of Honghe Hani Rice Ter­races listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The gov­ern­ment even went to Laos to buy the twitch grass re­quired for the ren­o­va­tion of the houses, he said.

How­ever, the sit­u­a­tion changed in June that year when the lo­cal gov­ern­ment’s ap­pli­ca­tion for funds, as part of a na­tion­wide cam­paign to con­struct “beau­ti­ful vil­lages”, was suc­cess­ful.

The Yuan­jiang gov­ern­ment of­fered 30,000 yuan ($4,400) to fam­i­lies that built new houses. Af­ter just a few months, many of the tra­di­tional houses in the county’s 82 vil- lages had been de­mol­ished to make way for new houses.

“I was as­ton­ished, and told the county lead­ers I was only con­fi­dent of pro­tect­ing the tra­di­tional houses in two of the vil­lages,” Zhu said.

One of the vil­lages Zhu chose was Azheke, where 80 per­cent of the tra­di­tional houses re­mained due to lim­ited ac­cess to the out­side world.

Vil­lagers had been press­ing the gov­ern­ment for fund­ing to build new houses, so Zhu had to take ur­gent ac­tion to ren­o­vate the tra­di­tional houses, he said.

Zhu had it writ­ten into the con­tract he signed with the lo­cal gov­ern­ment that his team should ac­com­pany all pro­cesses from plan­ning to con­struc­tion. “Only in this way could I make sure the houses would be well pro­tected,” he said.

It took Zhu six hours by car to travel from his home in Kun­ming to the vil­lage, and an­other 20 min­utes to drive along an un­paved road be­fore ar­riv­ing. How­ever, Zhu has in­sisted on go­ing there at least once a month.

The county head se­cured him a tra­di­tional house that Zhu could use for three years to ren­o­vate as a demon­stra­tion. With no gov­ern­ment sup­port, he in­vested 250,000 yuan of his own sav­ings in trans­form­ing the house.

To pre­vent dam­age to the ex­te­rior, he chose to dig down in­side and around the house to raise the height of the first floor, trans­form­ing it into a bar

He also set up four rooms on the sec­ond floor and a loft.

“I am not do­ing this for money. If I make any money from the house, I will give all of it to the vil­lage,” he said.

The demon­stra­tion proved to be suc­cess­ful. “Many lo­cals came to wit­ness the ren­o­va­tion work tak­ing place and were con­vinced that they could also im­prove their liv­ing con­di­tions with­out de­mol­ish­ing the old houses,” he said.

How­ever, Zhu has been left frus­trated by the vil­lage head, who car­ried out con­struc­tion work but failed to fol­low his plan­ning.

“They think they have bet­ter plans for the vil­lage and do things that go against my plan­ning when I am ab­sent,” Zhu said, adding that he of­ten ar­gues with vil­lage lead­ers, but it gets him nowhere.

In Azheke, the vil­lage lead­ers de­mol­ished a small house used for sac­ri­fice to gods and an­ces­tors, which was the last one of its kind in the area, ig­nor­ing Zhu’s sug­ges­tion to pre­serve it. They also painted power trans­mis­sion poles around the vil­lage green in a color that is not har­mo­nious with the sur­round­ings.

Zhu said he once thought about giv­ing up, but even­tu­ally de­cided to con­tinue his mis­sion. “If what I do can be used as a guide­line for the pro­tec­tion of tra­di­tional res­i­den­tial houses, in terms of aca­demic re­search, I . have reached my goal,” he said. “And if I fail, it proves that my method is not prac­ti­cal and other meth­ods must be dis­cov­ered.”

Con­tact the writ­ers at houliqiang@ chi­


Zhu Liang­wen (fifth from left) dis­cusses the Azheke ren­o­va­tion project at the vil­lage in Yuanyang county, Yun­nan prov­ince, with lo­cal of­fi­cials and vil­lage lead­ers.


Zhu su­per­vises the con­struc­tion of a lane at a vil­lage in Yuanyang county.


Zhu at work in Azheke vil­lage.

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