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September 9, 2022

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Shanghai countryside is home to traditional architecture

On a recent trip to Zhongbu Village, near my suburban Shanghai home, I saw a young, female farmer tilling a small piece of land under the noon sun.

Although I wore a sanitation mask in accordance with local quarantine requirement, I offered to work for her for a while, so that she could have a rest under the shade of trees. She gladly agreed and handed her hoe over to me.

I tried to dig up as much earth as possible in one swing of the hoe, but I found it often stuck. She laughed and shouted toward me: “Try to dig as little earth as possible at one time, otherwise you’ll break the hoe.”

I followed her advice. I worked about half an hour digging the farmland, sweating under the sun. The more I swung the hoe, the better I understood how it could work in harmony with the earth.

As we both sat in the shade before she called it a day, the woman told me why she was going to plant carrot seeds.

“This piece of land lies under a row of trees, which drop greasy stuff sometimes in summer, and this stuff is likely to harm vegetables which grow upward,” she explained. “As carrots grow, they push their way into the earth, so it’s ok to plant carrot here.”

Before we parted, she told me she had shot a video of me working on the land. She showed me the video, with her improvised caption: “An uncle helped me plough the land!”

“Many viewers so far have praised you!” she said.

Deep in my heart, I thanked her for giving me a rare chance to understand the earth — it’s not dead dirt, it’s “a living museum” of nature in which we find ourselves.

After driving half an hour on the highway on a Monday morning two weeks ago, I arrived at a pristine village densely forested with fir trees in the southern suburbs of Shanghai.

It was 5:30am when I stepped out of my car and set foot on the farmland. The sun was beginning to rise above the horizon, sending soft rays across the vast rice fields. The fragrance of firs flanking the main country road wafted in the early morning air.

I took a deep breath.

As I ambled along, I came across a small vegetable field loosely fenced with bamboo strips. There was nothing special about the tiny field, but a nearby farmer’s house caught my eye because of its “strange” roof style.

I strode forward to have a closer look. The huge tile roof, supported by wood pillars and beams, curved downward to cover the single-story house on all four sides. The overhanging eaves, a singular feature of the sloping roof, extended beyond the walls on every side.

It dawned on me that this farmer’s house was a style called siluoqiang (四落戗) — an architectural term meaning four slanting beams which help form a four-sided roof with overhanging eaves. This style used to be one of the most popular for civilian dwellings in Shanghai before the emergence of shikumen (stone-gate) buildings and other modern residential structures.

Nowadays, siluoqiang houses have become a “rare species” as multi-story houses mushroom across the city. And most pitched roofs we see today — even those in the countryside — no longer have overhanging eaves.

Liang Sicheng (1901-72), a renowned expert on architecture, once wrote: “The architects of ancient China paid much attention to the depth of the overhang of the eaves. It is deliberately designed so that the entire southern wall will be completely under the shadow of the eaves … to assure maximum coolness in summer and, while in the winter months, the sunlight may reach far into the back part of the room.”

Bearing his words in mind, I walked toward the open parlor of the farmer’s house. Now the sun was climbing higher and it became hot outside.

Inside the parlor, I looked up and was impressed by the imposing height of the ceiling and the unusual depth of the overhanging eaves. In a few minutes, I felt myself enveloped in coolness.

Coming out of the parlor, I saw a water tap on the ground in front of a side room of the farmer’s house. I opened the tap and underground water gushed out. As I washed my face and arms with cool water, an old female farmer emerged from the side room and greeted me with a smile.

“Apo, you live in this house?” I asked, turning off the tap. Apo is a polite term of address for an elderly woman.

“Yes, I do,” she replied with a friendly nod.

“How old is this house?” I was curious.

“I don’t have an exact idea, but my father and grandfather both lived here, and it was built in my grandfather’s time, so it should be about 100 years old,” she said.

“Is this a siluoqiang house?” I asked.

“It is,” she said.

As we chatted, her husband came out of the room, ready to ride a moped. Like his wife, he was not at all surprised to see a stranger like me hanging around their house. With a cheerful grin, he told me he was going out to work. A moment later, apo also left the room, a hoe in hand.

Their doors were half closed, but not locked.

Such a simple and open rural life has impressed many urban people, including the late renowned writer and educator Feng Zikai (1898-1975).

A few steps away from the house, I found a post with the village’s official explanation of the history and architectural style of the house. It’s indeed a standard siluoqiang house built a century ago.

Apo was right.

Now I understood why the village has been included in China’s latest campaign to promote the idea that “the countryside is a museum.” The village, called Dongqin, is indeed “a living museum” of ancient architecture.

The siluoqiang farmer’s house in Dongqin Village is not just about overhanging eaves. As I observed on the spot, its elevated ground, pillars, beams and pitched roof with overhanging eaves form exactly what Liang called the basic structure of traditional Chinese architecture, which took shape more than 3,000 years ago.

