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December 23, 2021

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Historic town reemerging as a museum of ancient structures

A folding table, two tattered chairs, an old tree overhanging ancient roof tiles ­­­­— I spotted this serene scene on a shaded pedestrian path from a distance while ambling along an old riverside street in suburban Shanghai last Tuesday.

As I drew near, two men sauntered out of a lane near the short table and the small chairs and sat down.

In a few seconds, I was standing by their side and found out the table top was a chess board. The three of us nearly blocked the pedestrian path, and yet no one who passed by complained.

“You live here?” I asked the older man. They were joking with each other and giving out fruity laughs while preparing for a chess game.

“He’s been living here all his life,” the younger one quipped.

“Yeah, been here all my life,” echoed the older man with a grin.

“You often play chess on the pedestrian path?” I asked.

“Sure, why not?” the older man replied with a funny grimace.

Seeing they were beginning to play, I slowly moved away. I rambled down the path and ran into more local residents who either sat on small stools or leaned against antiquated buildings to catch the winter sunlight peeking through sidewalk trees.

Life was slow here. People were at ease with themselves and with all who came by.

The place I visited is part of a historic town lying at the heart of a 158-square-kilometer “new city” now being built in Songjiang District in southwestern Shanghai.

Named Cangcheng, the old town, whose heyday dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), is a singular “oasis of serenity” insulated from the modern hectic urban life on its doorstep. Its core area extends about 20 hectares in which many ancient buildings, such as residential houses and pawn shops, are being restored to their former glory.

Unlike certain other ancient towns which have become tourist attractions studded with souvenir shops and restaurants since the 1980s or 1990s, Cangcheng is turning itself into a quiet miniature museum of ancient architecture.

Cangcheng literally means “a city of grain warehouses” in Chinese. Beginning from the Ming Dynasty and throughout the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), it became the port of departure where local grain was stored and shipped all the way to the country’s capital in the north.

Dacang Bridge, which was first built in the Ming Dynasty, is one of Shanghai’s biggest well-preserved ancient stone bridges. It arches over a river that runs in parallel to the street I strolled which is flanked by big trees, pedestrian paths and old houses. Some trees are so huge that their gnarled roots spread as wide as a walkway.

In history, meandering roads running along or across myriad rivers once defined much of Shanghai’s urban landscape. However, as local population and economy grew, quite a few rivers in what is today’s downtown Shanghai were gradually filled and paved.

“Nowadays, such a symbiotic existence of roads and rivers can only be seen in certain outlying ancient towns,” said Wu Jiang, a renowned professor of architecture and former executive vice president of Tongji University, in a latest book entitled “Elaborated Planning of Historical Streets: A New Perspective on Organic Urban Regeneration in Shanghai.” It’s a definitive work on the city’s efforts to protect historic sites and buildings over the past four decades.

In the latest stage of protection, Wu noted, priority is being given to restoring the original beauty of the city’s architectural heritages — be they individual buildings or town spaces — rather than to tapping their commercial value.

Indeed, history matters for its own sake. Whether adaptable for modern commercial use or not, architectural heritages have intrinsic as well as instrumental values to boost a city’s or a nation’s cultural confidence.

Wang Lin, a professor with the school of design at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, said at a recent symposium that outstanding historic buildings and neighborhoods can have positive social impact and become part of a city’s “soft power.”

Her view echoes that of Shanghai Party Secretary Li Qiang, who said in an inspection tour of the city’s historic buildings on November 29 that we should treat antique architecture like “elderly people” and that history should be made visible everywhere.

In Cangcheng, slender streets and shaded sidewalks historically built along zigzag rivers remain largely intact, forming a public space friendly to leisure walking and communal life. Such a traditional Chinese urban road system, as a number of experts from Tongji University pointed out earlier, provide effective public spaces for economic, social and health activities, in contrast to road systems in many European cities.

William Rowe, professor of Chinese history at Johns Hopkins University, also commented on the active communal and business life in a traditional Chinese city’s open spaces, including streets, which are suitable not just for a casual walk or talk.

Indeed, playing chess on a narrow pedestrian path may look strange in many other downtown areas across the world, where foot traffic is heavier. But Cangcheng is different.

The town is by no means “outlying” in the traditional sense of the word, ie, a long distance from a city center. Certainly, Cangcheng is situated far from downtown Shanghai, but it sits in the center of Songjiang New City whose construction is expected to be completed in 2035.

It’s one of five “new cities” that will emerge from Shanghai’s suburban areas over the next decade or so. And in most cases they will center around an ancient town to be restored to its historical majesty.

