Draw­ing aware­ness

Man doc­u­ments dis­ap­pear­ing an­cient ar­chi­tec­ture in Shanxi through 1,000 ink sketches

Global Times - Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - By Zhang Yu

Com­pared with photos, the ink sketches made by Lian Da have a dis­tinct beauty. When the old build­ings are sep­a­rated from their modern sur­round­ings and il­lus­trated with clean lines and in­tri­cate de­tails, one is able to bet­ter revel in the at­mos­phere of his­tory.

Lian, aged 40, has drawn over 1,000 on-site sketches of an­cient ar­chi­tec­ture in Shanxi Province. But no one who has seen his sketches would ex­pect that the artist is a mere am­a­teur who spends his days run­ning an in­te­rior de­sign shop with his wife in Dalian, North­east China’s Liaon­ing Province, over 1,000 kilo­me­ters away.

Brav­ing muddy vil­lage roads and poor liv­ing con­di­tions, Lian vis­its ru­ral Shanxi twice a year so that he can search for the province’s an­cient ar­chi­tec­tural trea­sures be­fore they are lost for­ever to loot­ing and devel­op­ment, a pas­sion he has pur­sued for 19 years.

Hid­den gems

Shanxi Province is con­sid­ered “the mu­seum of an­cient Chi­nese ar­chi­tec­ture.” Ac­cord­ing to me­dia, the province pre­serves more than 70 per­cent of old wooden-struc­ture build­ings of China con­structed dur­ing or be­fore the Yuan Dy­nasty (1271-1368), and older build­ings like the Foguang Temple, built in 857, and the Nan­chan Temple, built in 782.

Lian’s pas­sion for an­cient build­ings started in 1999 dur­ing a trip to the province. He was cap­ti­vated by th­ese grand build­ings, but not con­tent with tak­ing photos, he be­gan to sketch them on site us­ing sim­ple ink pens.

In the be­gin­ning, he stayed in Shanxi for 10 days, draw­ing one to two sketches daily.

In 2007, Lian found that many fa­mous an­cient build­ings, such as the Jin Temple, had been well pre­served and pro­tected. But the lesser-known and smaller tem­ples in nearby vil­lages were left to rot away, scav­enged by trea­sure hunters or bull­dozed by de­vel­op­ers. He started to fo­cus on th­ese hid­den gems be­fore they dis­ap­pear.

“Ev­ery time I visit, there are sur­prise find­ings. An old ware­house might be a piece of ar­chi­tec­ture from the Ming Dy­nasty, or a va­cant res­i­den­tial house might be from the Yuan Dy­nasty,” said Lian. But dis­ap­point­ments dis­ap­point­men are also fre­quent. Shanxi’s Shanxi’ ar­chi­tec­tural trea­sures trea­sure are se­verely plagued by loot­ing, theft and lack of con­ser­va­tion, all al due to poor gov­ern­ment gover su­per­vi­sion vi­sio and weak law en­force­ment. Lian can­not re re­mem­ber how m many times he se searched for an old build- ing only to find that it had been looted or dis­man­tled. In some places, stone pedestals to wooden col­umns had been stolen; with­out proper sup­port the struc­ture will even­tu­ally col­lapse. The or­na­ments and tiles on some old roofs are also of­ten miss­ing, which ex­poses the wooden beams to rain and cor­ro­sion.

Some an­cient build­ings have been pur­posely de­stroyed by the lo­cal gov­ern­ment in the name of “pro­tec­tion” due to their lack of con­ser­va­tion aware­ness. Wooden tem­ples, for ex­am­ple, are re­built with ce­ment, and thou­sand-year­sold col­umns and walls with in­scrip­tions and art­work are cov­ered over with gar­ish red paint.

“They look like fake relics from a movie set. The cul­tural value and his­tor­i­cal mes­sage in th­ese build­ings have been per­ma­nently ru­ined,” he said.

What’s more heart­break­ing for Lian is the ig­no­rant at­ti­tude of the lo­cal peo­ple to­ward th­ese trea­sures. Lian said that many vil­lagers liv­ing in old build­ings are em­bar­rassed by their an­tique homes. Some tell Lian to visit again af­ter they have saved up enough money to re­build a new brick house, which they do not un­der­stand is com­pletely con­trary to what he is look­ing for.

Fame and help­less­ness

Over the years, Lian has built up a fol­low­ing on so­cial me­dia and has pub­lished three books fea­tur­ing his sketches and notes about old build­ings.

His lat­est book, Dis­cov­er­ing An­cient Tem­ples in Shanxi, was given a fa­vor­able re­view by lovers of an­cient ar­chi­tec­ture. He has also been in­vited by uni­ver­si­ties to share his ex­pe­ri­ences and ideas on relics con­ser­va­tion.

How­ever, as he ac­quires fame, Lian also feels a sense of help­less­ness. Last month, while do­ing on-site sketches in Yux­ian county, Lian en­coun­tered two tem­ples dat­ing back to the Yuan dy­nasty, both in bad re­pair and on the verge of col­laps­ing.

He later found that the tem­ples were al­ready rec­og­nized as his­tor­i­cal and cul­tural sites at the lo­cal level, but ap­par­ently, noth­ing had ever been done for their con­ser­va­tion. Such find­ings of­ten put Lian in a per­sonal dilemma. While there are many things he can do to po­ten­tially pro­tect them, none seem to be the per­fect choice.

He could con­tact the lo­cal gov­ern­ment, but past ex­pe­ri­ences show that they will most likely be un­re­spon­sive. He could con­tact grass-roots con­ser­va­tion groups or NGOs, but in recent years the rep­u­ta­tion of th­ese or­ga­ni­za­tions has been tainted af­ter some were found steal­ing the relics. He could post pic­tures of the temple on his so­cial me­dia sites and call for so­cial aware­ness, but that would court at­ten­tion from thieves.

“For many years I have been de­bat­ing with my­self what I can do for th­ese ar­chi­tec­tural gems. In the end, I have come to ac­cept the fact that the best role I can play is to be a mere recorder,” he told the Global Times.

His next step is to visit sites in the north of the province. For the two tem­ples, he de­cided that less pub­lic­ity is prob­a­bly the best. Although there is lit­tle he can do for their ac­tual con­ser­va­tion, Lian said he will stick to his spe­cific mis­sion to doc­u­ment as many old build­ings as he can while they are still stand­ing.

Photos: Cour­tesy of Lian Da

Above: Lian Da draws an on on-site site sketch of a temple in Fenyang, Shanxi Province, last sum­mer. Top and be­low: Sketches made by Lian Da

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