Pingyao 2011

June 23, 2011 China Preservation, Sustainability Comments (1) 1566

My Pingyao visit for Global Heritage Fund was excellent, thanks to the extremely talented Han Li, who runs the China program for GHF, Board member Firth Griffith (and family!) and consultant Will Shaw. There has been significant progress in our work in Pingyao, the most notable example of which is the restoration of 12 Mijia Xiang, a courtyard that is now home to GHF offices and a community auditorium.

Every Friday this room hosts a presentation on local Pingyao culture, including the local dialect, which like many indigenous cultural expressions, is in danger of being lost. The building thus preserves both tangible and intangible cultural heritage, making it a model of contemporary heritage conservation. 12 Mijie Xiang had been converted to a school at one point, and Han has preserved a section of the schoolyard mural to capture that history as a palimpsest.

The restoration removed an intrusive modern 2-story cement structure and replaced it with a yaodong, the traditional parabolic arched vault structure that serves as the innermost courtyard structure, providing natural heating and cooling. The yaodong was well documented and thus follows appropriate standards for reconstruction of missing elements, but the ease with which it could be achieved is testament to the survival of these construction techniques within the Pingyao community.

In addition to this physical conservation project, GHF has partnered with Tongji University, which completed a very detailed conservation plan for the city, that incorporates not only conservation of important buildings and streetscapes but also deals with the essential issues of waste and water management, transportation and other elements essential to the success of heritage conservation as a development modality. Preserving historic buildings is not a challenge to development: it is a kind of development, and it is inherently a more sustainable development model because it incorporates those aspects of a community’s history which the community has determined are central to its identity.

That is not to say that Pingyao does not have challenges. It was full of domestic tourists during my visit, as well as a fair amount of international tourists, although the infrastructure is like Dali, sort of designed for a backpacker tourist and lacking some of the niceties that even such touristic sites as Lijiang have procured, like ATMs.

Pingyao is actually exquisitely poised to take advantage of new tourism: it lies halfway between Beijing and Xi’an, popular sites that my Art Institute tours always include. Moreover, a new high-speed rail line is opening up, so it will only be a couple hours from either city. The city boasts several good temples, and the Shuanglin Temple 6km out of town has some of the best surviving sculpture – dating back to Ming and earlier – of any temple in China.

gotta love the thousand-armed Guanyin

The wall itself is fantastic, circumscribing the entire old town with dozens of gate houses and six major gates. Pingyao had a wall dating back more than two thousand years, although the current one is largely Ming, but it has another heritage that offers a unique way to combine the past and the future into a development scheme. Pingyao was the center of the financial industry in China beginning in the early 19th century as local merchants, tired of the hassle of lugging tons of precious metals from place to place in their commercial networks, developed a draft transfer system that allowed their distant offices to secure funds without worrying about banditry and other losses. In a sense, it is the foundation of banking, and it would be great if some of China’s great banks saw the opportunity to restore some buildings and recapture their history here. You can visit the Rishengchang museum, one of the bigger houses.

Here are some pictures of it from my visit three years ago.

I also toured the next physical conservation project GHF has planned, also with the assistance of Tongji, which provided incredibly detailed research on the history, current occupants, ownership, condition and historic significance of Fanjia Jie, a street where the extended Fan clan lived in a series of courtyard houses. Two houses, which have survived as Class I historic buildings, are to be rehabilitated for the families which live there. The larger plan envisions restoring the entire street. But it won’t be a museum, because that ISN’T what preservation and conservation is about. It will be a living place that will be attractive to tourists because it is authentic, because it is historic and because it is contemporary. Here is one of the courtyards we are going to restore, and then some views of the street and architectural details.

The plan also includes new green space and a community crafts center. Pingyao is known for elaborate paper cutting known as jianzi and GHF has also done wood block printing workshops, along with building conservation workshops for the locals. In fact, the plan reminds me of our brief in Lima, Peru (see last five blogs) to incorporate gardens (the productive type) into courtyard houses there. Hopefully the project will inspire others (like banks) to rehabilitate other portions of the city in a similar way, using the best 21st century heritage conservation planning, which is not limited to tangible heritage and is not about the past, but the future. In fact, the motto above 12 Mijie Xiang is Yi Li Ming, a merchants motto which signifies that business and profit must be done for the greater good. That is a definition of sustainable development: development that provides equally for current and future generations in economic, social and environmental terms. It is a great model for conservation in China.

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Pingyao 2011

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