Newsletter No. 199

CUHK Newsletter RESEARCH FOCUS 2 No. 199 19th March 2002 Chinese Villages from Mulitiple Perspectives T raditional Chinese society is agrarian in nature. In its lands lie the collective memory and the cultural roots of a whole nation. Today, China's rich and varied vernacular environment is fast disappearing in the face of rapid economic development. A study of traditional villages would help to illuminate this aspect of Chinese society and open up questions of preservation. Four Villages Under Study P r o f . Ho P u a y - p e ng o f t he Department of Architecture, Prof. Sydney C h e u n g o f t he D e p a r t m e n t o f Anthropology, and seven researchers from mainland institutions embarked on a p r o j e ct e n t i t l ed 'The Me a n i ng o f Vernacular Environment: Culture and Architecture in Four Chinese Villages' from 1997 to 2000 w i th an earmarked grant o f over HK$500 , 000 f r om the Research Grants Council. The project was the first dedicated study o f Chinese v i l l ages us i ng a mu l t i - d i s c i p l i n a ry approach. The researchers organized t hemse l ves i n to f our teams, each comprising an architectural historian and another scholar from a humanities subject —h i s t o r y, economics, anthropology, or cultural studies. Four village sites were chosen arbitrarily to ensure objectivity. Each team studied one site, then presented t he ir f i nd i ngs at a wo r k s hop they subsequently hosted for the other teams. In this way the researchers hoped to enrich and modify each other's positions and perspectives as they approach a holistic understanding of the village landscape. The four villages are dispersed along ne i ghbou r i ng l ong i t udes. They are respectively Q i kou (碛口 ) in Shanxi province by the Yellow River; Xiaoqi (晓 起) in Wuyuan county (婺源), Jiangxi p r o v i n c e; N a n x i j i a ng (楠溪江) i n Wenzhou (温州 ), Zhejiang province; and Ping Shan (屏山 ) in Yuen Long, Hong Kong. Of the four, the village in Shanxi province is the northern-most site, and the one in Ping Shan the southern-most. Global and Local Influencesand Unique Characteristics A significant feature of the p r o j ect was its compa r a t i ve approach, emphasizing three d i f f e r ent aspects o f c u l t u r al influence: the influence of a global Han c u l t u re w i t h a s t r o ng Con f uc i an i den t i t y; r eg i onal influences such as the culture of surrounding regions, shaped by common history, economy, and geography; and characteristics particular to the village that are determined by its idiosyncratic development. Public Buildings While strong Confucian ethics and societal organization can be seen in all four sites in the practice o f ancestral worship, ancestral halls are more common in the south. Ancestral halls or family temples are the point of convergence of a clan's identity. Yet while they can be considered an integral part of villages in southern China, their presence is far less prevalent in the north. One explanation is that villages in the south are occupied by large, extended lineages, whereas those in the north are inhabited by smaller lineages p l ac i ng less emphasis on co l l ec t i ve identity. Public buildings or semi-public buildings such as ancestral halls and study halls are also a visible expression of the financial and socio-political prowess of the v i l l age s, and the e l de r s' h i gh expectations of their descendents. Their numbers therefore have a direct relation wi th the wealth of the descendents and their success in imperial examinations. Of the four villages studied, Xiaoqi, an old village wi th many sub-lineages, has the most ancestral halls, wh i le Qi kou in Shanxi has the least. In the latter case, it is due more to the mind than the pocket. Qikou is inhabited by well-heeled but narrow-thinking locals who make their own homes very large but are unable to think of other ways of expressing their affluence. Physical Arrangement and Exteriors The layout and construction methods of the villages vary due to differences in the natural environment, the landscape, and interpretations of fengshui. In Wuyuan and Nanxijiang where there are more rivers, buildings are erected near the shuikou (mouth of the water), where the river enters the village, to keep the water, a symbol of wealth, inside its boundaries. The r i ver f l ows out o f the 'backdoors' of these villages into protective woods, which render the villages invisible to possible enemies. Wood is also the primary material used for building the houses in these villages. The entrance to Ping Shan in Hong Kong is protected 'spiritually, by an earth altar where the earth god is worshipped. Houses in Ping Shan are constructed with bricks, as are most other village houses in the territory. In Qikou, neither shuikou nor earth altar can be found at the entrance to the village. Most houses there are made with pounded earth. Decorative Motifs The decoration of the villages has a more immediate relation with the cultural and literary heritage of the region. Certain auspicious decorative motifs are found to be universal, such as the chrysanthemum, symbolizing longevity, and the peony, symbolizing affluence. In Qikou of the less sophisticated north, decorations are less elaborate, their craftsmanship less refined, and they tend to use allegorical cha r ac t e rs r e p r e s e n t i ng d i f f e r e nt t r ad i t i onal virtues, as we l l as other elements from traditional Chinese operas and mythology. By comparison, Wuyuan county and Nanxijiang are more culturally developed. Wannan, the region wh i ch contains Wuyuan county and the old home of Jiang Zemen and Hu Jintau, enjoys a longstanding reputation as a cradle for gove r nment o f f i c i a l s. Its c u l t u r al sophistication is reflected in its more refined and lofty decorations. Ping Shan, the wealthiest village of the four, is closer to Qikou in the utilitarian emphasis of its decorations, only slightly more refined. Observations 'Han culture is not, as it is sometimes assumed, homogeneous. D i s t i nc t i ve Prof. Ho Puay-peng's main research interest lies in Buddhist art and architecture and Chinese vernacular architecture. He received his Ph.D. in art history from the School of Oriental Studies at the University of London, specializing in Buddhist architecture of the Tang dynasty. Prof. Ho has travelled widely to study villages and vernacular architecture of various parts of China. He has led many field trips for such research and received research grants to study issues of fengshui in Hong Kong villages and the urban structure of Lhasa. Prof. Ho has consistently contributed to the conferences of the International Association for the Study of Traditional Environment and published many articles and a book. Qikou in Linxian, Shanxi Xiaoqi in Wuyuan, Jiangxi Researchers and locals in Nanxijiang in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Ping Shan in Yuen Long, Hong Kong