East China county is trial region for old village revitalization
Songyang does not even have a taxi. Located in Lishui, Zhejiang province, the county of 240,000 population is an exception in East China.
Thanks to its well-preserved old villages, its people call their hometown the best kept secret in “Jiangnan”, a term used to describe the south of Yangtze River, one of China’s most developed regions.
Youtian village in the county has 312 registered residents. Its few cabins with yellow earthen walls and black tiles point to its centuries-old history. Today, about 10 structures in the village that have withstood the vicissitudes of nature for some 500 years remain.
“Traditional landscape cannot be allowed to be destroyed by urban lifestyles,” Ye Lianhan, head of the village committee, explains.
“There are newhouses amid the surrounding old ones, but we have reconstructed their roofs and repainted their walls to make them blend in.”
Once upon a time, Ye and other villagers were faced with the dilemma of how to deal with the crumbling of many old houses.
“We feel terrible to see the old houses collapse,” he says. “They belong to our ancestors, so we wanted to ensure that they don’t become ruins.”
But, the villagers did not have enough money to renovate. And, local cultural authorities were reluctant to finance the restoration of privately-owned property.
Fortunately, a trial project was launched in 2015 to save the houses before they fell apart.
The China Foundation for Cultural Heritage Conservation, a Beijing-based public fund, offered an option to the villagers to renew their homes.
“We were provided with half the money we needed to restore the houses, and the rest we managed ourselves,” says Ye.
“The villagers decided how to use their houses in the future, and the renovation plans were adjusted accordingly,” he says.
Fifty villages in Songyang, including Youtian, are now on a national list of “traditional Chinese villages”. This puts it at the top of county-level administrative regions in East China, and there are still dozens of similar villages that have not made the list yet.
Meanwhile, the foundation plans to spend 40 million yuan ($5.8 million) in Songyang on renovation of more houses in the area.
The county has also set up a special administrative office to supervise the use of funds. More than 1,000 houses in 80 villages are to benefit from the money.
But despite the efforts being made, the foundation wants to be sure that the money is spent wisely.
“Sometimes, when too much money is spent by the government on restoration, the result is often not ideal and does not cater to the villagers’ needs,” Li Xiaojie, chairman of the foundation, says.
“So, those who use the houses should have more say. It’s equally important to let villagers live comfortably after the restoration.”
He also says that villagers could take things for granted if the government repeatedly takes the initiative to repair the old houses.
As a result, the villagers now have to apply for the fund, rather than being bestowed with largesse to restore their houses.
Under the current project, there are now 105 applicants, and renovations have begun in 42 houses.
“We would like themoney to become a tool to mobilize more social effort,” says Li. “It is a move to seek the greatest common dividend for all concerned.”
Though the project emphasizes the future functions of the houses, standards of maintaining cultural heritage sites should still be followed, says Lu Yuanzheng, deputy director of the Zhejiang Provincial Institute of Ancient Architectural Design and Research, which is participating in the restoration.
“It (the project) is like repairing the Forbidden City in Beijing,” he says. “When things can be fixed, they will not be replaced.
“And, we cannot combine different architectural styles in the restoration, so we rely on local artisans. That is a good chance to revitalize traditional craftsmanship.”
But, he admits that challenges remain. For instance, he says, if a house is co-owned by different families, the owners often have different views on how the house should be revamped.
“That is why we need a system to work out how much money is needed for each restoration.
“A customized plan is needed for each case, but certain technical standards have to be set for general guidance.”
Songyang is currently listed by the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development and the State Administration of Cultural Heritage as the country’s only trial region for the revitalization of traditional villages.
Separately, creative thinking is being used in the renovation process.
In Youtian, for example, an abandoned cowshed, which used to be co-owned by 14 families, was taken over by the village committee after paying 3,500 yuan ($506) to each family. And it was turned into a countryside inn after restoration.
“If it runs well, more villagers will see benefits of restoration,” says Ye. “And more houses will be saved.”
According to Lei Chao, deputy head of the county government in Songyang, about 20 million yuan is now being allocated annually by the local government for the revitalization of traditional villages, and subsidies are also provided to villagers running home inns, at up to 120 yuan per square meter.
But restoring the houses is only one piece of the puzzle for some.
“It’s easier to restore houses compared with rejuvenation of traditional lifestyles in the Chinese countryside,” Lei says.
“The resumption of ecofriendly agriculture and traditional folk art cannot be absent.”
An ideal rural community should include its original residents returning from cities and finding work opportunities at home, and urban folk looking for serenity, he adds.
They belong to our ancestors, so we wanted to ensure that they don’t become ruins.” Ye Lianhan, head, Youtian village committee
Top: Youtian village in Lishui, Zhejiang province, has a history of more than 500 years and is now on the national list of “traditional Chinese villages”. Above left: An abandoned cowshed in Youtian has been restored and turned into a countryside inn. Above right: Villagers dry newly harvested sweet potatoes under the sun.