“The (five) ‘new cities’ should not be ‘too new’,” said An Qi, a professor from East China University of Science and Technology, at a forum in Shanghai earlier this month on the new cities’ ecological development. “They should be home to visible history,” An said.

By preserving an old town in the center of a “new city,” Shanghai is bringing back ancient low-carbon practices to future urban planning. A new downtown area in the years to come will cease to be a synonym for the hustle and bustle of a highly motorized or commercialized life.

In Cangcheng, the pedestrian was, and is, the king of the road, but more importantly, most renovated historical buildings have become open venues to demonstrate local intangible cultural heritage. A visitor can enter these buildings for free any time during their opening hours and feel the pulse of history.

Take the Du’s Residence with Carvings for example. It belonged to the Du family and was built during the reign of Emperor Jiaqing (1796-1820) in the Qing Dynasty.

The two-story residential compound is 12 meters wide (from west to east) and 45 meters long (from north to south). Some of its wooden buildings are exquisitely carved with various patterns like landscapes, flowers or birds. Western-style carvings have also found their way into those old structures.

Now the residence has become an intangible culture base where people come to study traditional Chinese medicine or folk music, among other things.

I went across the street to visit another residential house, which was also built in the Qing Dynasty. Now it has become a gallery to demonstrate a unique local cloth-making technology that dates back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).

“We dye our cotton yarns only with natural plants or minerals,” a middle-aged craftswoman told me. “We never use chemicals.”

Pointing to a bundle of deep blue yarns, she said they were dyed with banlangen, a medical herb also known as isatis root.

Songjiang cloth once accounted for two-thirds of China’s overall annual sales of cloth during the Qing Dynasty. According to a report from The Paper, Songjiang cloth even found its way into European societies, as indicated in Victor Hugo’s novel “Les Miserables.”

“Not many people know how to weave such cloth now,” said a woman, nearly in her 70s, who was teaching a middle-aged lady to weave on a wooden loom more than 100 years old.

“How many years have you weaved cloth this way?” I asked the older woman. “About 50 years?”

“Oh, more than 50 years,” she replied.

Although manual weaving is no longer mainstream practice in modern cloth manufacturing, some college students still come to study, or at least gain an experience, in the traditional skills, said a gallery assistant. She signed me up for some of the gallery’s future events before I bade farewell.

Out of the cloth gallery, I walked a few steps westward and sat on Dacang Bridge, staring into the sunset on the ancient river. An unspeakable quietness rising from the deep surrounding history engulfed me, as I silently enjoyed a warm winter dusk on an ancient stone step.

I felt a gentle breeze on my shoulders despite a forecast wintry weather, as I thought the zigzag streets and checkerboard-shaped communities would prevent the passage of gales that would easily prey on wide motor roads flanked by high-rises.

Cangcheng amounts to what renowned Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) called a city conducive to public health because it averts exposure to harsh wind. Indeed, as soon as I walked out of Cangcheng and into adjacent modern commercial districts through which a straight multiple-lane motor way runs, a much stronger wind whipped at my face.

As well as Cangcheng, an ancient neighborhood in Jiading District in northwestern Shanghai is also being restored to its former status. The West Gate area now under renovation features a riverside pedestrian street which was built more than 1,500 years ago. About 100 years ago, it began to be paved with small and irregular stones which are still in use today after renovation.

The street is lined with many historic buildings, including an old church where Western medicine was first introduced to the Jiading area. The West Gate area will sit in the center of Jiading New City now under construction and set to span 159 square kilometers.

As I sauntered in the historic neighborhood where motor traffic was rare, I met many middle school students who were heading home on foot. In contrast, students are often escorted by their parents or grandparents on their way to and from school in downtown areas where cars are king of the road.

Aside from Songjiang and Jiading, “new cities” are also being built in Qingpu, Fengxian and Nanhui, all of which are in suburban Shanghai.

“These ‘new cities’ are rich in historical heritage,” said Xiong Yuezhi, a senior historian, in an interview on the sideline of a recent lecture. “These heritage must be well protected, because they are witness to Shanghai’s long history and rich cultural traditions.”

Indeed, over the past four decades, urban development across China resulted in the rise of many skyscrapers and the expansion of motor ways, largely following the style of modern Western models.

As professor Wang Lin from Shanghai Jiao Tong University said, China is entering a second stage of urbanization. In this stage, rediscovering China’s ancient urban construction wisdom will go a long way toward reliving a life in harmony with nature and reinforcing our cultural confidence.


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