Professor risks all to protect vanishing ancient towns

By Huang Jingjing Source:Global Times Published: 2014-12-12 5:03:01

A canal in Wuzhen in the north of Zhejiang Province Photo: CFP

The "water town" of Wuzhen has received a major boost to its reputation after hosting China's first World Internet Conference, which was attended by around 1,000 politicians and business magnates from home and abroad. It was also named the annual conference's permanent host due to its ideal blend of Internet economy and traditional Chinese culture.

Many people were delighted at the news that the town may become the "Davos of China," but none more so than one elderly man living 130 kilometers away in Shanghai.

Ruan Yisan, a professor with the College of Architecture and Urban Planning, Tongji University, who has just turned 80, is the first specialist involved in protection and planning for Wuzhen, birthplace of the literary giant Mao Dun and an ancient town founded over 2,000 years ago.

"I'm so glad that the town is being recognized and has become a world-class attraction. It has fantastic aquatic scenery. Being the conference's host will help raise its value," Ruan told the Global Times.

Ruan Yisan Photo: CFP

Rare preservation

Wuzhen, located north of Tongxiang city in East China's Zhejiang Province, lies at the center of the triangle formed by Shanghai, Hangzhou and Nanjing.

The town, where waterways thread their way through flagstone streets and alleys, and home to authentic pieces of architecture adorned with delicate wood carvings, is one of about 100 ancient towns across China which have been well preserved.

"In the 1980s, there were about 2,000 ancient cities and 20,000 ancient towns," Ruan said. However, due to haphazard demolition and commercial development, fewer than 10 ancient cities remain, he noted, citing Pingyao in Shanxi Province and Hancheng in Shaanxi Province.

In addition to Wuzhen, Pingyao and Hancheng, the re-constructed historical resorts of Lijiang and Zhouzhuang were saved by Ruan from bulldozers and excavators. Due to his contributions, Ruan received the 2014 Henry Hope Reed Award in Chicago in March, becoming the first winner of the prize from Asia.

But his conservation efforts have frequently been met with opposition from local governments and residents.

In 1981, Ruan was invited by the Ministry of Culture to plan Wuzhen after Mao Dun's death. His design called for a protection zone centering around the writer's former residency and buildings mentioned in his writings.

But as visitor numbers grew, the government built a wide road and parking lot in the zone despite Ruan's strong opposition and repeated proposals to higher officials. A furious Ruan left the project, as he believed that the additions were damaging to efforts to preserve the town.

In the early 1990s, he was invited again by Tongxiang's Party chief to plan the town. But before accepting the invitation, he criticized the official to his face: "You [officials] don't love your hometown and damaged it recklessly; you are uneducated and ignorant and have no sense of cultural heritage."

Desperate measures

Such confrontations were not isolated. Zhouzhuang, another well-known town featuring aquatic scenery in Jiangsu Province, would not have existed without Ruan's willingness to risk his life.

In 2003, the local government in Zhouzhuang decided to build a highway through the town. After failing to persuade officials to abandon the idea, Ruan went to the construction site and told the workers: "If you dare build the road, I will lie down and you will have to run over me."

He finally won and the road was made to detour around the town.

The confrontations continued. In recent years, Ruan has fought against excessive commercial exploitation in some ancient towns by suggesting that local governments dismantle newly constructed buildings and shut down some stores, making Ruan very unwelcome in some parts.

During a visit to Zhouzhuang, he was surrounded by angry store owners, according to Phoenix Weekly. "You don't let us open stores, you don't care about us," some shouted. Others stated that they didn't care about applying for world heritage, saying they only wanted to earn money.

"It's a pity that some officials and residents only care about earning money and ruin their heritage. They don't realize that the heritage is their lifeline; they have a shortsighted view of development," Ruan lamented.

Early connection

Born in 1934 in Suzhou, a city famous for its classical gardens, Ruan joined the navy in 1950 when the Korean War broke out. But due to the influence of his father, an eminent electrical engineer and a political advisor in Suzhou who was framed as an anti-revolutionary and a rightist, he ended his military career and returned home in 1956.

Due to his "bad family background," he chose to study civil engineering, a major far removed from politics. After four years of study in Tongji University in 1960, he graduated and was kept as a teacher on the campus. At that point, his connection with ancient towns began.

Each year, he spent months across the country conducting field research. He remembered that thousands of ancient towns had remained intact until the early 1980s, when a wave of township enterprises spread across China's countryside under the slogan "every township has a factory, every village discharges smoke."

That campaign did promote rural development and urbanization, but it also caused great damage to historical buildings. Luckily, through the efforts of Ruan and others, some ancient towns were saved.

In 1996, he established a foundation to award those who make contributions to conservation. Now he is happy to see more and more people have joining the cause, including his students as well as his son and grandson.

Ruan insists on renovating with old materials and rejecting fake antiques. He used Wuzhen as an example. "To cause minimum damage to the landscape, gas pipes, electrical and network cables were buried underground," Ruan said.

The stones and wood used for renovation and reconstruction were old or moved from neighboring villages, he added. "The old streets and houses tell of the vicissitudes of history. But the people living inside enjoy a comfortable life with modern facilities," he said.

He was disgusted that buildings were purposely manufactured in a rough and slipshod way. There are more than 130 hanging houses in Fenghuang ancient town in Hunan Province, but only 13 of them were ancient, while all the others were counterfeit.

"Fake ancient towns can hardly fill people with a sense of nostalgia," he said. Some concrete high buildings have even built in those areas. "The buildings are taller, but the landscape has become ugly."

Newspaper headline: Defending China's heritage

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