Preserving Changes - Cultural Landscape Conservation and Rural Development in Guizhou, China by Kuanghan Li. News in Conservation, Issue 43, 2014

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View of Dali. Copyright Global Heritage Fund

The foundation of the traditional Chinese social structure is largely composed of smallholder farmers. The resultant vernacular culture is rooted in the land that provides for the settlers and is strongly dependent on its natural environment. Therefore, in comparison to an urban environment, a rural settlement possesses more distinct regional cultural traits and stability under normal circumstances. In the face of aggressive urbanization and drastic rapid social changes in modern China, such stability and cultural continuation is being gravely challenged.
In 2011, the urban population of China reached an unprecedented 51.27%, marking a watershed moment where China’s rural majority ceased to be so, for the first time in history
In an even more vulnerable position are the ethnic minority villages. These villages are often located in relatively remote and economically less developed areas of China, such disadvantages can at times lead to quick judgments of
a more “backward” culture as they are increasingly marginalized by the mainstream Han majority. In view of the threats, these once overlooked heritages receive increasing attention and a selected group of Miao and Dong ethnic minority villages that are located in the southwestern part of China have been added to the Chinese tentative list for World Heritage Site nomination released in January 2013. These villages have unique characteristics and are often situated in strategic natural environment that over time, shaped by the ethnic groups’ cultural, historical and social contexts, formed their own exceptional historic vernacular landscapes.
It is under such context that Global Heritage Fund (GHF), a non-profit organization that focuses on preservation and responsible development efforts of cultural heritage sites in developing countries and regions, was invited by the Guizhou Administration of Cultural Heritage (GACH) to participate in the rural cultural landscape conservation and development project of Dali Village, one of the Dong ethnic minority village on the World Heritage Site tentative list, in Rongjiang County, Guizhou Province.

