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Saved from the wrecker's ball

A treasure of old buildings from the late Qing Dynasty was set to be demolished according to an urban plan. But it was discovered and saved, thanks to a survey of cultural relics, writes Tan Weiyun.

There's a hidden, sleeping cluster of old white-washed walls, gray roofing tiles and carved bricks, carved wooden gates, surprising stained glass and faded couplet pasted on weather-beaten posts.

Were it not for the recent national survey of cultural relics, this group of old buildings in late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) architecture would have been demolished according to the urban plan. The Chenhang area of Pujiang Town in Shanghai's Minhang District would have been the poorer.

But the old buildings will now be preserved and maintained.

The complex covering 5,000 square meters is one of the largest groups of old buildings discovered south of Shanghai. Five families live there with many Ming (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasty furnishings.

"This is a window through which we can glimpse how residents lived in days gone by," says Zhang Naiqing, director of Minhang Library and a dedicated preservationist for more than three decades.

Each of the five houses combines East and West. There are traditionally carved wooden gates, door frames, ceilings and windows, lazurite (rare translucent blue mineral) decorative window panes imported from Europe, and ornamental Western-style flowerbeds.

"Each roof tile, wall brick and wooden post has its own story," says Zhang.

More than 500 years ago, Chenhang was a tiny village on the Huangpu River. As it developed into a bustling area, three influential families - Qin, Hu and Chen - moved there.

The Qin ancestor was Qin Yubo (1295-1373), a Shanghai city god worshiped in the City God Temple in the downtown Yuyuan Garden. He actually was a government official, the chief imperial examiner. After he died, the emperor bestowed upon him the title of "City God" in Shanghai.

Chenhang Village was where Qin lived and worked most of his life.

For generations, some of his descendants were court officials in Beijing. Others were famous traditional Chinese medicine practitioners in the late Qing Dynasty.

Around 200 years ago, the Hu family arrived from Anhui Province and ran a very successful rice business.

The Chen family ran a woodworking business. It is said that long ago Chen's boat loaded with wood sank in a storm in the Puhuitang, a small river running through the village.

Kindhearted villagers helped Chen recover the wood. Then he decided to settle there and open his woodcraft shop. To repay the community, he dedicated himself to charitable works. The town took his surname Chen; hang means store.

Among the old buildings, the best-preserved is the two-story residence of Hu Zuilou, with three courtyards (originally there were five).

Librarian and historian Zhang says the building is so well-preserved because Hu's family had only one son in each generation for years, which help avoid the division of property among male heirs.

As the family practiced medicine, not business or politics, the house wasn't damaged much in the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

"In addition, one of the family's traditional injunctions for generations was that there be no selling or leasing of the house," Zhang says. "It contributed to the intact preservation."

Splendid past

Today, 60-year-old Kang Yongchang is the householder. His uncle Hu Zuilou died there at the age of 92. Hu's children relocated to the city center several years ago and Kang took care of the residence.

The house was constructed during Qing Dynasty Emperor Guangxu's reign (1875-1908), says Kang.

Though it's run down today, many details speak of a splendid past.

Hand-sized stained glass panes imported from Europe are skillfully inlaid in many inner doors and panels, letting in the light. Such glass was extremely rare and a sign of wealth and status.

Close inspection shows that many window frames are made of clam shells linked with bamboo strips. Instead of glass, some panes were made of a membrane inside the clams.

"That's because glass was relatively expensive in the late Qing Dynasty. Clever architects found that the membrane was not only strong enough but also let light through," Zhang says. "Ordinary families used paper window panes, while rich people liked to use the clam membrane as 'window glass,' a way to show off."

In the eastern tip of the old complex was Qin Weibo's house. Born in 1901 into a family of famous doctors, Qin became one of the most famous TCM masters. He was invited to former Soviet Union many times in the 1950s and 1960s and diagnosed many Chinese political leaders.

His grandfather Qin Diqiao, father Qin Xiqi and uncle Qin Xitian were all renowned practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine.

Qin's residence is large because the family was quite prosperous and had many sons. When each son reached adulthood, a hall was built and would house his family.

The building is influenced by European architectural style because the father Qin Xiqi opened a clinic in the downtown Jing'an District in the early 1900s where he met a lot of Westerners and adopted some Western fashions.

Wooden floors, decorative stained glass, Roman-style wooden carving and formal flowerbeds can be seen.

Qin's study was called "Plum Blossom Hall," named after a flower-shaped burl on an old tree in the center of the courtyard.

Qin Weibo returned to Chenhang Village during China's War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-45) to take refuge and he opened a clinic in the street-side of his house, practicing medicine for locals.

He died in 1970. He was eventually buried in the courtyard of the house in his birthplace, Chenhang.

Between the residences of Qin Weibo and Hu Zuilou is the house of Hu Xinyi, the then biggest and highest building in the village, but the most dilapidated today.

Hu Xinyi ran a very successful rice business more than 200 years ago and built the house as his home and business.

However, as they say destruction always pursues the great, the three-story building had its ups and downs.

It was first occupied by the Japanese invaders as a headquarters, then taken over by the government to serve as a primary school after 1949. Then it became a factory, warehouse, company and public facility.

"With so many twists and turns, it was quite hard to maintain," Zhang says.

If it were not for the survey of cultural relics, this old building complex would have been dismantled according to the urban plan.

"Now the place will be remained," Zhang says. "Further preservation plan is currently under way."


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