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A Golden Twilight

updated: 2012-08-17

China Daily, August 16, 2012
The golden twilight casts a surreal glow on the babbling brook meandering through the village, where middle-aged mothers in floral prints squat and do the laundry. Their naked kids take rides on the wooden, goose-shaped laundry baskets, as if it was a river adventure in a Tom Sawyer story.
The sound of wet laundry hitting the rocks, chitchat from the housewives, giggles and shouts from the kids, mingle with Kunqu Opera, which the men are enjoying in the village square.
While this used to be a common scene in East China's water towns, it is rare these days. So, Nanxijiang, in Zhejiang province, is a bit like a time capsule and has buildings that date back to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907).
But even here, when the kids grow old enough, they are starting to move on to the "modern, convenient, urban life" advocated by pop culture.
Nanxijiang is one of the last gucunluo, or ancient hamlets, in English. It's a term used by historians and architects to describe traditional neighborhoods.
A recent research by the Chinese Folk Literature and Art Society suggests that in 2000 there were more than 3.6 million "natural villages" in China - a neighborhood formed by people naturally rather than "administrative villages" determined by government.
In 2010, the number dropped to 2.7 million, with more than 900,000 villages simply disappearing, as the residents flocked to cities.
"The decline is astonishing, meaning every day, 300 villages vanish," Chinese Folk Literature and Art Society Chairman Feng Jicai says at a recent conference to help save these villages.
"They are the soil and root of traditional Chinese culture and lifestyles. If the Forbidden City represents imperial history, then these shabby houses represent an ancient way of life for ordinary people."
But for local officials, preserving these abodes scattered around the countryside is more difficult than protecting the 72,000 square-meter Forbidden City.
Official Xu Lefeng is in charge of safeguarding old houses in Yubei village, one of the best-preserved historic villages in Nanxijiang, as five mountains surround and protect it from war and natural disasters.
"Residents want their lives improved by modernizing and upgrading the houses," Xu says. "But historical architecture cannot easily be refurbished according to regulations."
Since being appointed a national historical site since 1988, the Nanxijiang area has been protected from problems like factory pollution, unlike other rural areas in the highly industrialized Yangtze River Delta area.
But this also means both the local government and residents have been unable to reap the fruits of development.
With more than 30 houses and 40 residential compounds, Yubei village was once the hometown of the largest number of scholars and central government officials in ancient China.
While some of the village's workshops produce cotton, oil and dyed cloth, most of the buildings are in a state of disrepair.
"To protect the houses, you must let the residents living in the house see the benefits. They don't care about history or heritage, as for them a better life is the priority," Xu says.
Wang Fu, a 73-year-old Yubei villager, says he has lived with his sons and grandsons in a 15-square-meter, one-floor house, for decades. Because the house is too small, the sons, who are migrant workers in cities, do not return home for union during the Spring Festival.
But several kilometers away, at Linkeng, a solution has been found.
At this small village of about 500 people, 90 percent of the houses function as both budget hotels and residences.
In 2011, the idyllic landscape and lifestyle of the village drew 130,000 tourists, rich pickings for the farmers.
"It turns out that it is possible to have your cake and eat it too," a Linkeng village official surnamed Lin says.
But not everyone agrees.
"During the process of such development, native and authentic traditions are lost to meet the demands of tourists," architecture professor at Tsinghua University Chen Zhihua says.
Chen has spent the past two decades studying the evolution of ancient villages in Nanxijiang. And he believes tourism is not the way forward.
"When I first came here in the 1980s, I was greatly impressed by the simplicity, primitiveness and even roughness of life here," Chen says in the preface of his book, Midstream of Nanxijiang, which talks about the decline of ancient villages in Nanxijiang.
"People may say it's no big deal because that's just the way most of our ancestors lived, but that's exactly the reason it's a big deal. It's vanishing at such a speed that in the next a couple of years, our kids, grown up in high-rises and along highways may no longer be able to see the ancient lifestyle," Chen argues.

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