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December 27, 2011

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Heritage under threat

An 89-year-old woman and her daughter live alone in a vast, crumbling scholar's residence - listed as national cultural heritage - but there's no plan for repair. Chen Ye pays a visit.

Shivering Madame Guo, 89, answers the door with a quavering voice from behind the dark side room of the 250-year-old Shu Yin Lou, the crumbling Secluded Library, once part of a magnificent estate in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

The building, which was home to one of the greatest Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) scholars, Lu Xixiong, is believed to be the city's oldest residence identified thus far. It also contained a famous library, and there still are some books and crumbling furnishings on the second floor.

Madame Guo and her daughter, Guo Yufen, 59, are without resources and have no maintenance funds, so they charge 50-yuan (US$7.90) admission to the building hidden away on Tiandeng Lane in Huangpu District.

According to Madame Guo, the city government once offered to fund the preservation of this 2,300-square-meter complex, but it finally didn't make through because of family disagreements. And now since the building is still in private hands, the city would not fund the restoration (although it's on the official protection list), she adds.

"My daughter doesn't allow me to use the heater equipment (even in this freezing winter)," complains the old lady, who uses her husband's surname ever since she married into the Guo family of Fujian merchants when she was 27 years old. Her real name is Qu Qi.

Madame Guo's daughter says, "I'm just worried that she's careless and might make a mistake using the heater, which could ruin this dilapidated building."

Shu Yin Lou, literally Book Retreat Building, used to be part of a much larger complex. It contains older elements, such as an 800-year-old Song Dynasty (960-1279) well and elaborate fretwork.

Madame Guo and her daughter are the only descendants of the wealthy Guo clan, which purchased the building from illustrious scholar Lu, who in later years became a recluse - hence the estate name Book Retreat. It is believed to have been built in 1763 by scholar Chen Suoyun, inherited by his grandchildren and sold to Lu.

The house is located in narrow Tiandeng Lane in former Nanshui District and has been famous for many years as the only large-scale Qing Dynasty residence in Shanghai.

It is one of southeast China's only three existing large, ancient libraries - the other two being Tianyi Pavilion (Ningbo, Zhejiang Province) and Jiaye Hall (Nanxun, Zhejiang Province).

A commemorative plaque of Shu Yin Lou was placed there in 1987, identifying it as part of China's national cultural heritage.

Today it is overgrown with weeds - parts of the structure have fallen down and it's home to many mice.

Madame Guo, who studied at a church school, still speaks decent English.

"My husband's family was running a shipping business in the age of flat-bottomed vessel," she says.

The old lady still remembers the day she married Guo Junlun, a famous architect, and was stunned by the vast house and grounds. Windows were decorated with elaborate fretwork and frames were delicately carved. The beams were all carved and painted. The height of some halls was 12 meters.

Madame Guo's husband graduated from the civil engineering department of Shanghai Jiao Tong University and was an expert in ancient architecture.

During the "cultural revolution" it was turned into a workshop for a food factory. The Guos reclaimed it in the 1990s.

In the early years after the house was reclaimed, owner Guo Junlun spared no effort to restore it by himself.

"The government still has no plan for reconstruction and I feel really sad about Shu Yin Lou," says famous preservationist Ruan Yisan, director of the National Research Center of Historic Cities.

Ruan says Shu Yin Lou is not only part of national cultural heritage but also a fine historic building.

"The day I moved into Shu Yin Lou (some 60 years ago), I could not take my eyes off the beautiful house," Madame Guo recalls.

However, in 2002 the western wing collapsed during a heavy storm.

Although Shu Yin Lou has fallen into shocking disrepair, it contains many interesting things. Books and various artworks are kept on the second floor, but the wooden floor has rotted and now no one is allowed there.

Guo Yuwen recalls her injury when she fell on rotting planks. "This house is a blessing passed on by our ancestors," she says.

Madame Guo and her daughter hope there will be a way to restore the old house and complex.

Address: 77 Tiandeng Lane

How to get there: Fuxing Road Station of Metro Line 8 or Yu Garden Station of Metro Line 10

The history

These extravagant gardens were built in 1763 for the Lu family, who also had property in what is now Lujiazui in Pudong and on Lujiabang Road.

Lu Xixiong (one of the most prominent scholars in the Qing Dynasty) built a walled library where after his retirement he lived like a hermit, giving the compound its name.

By the late 19th century, the Lus were in decline and were forced to sell the estate to Fujian merchants named Guo.


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