Old house renovation project revitalizes traditional villages in China’s Zhejiang

By Dou Hanyang, People’s Daily

Zeng Ronghua lives in Yinyuan village, Sandu township, Songyang county, Lishui of east China’s Zhejiang province. In his newly renovated old house, red Chinese couplets pasted up on the two sides of the gate, and freshly baked fried sugar cakes make the house full of sweet smell.

This century-old house, surrounded by an atmosphere of happiness, was in disrepair two years ago. It was constantly buffeted by wind and rain.

“It all thanks to a restoration project,” Zeng said.

The project, aiming at conserving part of historical and cultural sites, as well as some heritage buildings with private property rights, was launched by the China Culture Relics Protection Foundation in Songyang county seven years ago. Zeng’s ancestral house was included in the project.

The worn-out door has been replaced with a handmade new one, and the ceiling and floor were also renovated. Four months later, the dilapidated house has been fully revamped and revitalized.

According to Zeng, the renovation waterproofed the house and installed insulation with modern techniques, and retained the house’s rammed earth walls to maximumly keep its original appearance.

Over 100 traditional villages have been well preserved in Songyang county, including 78 on the state protection list. Sandu township is home to nearly 1,000 old houses like Zeng’s, around 150 of which were included in the restoration project. A renovation team was specially established in the township to better preserve these buildings.

Zheng Sheng, deputy director of Songyang’s tourism development and service center, told People’s Daily that the project was launched to both optimize rural residents’ living environment and put cultural relics under better protection.

The China Culture Relics Protection Foundation funded around half of the renovation spending for each household, and 70 percent for those receiving subsistence allowance, Zheng said, adding that the rest of the spending was self-raised.

According to him, owners of the old houses could deduct the self-raised part through working and waste recycling, so that they could shoulder only around 1/4 of the total spending.

Apart from the old buildings, ancient roads, wells, monuments, and trees in the villages of Sandu have also been renovated while retaining their original appearance.

“The village is developing better now. We had only dirt roads in the past, but now they are paved with stones. Besides, cultural activities are often held in the hall that’s been renovated by the project,” said Chen Limei, a resident of Yinyuan village.

At present, the renovation project is still underway. Zeng has turned his spare rooms into a B&B hotel, which is the first in Yinyuan village and earns him an extra 20,000 yuan ($2,907) each year.

Nowadays, many young villagers who used to work out-of-town have returned to Sandu township, including Liu Wenyue, a designer of traditional Chinese costumes from Lizhuang village.

She turned a storage room of her ancestral house into a workshop and divided it into shooting, exhibition and working areas. She told People’s Daily that the ancestral house is her source of inspiration, where she designed 104 sets of traditional Chinese costumes last year that helped her gain an income of 700,000 yuan.

“I found the old houses in the village very lively,” said Sun Yingying, who runs a B&B hotel in Songzhuang village, Sandu township. A few years ago, Sun came to Songyang county. After visiting 18 villages in the county, she settled in Songzhuang village and established her B&B brand Taoye.

The foot traffic of the village surged nearly tenfold during the National Day holiday last year thanks to the B&B brand. The increasing visits have increased the income of villagers.

Zheng said the old house renovation project is not only a practice that advances the conservation of cultural relics, but also a livelihood program that inherits China’s fine traditional culture and promotes coordinated economic and social development.

“It is a bridge linking the protection of traditional villages and the utilization of cultural heritages,” Zheng noted.

This year, more and more villagers have returned to their ancestral houses. Zeng told People’s Daily that these houses are a symbol of nostalgia and will lead his hometown to a brighter future.