A long line of tables is set up in a village during an ancestral-worship ritual in Songyang county, Zhejiang province.[Photo by Lyu Jintian / China Daily]
Over the past two decades, author and artist Feng Jicai has been investigating, saving and protecting folk heritage, which is vanishing amid fast changes in Chinese society.
Among his recent books on folk culture is Heritage of 20 Ancient Villages by Beijing-based Culture and Art Publishing House.
The 74-year-old’s interest in the country’s ancient villages can be traced back to 2002, when he led a group of cultural experts to Hougou village in North China’s Shanxi province.
Feng Jicai. [Photo provided to China Daily]
The study of ancient villages in China started in mid-2014, under the ministries of housing and urban-rural development, culture and finance, and the State Administration of Cultural Heritage.
“China is going through fast transformation, from an agricultural society to an industrial one. So, we regard this heritage as our cultural wealth, which we must protect. The Spring Festival is one such case,” Feng said at a recent ceremony to launch his book in Beijing.
“In the past, folk culture was inherited naturally from one generation to another, but not anymore. It is the responsibility of intellectuals like ourselves to think about it and act.”
Rooftops of traditional houses feature delicate brick carvings and calligraphy.[Photo by Lyu Jintian / China Daily]
According to Pu Jiao, deputy director of China’s Traditional Village Protection and Development Research Center, Feng’s knowledge of ancient villages comes from his travels across the country.
Feng expects about 1,500 more such villages will be added to the current list of 2,555 that was compiled after three rounds of data analysis.
“But we will have to wait for the official announcement,” Pu says.
Ancient villages refer to those still existing, with such traits as a long history, unique architecture and cultural value.
Youtian village in Zhejiang is nestled among the mountains.[Photo by Lyu Jintian / China Daily]
Kaiyangbao village in Hebei province dates backs to 295 BC in the Warring States Period (475-221 BC).
In East China, Fujian’s tulou (fortress-like residences), built with soil, wood and rocks, present a unique style and local culture with their circular or square shapes. The tulou was included on UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 2008.
In little over a year, information on more than 240 ancient villages in China have been archived as part of the program.
“We want to set up a model for such archival works,” says Feng. “We want the public to know about the ancient villages as well as our work through the new book.”
Xikeng village in Zhejiang is enveloped in a veil of mist.[Photo by Lyu Jintian / China Daily]
In Heritage of 20 Ancient Villages, the locations are recorded both in text and through photos.
Words mainly describe basic information about the villages, including when and why they were formed and in what state they are today. Photos show images of the villages and depict their cultural heritage, folklore, economy and residents.
“We try to record concrete and comprehensive information in a scientific way－not just the names of those villages－so that in the future when people want to learn about the villages, they can do research based on our archives,” Pu says.
“We don’t have much time to talk about how to protect them because urbanization is happening so quickly. We have to first compete with time and excavators to record as much information as possible,” she adds.
As Feng says, the book and archiving of materials on such villages isn’t the work of a single generation alone. The process continues.
A local farmer is busy during the harvest season.[Photo by Lyu Jintian / China Daily]
“Even after the buildings are torn down, their cultural value will be noted one day,” Pu says.
“The archive is open. Anyone with valuable information on the villages can enrich it.”
According to Pu, in choosing the 20 cases for the book, the research team tried to have much geographical diversity, “so as to include unique villages with prominent characteristics that best represent the regional culture in different places”.
The 20 villages are scattered across 12 provinces and municipalities, including Hebei, Shanxi, Zhejiang, Fujian and Guangdong provinces, the Ningxia Hui autonomous region, Beijing and Chongqing.
A new book will help readers better understand the country’s cultural heritage.[Photo provided to China Daily]
One of the ancient villages that impressed Pu the most is Hougou in Shanxi.
The village is well preserved, and in terms of a general layout, it strictly follows the rules of feng shui. Formed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the village has many Taoist and Buddhist temples with stone tablets.
The architectural style, similar to those of cave dwellers’, is typical of the village.
“The drainage system built in ancient times is used even today. People still make a lot of cloth products by hand, such as pads for shoes and stuffed toys,” Pu says.
Chinese civilization is rooted in rural life. Folklore, tangible and intangible cultural heritage were all born in the villages, she adds.
“If the ancient villages vanish, their cultural heritage will be gone. That will be a tremendous pity for our country. That’s why we are trying to collect as much information about them as possible.”