In his book “Chinese Architecture: Art and Artifacts,” Liang wrote: “The structure of the individual building, as it is found today as well as more than three thousand years ago, consists of … a raised platform or stylobate which forms the base for a structure with a timber skeleton of posts and lintels which in turn support the roof, generally pitched and with overhanging eaves.”

To a great extent, Dongqin Village in Songjiang District can offer interested tourists a glimpse into the fundamental form of traditional Chinese architecture, which once influenced many Asian neighbors like Japan.

Such an informed insight into China’s architectural history, provided by a seemingly casual rural tour, goes a long way toward “visualizing” our glorious past and boosting our cultural confidence.

A siluoqiang house ultimately embodies ancient Chinese people’s wisdom of harnessing nature without spoiling it. Our society should better protect these and other similar architectural heritages, many of which can only be found in the countryside.

Last Monday, I discovered another siluoqiang house in a remote village called Xiyeshe in western Shanghai’s Qingpu District.

An 89-year-old woman still lives in one of the rooms. She is often confined to bed, and her middle-aged children, who have moved out to live in new apartments with modern amenities, take turns to come back and take care of her.

“I grew up in this old house, which is about 150 years old,” said Li, one of the old woman’s daughters.

When I met her at the front gate of the old house, she was collecting some laundry for her mother from a clothesline.

Hearing that I was interested in knowing more about the siluoqiang house, she kindly motioned me to sit in an antique bamboo chair in the parlor.

“It’s cool in here,” she explained.

It was about 2:30pm, and it was scorching hot outside. Sitting in the bamboo chair, which was placed on the parlor’s rammed earth ground, I felt comfortably cool. No need for an air-conditioner or electric fan.

“All the beams and pillars are old, and so are the doors,” she said. “The rammed earth hasn’t changed a bit, either.”

She recalled how happy she was when she was a little girl and lived with a big family whose members and relatives shared the same family name of Li.

Over time, most people have moved into new, multi-story buildings, but sometimes they would meet in the old house, chatting about their joys and sorrows of everyday life.

The old house is basically in good shape, but she said the roof needs to be repaired because the tiles are somehow scattered, causing leaks on rainy days.

She told me that two young people had visited the old house and taken a lot of pictures a few months before I came.

“It’s good that some people are interested in the countryside because of its architectural heritage,” she said.

Early in August, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism announced a selection of 128 rural routes from across China to help tourists discover the hidden value of the countryside as an open-air museum.

The announcement is likely to encourage more people to embark on rural discovery tours.

Take myself as an example. I visited Dongqin Village simply because it had been designated as a destination of interest on one of those officially endorsed rural tourism routes.

My surprise discovery of a siluoqiang house in Dongqin encouraged me to go on more field trips over the past two weeks, which led to further discoveries of rural heritages in addition to a second siluoqiang house I found in Xiyeshe Village.

In Zhangyan Village, Qingpu District, I walked on a well-preserved market street dating back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279), and witnessed a new, modern-style house “growing” behind pristine walls built in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

All these architectural heritages are “alive” — you can still live in those old houses or walk on those ancient streets. They are not “dead” objects displayed behind glass walls or observed from a distance as you would see in most urban museums.

Adding liveliness to Shanghai’s countryside as “a living museum” is a vibrant farming life. In the case of Dongqin Village, the ancient siluoqiang house is “alive” because it remains part of a dynamic rural life.

In Qinglong Village, Qingpu District, a 78-year-old farmer told me that a huge heritage park would be built around a well-kept Buddhist tower built in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). She was tending her vegetable field at the foot of the ancient tower when I met her on a recent Friday morning.

“Do you still work in the field?” I asked, amazed by her steady gait.

“I work in the field every morning, and have a rest in the afternoon,” she said, her cheeks raised in a cheerful shape.

“What do you grow in your field?” I asked, acknowledging my agricultural ignorance. I told her I didn’t recognize a thing in the field.

With an understanding smile, she explained everything she had planted, from soy beans to sweet potatoes and spinach.

She took an extra effort to teach me how to tell soy bean leaves from sweet potato leaves, which look similar to an uninformed urbanite like me. She also patiently taught me how to tell corn from sorghum.

Her hands-on experience and expertise in farming reminded me of what a renowned scholar had said about the importance of growing vegetables.

Liu Huajie, a professor of philosophy at Peking University, once said that “growing vegetables is also part of natural history.”

Here, “natural history” derives from the Latin phrase “naturalis historia,” which means “the exploration and description” of the natural world, Liu explained. In other words, “history” here does not mean “a chronological record of significant events” as we understand today.

By learning to tell one type of vegetable from another, I was following the 78-year-old farmer in my unexpected exploration of the natural world. If nature were a big, open-air museum, then the vegetable field at the foot of an ancient tower should be a wonderful gate I happened to find, through which I got a glimpse into an unknown world.

In this sense, the countryside is “a living museum” not just of ancient architectures, but of natural history as well.

“Natural history helps one relax in nature,” said professor Liu. “Once relaxed, man meshes well with nature and cultivates a balanced view about man’s role in nature.”


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