Guizhou is one of China’s least developed yet culturally diverse provinces; ethnic minorities including Miao, Dong, Yao, Yi, Zhuang, Buyi, Shui, Tujia, Gelao, etc. account for more than 37% of the population and 55.5% of the area is designated as autonomous regions. In addition to the distinctive vernacular architecture and landscapes, these ethnic groups also display rich intangible heritages including handicrafts, traditional song and dance, costumes, festivals, rituals and beliefs, etc.
Dali is a model example of a well preserved Dong village that sits in the mountainous regions of southeast Guizhou. The village currently has 309 households and a total population of 1319, all of the Dong ethnic group. Dong is a relatively small ethnic group of three million in China, their villages are typically built in the mountains and along water bodies characterized by classic architecture elements including drum towers, “wind and rain” bridges (also called the “flower bridge by the locals), stilt houses, barns—all of wooden construction. The intangible cultural heritage are also remarkable and unique; out of which, the multi-sound part “Dong group singing” is the most outstanding item and was listed on the UNESCO humanity intangible cultural heritage list.
Dali was built during the late Ming - early Qing Dynasties (early to mid-17th Century), it is strategically located in a narrow valley and the architecture is organized around a meandering stream that flows through the center of the settlement. Along the hill sides are impressive terraced paddy fields and lush forestland with many precious protected tree species. Local housing is typically 2-3 stories high with grey tiled overhanging gable roof and decorated around the openings, roof ridge and on the beams. Around the houses are wooden barns and grain drying racks. In the center high ground stands the tallest and most revered structure of the village, the drum tower, and the sacred Saman (the local deity) altar. The village has well-developed road and water systems with 6 historic wells which still serve as the main water source for the village. 5 wooden covered bridges span over the stream at various locations connecting different parts of the village. In particular, there are 4 extant historic paved stone paths that connect Dali to surrounding villages. These stone paths is the only example of its kind found in the region, complete with stone carvings and historic stone steles that documents the construction of these paths.
Dali village can be described to contain all of the classic Dong cultural elements, both tangible and intangible. However, just like many other ethnic minority villages, this once remote mountainous village is poised on the cusp of change brought about by increasing ease in traffic access and telecommunications. With changing time and lifestyles, the historic vernacular landscapes and the continuation of traditional cultural practices are being severely challenged. Though the tangible elements are generally well preserved, Dali village’s traditional social structure, use of public spaces, continuation of traditional crafts and knowledge are being altered and fast vanishing. The agricultural and natural landscapes are also threatened by expanding construction activities and pollution. Vanishing historic vernacular landscapes and diminishing cultural identities can lead to increasingly weakening rural community cohesion, ownership and source of power for local sustainable development.
The challenge is to find effective solutions for rural areas, especially poverty areas with rich natural and cultural resources, to ensure their distinct historic vernacular landscapes and the important values they embodied can continue to tie the community members together in their pursuit of local sustainable development. The goal of the Dali Village conservation and development project is to tackle the challenge of preserving a living landscape in fumed with cultural memory and traditional practices in a modernizing world. If successful, the model will have
significant impact not only in Guizhou, but also throughout China and other parts of the developing world.
The project is an innovative collaborative effort between multiple partnerships. The government, including national, provincial and county level administrations, is the main governing body for the project, providing funding and directions at different levels; Peking University, one of China’s top universities, provides research based technical support and oversees the project implementation; GHF and another Chinese NGO, Youcheng, takes on project components where the government resources falls short of and serves as a third party mediator between the government and the village community, particularly when dealing with community-based conservation decisions and small-scale social development initiatives. GHF’s involvement in the project is especially unique as its field representative is also the key project manager, commonly appointed and trusted by the partners to coordinate and administer the various resources and follow through on project execution.
In view of the complexity and particular challenges of a living heritage site, one recognizes that the village cultural landscape will continue to evolve and the people who live on the heritage site are the core of its heritage values. Therefore, conservation is more than a physical product, but a place-based process whereby a community determines what elements of its past will continue to hold a place in its future in order to maintain its identity. In addition to the preservation of historic structures, traditional village layout and character defining landscapes, community initiated changes and development are encouraged and guided by a team of cross-disciplinary professionals.
Assessment of the extant architecture, public spaces, roads, water system, landscape and other infrastructure are carried out by architecture and planning teams; professionals of anthropology, historic preservation, and other social sciences background conducted in-depth social demographic survey and documentation of cultural items, focusing on changes in traditional and contemporary social structures, community organization, and state of the traditional crafts and practices. With integration of knowledge of both tangible and intangible components, a grounded and comprehensive conservation and development program can then be formulated. For instance, the drum tower is traditionally the most significant public gathering space in a Dong village; in the case of Dali village, though architecturally it is still the most important landmark, it seem to lost its popular use. The drum tower is classed as a national protected site, and normally there are strict regulations to ensure careful preservation of the original design and historic fabric of the structure. After consultation with the villagers on their dissatisfaction with the current drum tower space, the project team felt that given the significance of the drum tower in traditional Dong social structure, the user experience is just as important as preserving the integrity of the structure. The resultant intervention plan will respect the original structural design as much as possible and yet allows for adaptive changes responding to the villagers’ practical needs.
Rehabilitation and improvement of traditional wooden houses is another focal point of the project. Specific problems such as fire safety, lack of sanitary facilities, sewage and drainage, etc. will be dealt with at both macro and micro level. Rather than relying solely on regulation and control, the more effective way to encourage villagers to appreciate their traditional architecture form is to improve on its limitations and help to satisfy their functional modern living needs. The information obtained from household survey on understanding resident needs will supplement the technical means, while gathered knowledge on village social structure and organization will help to design a fair and grounded resident subsidy program.

Dali Dong village, as many other ethnic minority villages, has undergone a few hundred years of development in its original location. The growth of the village is dependent on the macro natural setting and the villagers well understood the need to maintain a sensible balance between man and nature. The village architecture retains authenticity in the material and texture, design and form, tradition and technique; more importantly; through their continued use. The village also maintains authenticity in its distinct Dong language, festivals, song and dance, medicine, crafts, etc. and through the common memory of nature worship for the mountains and the woods, the pagan worship ritual and ancestral worship. It is especially important to recognize that as a living heritage, the indigenous people and their community is the link to maintaining the authenticity of the extant tangible and intangible cultures, and they will continue to pass this onto the future generations. Fully realizing the complexity and uniqueness of such heritage site, the Guizhou rural cultural landscape conservation and development project is a broad integrative program that aims to provide some answers towards the future of rural heritage in this volatile time and age, and at the same time, hopefully help to preserve a beautiful little village that may otherwise quietly vanished under the name of modern development.

Global Heritage Fund’s mission is to protect, preserve and sustain the most significant and endangered cultural heritage sites in the developing world. For more information about GHF’s activities and to become a supporter visit: http://globalheritagefund.org/