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Village Acupuncture:

Can architects restore vitality to Chinas countryside?

By: Andrew Stokols
On a bamboo-covered mountaintop 1,800 feet above sea level, the
mud-walled houses of Diaotan village are just barely visible through
the thick fog that often shrouds this remote hamlet in Chinas Zhejiang
Worn but sturdy earthen walls still enclose the largest structure of
Diaotan, the ancestral hall, or citang. Inside, a few lanterns and red
couplets hang above a stone courtyard covered with moss and weeds.
Xu Tiantian, an architect from Beijing who has come here to help
restore old houses, marvels at the serene landscape of bamboo, fivehundred year old trees, and the village. Its like the taohuayuan
[peach blossom garden], she says, referring to the 4th century story
that describes the Chinese version of a Utopia hidden in the
You think this place is beautiful?, asks an elderly villager who only
gives his surname as Jiang. Its not beautiful at all!
But the architects and a team of professors from Tsinghua University,
Central Academy of Fine Arts, and University of Hong Kong who have
come here at the invitation of the local government of Songyang
County think otherwise. They are trying to implement small-scale
design interventions and renovations aimed at reviving dying villages
into destinations for tourists and artists.
We need to expand our concept of tourism, says Luo Deyin, a
professor of architecture at Tsinghua University who is leading the
overall planning for the project. Its not just eating and sleeping, but
many activities like cultural and creative industries that can be put into
these villages.
At a meeting the night before, Xu, Luo and several architecture
students presented their renderings of another nearby village, Pingtian,
envisioning additions like glass enclosures to provide shelter for
exposed earthen courtyards. Their plan calls for transforming old
homes, some abandoned, into exhibition spaces and a gift shop for
local crafts, and even residences for artists. Part of the design strategy
involves creating public areas such as a villager center and library by
linking small structures to create larger contiguous spaces.

This is one of the most challenging projects Ive worked on, says Xu,
principal of DnA Architects, best known for the Songzhuang Art
Museum in the artist village outside Beijing. We have to abandon the
tricks of our profession and learn from the beginning with local
builders. For example, the new designs called for inserting more
windows to bring light into structures that had been used as
storehouses. But there is a delicate balance that must be struck in
restoring earthen-walled, or hang-tu, homes because any additions
that increase the load could cause walls to collapse. Earthen walls are
cheaper than brick but they keep the house warm in the winter and
cool in the summer.
The idea of using small-scale design interventions to effect larger
transformation of Chinese villages recalls the urban acupuncture
concept that some designers have championed as a way to spur
beneficial changes in cities. In Medellin, Colombia, for example,
libraries and small museums have been built in slum communities in
the hope that they will revitalize formerly neglected areas.
The local government hopes to turn the villages into destinations for
tourists, but they also want to avoid the rampant commercialization
that has characterized other similar attempts in China: many towns
across the country have become cluttered with vendors selling the
same tacky trinkets, destroying the local culture that they aimed to
preserve in the first place.
We want to preserve the local qualities of Pingtian, says Wang Jun,
the county chief of Songyang, an energetic man in his early forties.
We want to make sure the materials used are not too foreign to the
style here.
Interestingly enough, its the architectural history experts who are
pushing for a more flexible approach to preservation. In order to think
about the tourist market, there must be modern facilities here, says
Luo, a renowned expert on Chinas vernacular rural architecture. How
much is up to [the county], but there must be some.
Luo has spent much of his career writing books and articles on the
architecture and history of Chinas villages. His efforts to catalogue and
preserve the immense variety of rural culture and architecture in China
recall the legacy of Liang Sicheng, the famous Chinese architect of the
early 20th century who was the first to systematically document Chinas
architectural history at a time when civil war, the end of the Qing
Dynasty, and Western influence caused many historic structures to fall
into disrepair.

But unlike Liang, who was mainly concerned with monumental

architecture and imperial building traditions, Luo is interested in the
architecture of common villages that varies widely from region to
region. Originally from a rural area of southern Guangdong province,
Luo has lived in Beijing ever since attending college there, but spends
much of his time on breaks and weekends working in remote villages.
Not content to merely record the history of Chinas disappearing
villages from the comforts of the ivory tower, Luo has also done survey
and preservation work in over a hundred villages. His work has taken
him from the rice terraces of the Hani minority in Yunnan to historic
Ming-dynasty garrison towns in northern Hebei province outside
Beijing. In many villages, he has advised officials on how to develop
tourism while maintaining the quality of traditional buildings.
Many villages have the potential to become tourist destinations, says
Luo, but especially the ones within an hour or two drive from a major
city, these will have a much easier time drawing tourists.
Songyang is a two-hour drive from Wenzhou, the prosperous coastal
city whose residents are known for their business acumen and diaspora
communities in Europe and the United States. But Songyang is also far
off the well-worn tourist trail that many foreigners traverse in search of
authentic villages. The most popular and most visited traditional
villages include the water towns near Suzhou in Jiangsu province, and
the Huizhou villages of southern Anhui province. Within 5 years,
however, a new high-speed rail station will make the county much
more accessible.
In addition to his work in Songyang, Luo is one of the experts leading a
national initiative of the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural
Development to designate historic villages, which will hopefully afford
them stronger protection. So far there are 2555 listed villages
nationwide, with 50 of them in Songyang County, according to
Professor Luo.
While devoting his career to preserving Chinas rural heritage, Luo is a
realist, acknowledging the fact that many villages in China will have no
future if they fail to develop tourist infrastructure. In this sense, his
approach to preservation differs somewhat from certain activists and
academics of the New Rural Reconstruction Movement who advocate a
return to farming and village life as a larger antidote to the ills of
modern urban China.
At this stage, tourism is the most effective and the easiest way to
make an old village survive amidst rapid urbanization, says Luo with a

