Ru­ral re­nais­sance

East China county is trial re­gion for old vil­lage re­vi­tal­iza­tion

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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.

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