tone of urgency that suggests an eagerness to find whatever works to

help preserve villages. Tourism brings people from the outside into old
villages and creates opportunities for contact between citizens and
villagers. Ultimately I believe this will help change the villagers value
of cultural heritage, from wanting to destroy their old houses to
wanting to protect them.
In many villages, however, the outmigration of residents makes it hard
to imagine how they will ever recover any of their formal vitality. In
Diaotan, accessible only by one narrow road that winds up the
mountain from the valley below, an estimated 100 people still reside
there despite an official population of 400, according to a township
official. Most the remaining are elderly and children too young to work.
And, as the sentiments expressed by some of the villagers show, many
residents dont think their crumbling old houses are anything worth
Once Professor Luo is done working here, hopefully some of our young
people will choose to come back and open up small businesses, says
Wang Jun.
Local officials like Wang Jun are increasingly aware of the value of
historic preservation, particularly in light of the revenue and
development it can bring. It also fits with the national drive of
President Xi Jinpings government to foster the development of cultural
industries, and develop alternatives to the export-led factories that
drove Chinas economic boom in the 1980s.
But at the same time, large-scale relocation projects underway across
much of the country are moving villagers to new apartments in cities
and towns faster than tourism can be developed to draw them back.
Just down the road from Pingtian, new apartment blocks rise up from
fallow fields. And even the village restoration plans will require some
families to give up their hillside homes and relocate to apartments in
the valley below. While visiting Diaotan, officials discussed how many
families would be required to move so that some of their houses can
be renovated for other purposes.
Although nearly half of Chinas 1.4 billion people are still classified as
rural, the government has recently laid out ambitious plans to move
around 250 million villagers into cities and towns by 2025, pushing the
national urbanization rate towards 70%. In doing so, they hope to
reduce entrenched rural poverty and transform the economy from its
current investment-driven model to a more consumption-powered one.
As villagers move to apartment housing, the logic goes, they will spend

more on services and other modern conveniences like appliances and

utilities. But this also threatens thousands of villages with extinction.
The countryside is the bedrock of Chinas traditional culture, its
where it resides, says Wang Jun. But in order to save these villages,
we have to address not only culture, but also the economic, political
and social situation of these villages.
In Pingtian, I join Luo, Wang Jun, and other officials and architects to
inspect the village, followed by a simple but hearty lunch of rural
staples: boiled radish, steamed bamboo, pork blood stew, and rice
served from a wooden barrel. Wang Jun presides over an impromptu
lunch meeting with Professor Luo and other county officials, looking at
a map sprawled out across the table, and exhorts everyone gathered in
the small room, Lets work hard to meet our timetable, and have the
first phase done by next May, can we do that? The county finance
chief nods his head and promises that the money will be available in
Money, however necessary, will not be all that it takes to bring these
nearly deserted villages back to life. Even if you give them money,
says Professor Luo, villagers dont think they have the obligation to
protect their old houses. This is the biggest problem in village
Successful preservation work in China involves a complex interplay of
factors, including the existence of intact historic buildings and scenic
landscapes, supportive local officials, and proximity of nearby cities.
Often, the very remoteness that has allowed old buildings to survive is
also the obstacle that makes tourism development so difficult. Like
restoring the flow of qi to the body, acupuncture of villages attempts to
use minor architectural alterations to achieve a restoration of life and
energy to Chinas countryside. But the efforts of Professor Luo and Xu
Tiantian suggest that preserving Chinas villages will require both
small-scale design interventions as well as national policy initiatives
that provide more incentives for villagers to remain and invest in their
On an afternoon in Hengkeng, a nearby hilltop enclave that has begun
to attract artists because of its panoramic views, a tour bus has
deposited a group of middle-aged amateur painters in the village for
the afternoon. But they have no place to eat or sleep, so they will
return to the city afterward.
Why dont you build a restaurant or guesthouse here? suggests
Wang Jun to a villager. Otherwise the visitors wont spend much time

or money here, he reasons. Its a good suggestion, but the resident

lacks the resources to expand his offering of tea and snacks, and the
trickle of visitors isnt enough to justify building anything larger in a
space that he is currently living in.
Just then, the architect Xu Tiantian returns from a hike, excitedly telling
Wang Jun that she has found a building that would be perfect for
renovating into a small lodge. Its another earthen-walled structure
currently being used as a storehouse for farming equipment and grain.
With the large open ceiling, the space would be perfect, she exclaims
excitedly. Our group is getting ready to depart back to Wenzhou, but
Xu decides to stay behind for another night. I need to get to work
measuring the space, so I think Ill just stay here, she says. Dont
worry about me, its so peaceful, I could stay here for a while.