A smile was written all over Yao Yunlang's face when he talked about his newly renovated house. "The wood and brick structure is well kept, so are the doors decorated with assorted carved flowers," said Yao, "This is too good to be true."
Yao lives in downtown Xi'an City, capital of Shaanxi Province. Yao inherited the house, built in Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), from his grandfather. Many old houses have been demolished during waves of economic development in the downtown area. Yao's house was spared because of its cultural value. Cultural heritage experts found that the structure and decoration of the house epitomized the era it was built in, and recommended the government to keep it. Yao was glad that his house was not torn down, but the house was in such poor condition that it might tumble down. He could not afford to renovate the place. Lacking modern amenities, the house offered little comfort beyond a roof.
Yao got lucky in 2005 when Xi'an launched a "Royal City Restoration Plan," which was to return the city to its grandeur during the prosperous Tang Dynasty (618-907). The municipal government would increase its spending on the preservation and restoration of old residential areas.
Architecture speaks of the style of a city. Xi'an is a city with a long history and many stories. He Hongxing, head of Xi'an City Planning Bureau said, "Reconstructing the old residential compounds is an important part of our efforts in restoring the architecture of the city and preserving our cultural heritage."
In 2007, Xi'an Municipal Government invested 5.6 million yuan ($778,000) in four residential restoration pilot projects. Yao's house was listed in the projects. The houses will retain their antique look, but will be equipped with modern facilities. "We will bring modern life to the residents in these ancient houses. Water, power, heating, gas and communication networks will be provided to the houses," He explained.
Wu Chun, an official in Xi'an Administration of Cultural Heritage, revealed that two of the pilot projects have been completed, and the remaining two are close to completion. Xi'an Administration of Cultural Heritage has finished a questionnaire survey and land survey in the old residential neighborhoods. "We have submitted to the municipal government a working plan based on findings from our pilot projects. Once the plan is approved, the comprehensive restoration project will kick off," Wu told Beijing Review.
Xi'an, known as Chang'an in ancient China, was the capital city for several dynasties. It was one of the birthplaces of Chinese culture and the starting point of the Silk Road, which was a series of trade and cultural transmission routes that stretched to Europe and were central to cultural interaction between peoples along their length.
Most of the houses in the historical residential neighborhood were built in the Qing Dynasty and the Republic of China (1912-1949), while a small number of them were built in Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
The quadrate courtyards in Xi'an are a little bit different from those in Beijing. A typical courtyard in Beijing has one yard, while a typical one in Xi'an is a complex of several connecting yards. These remaining ancient courtyards were usually owned by rich businessmen or officials, and were decorated elaborately.
One hundred meters from the Bell Tower at the center of Xi'an City is a historical Muslim district. The neighborhood has 54 hectares and 60,000 residents. The area has 20,000 Muslims and 10 mosques of various shapes and colors. Number 125 Huajue Alley in this neighborhood is a courtyard combining traditional Chinese and Muslim styles. The current owner of this 256-square-meter courtyard, An Shouxin is a Muslim in his 70s. Eight generations of An's family has lived in the house.
In 1985, a professor from Norway visited the Muslim district in Xi'an, and was taken by the place. With the professor's efforts, China and Norway signed an agreement in 1997, and Norway pledged to fund dozens of programs in China, including the restoration of the Muslim district in Xi'an. Norway invested about 4.8 million yuan ($667,000) in the restoration of No.125 Huajue Alley. The project won the 2002 UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation.
Rapid economic development and population growth have crowded out some historical residential quarters. Statistics show that the area of historical residential quarters in Xi'an has dwindled to 30 percent of that in the 1980s. Among the 30 historical residential houses that the Xi'an Administration of Cultural Heritage and other government departments put under protection in 1993, half are gone. Xi'an Administration of Cultural Heritage initially planned to put 102 historical residential houses under protection, now the number has been reduced to 80, Wu Chun told Beijing Review.
Ill-defined property rights and a poor legal framework regarding the protection of historical residential areas have hampered conservation, according to Xiang De, Deputy Director of Xi'an Administration of Cultural Heritage. The current law does not specify whether residents can demolish, restructure or expand their houses. To improve their living conditions, some residents have torn down their old houses and replaced them with modern ones with better facilities. Others have added new structures to the old house to make their place more spacious.
Sustainable commercial development
On June 24, 2004, Xi'an Administration of Cultural Heritage submitted to the local government a Plan on the Protection of Historical Residential Neighborhoods. Xi'an Municipal Government commissioned experts to hold hearings on the plan, and listed the protection of historical residential neighborhoods on its agenda.
"Historical residential neighborhoods and cultural sites are irreplaceable resources. If we fail to protect them, we will betray our ancestors and future generations," Yuan Chunqing, Governor of Shaanxi Province remarked thoughtfully after visiting the traditional residential neighborhoods.
Xi'an Municipal Government took the suggestion from Xi'an Administration of Cultural Heritage, and expressed that it would earmark funds and raise funds from society to restore historical residential neighborhoods. Historical courtyards with high cultural values would be recorded into an archive.
Now, Xi'an Municipal Government has established a project group on the protection of historical residential neighborhoods. The project group is comprised of experts in the fields of urban planning, cultural heritage, architecture and law. The group will ascertain the value of historical residential neighborhoods, conduct feasibility studies and make renovation plans.
Xi'an Administration of Cultural Heritage will announce the schedule that each historical residential neighborhood or courtyard will be put under protection. The first phase of the renovation project is expected to be complete in 2011.
Preservation of historical residential neighborhoods is costly. At present, the
lion's share of the cost of preservation is born by the Municipal Government of Xi'an, although domestic and foreign organizations or individuals are encouraged to invest in heritage protection. The cost of protection is not a small burden for the local government.
Xi'an is exploring a combination of heritage protection and commercial development. Number 144 Beiyuanmen is Gao Yuesong's former residence, built more than 400 years ago. Gao was a famous artist in the Ming Dynasty. The 0.3-hectare courtyard is a complex of three yards, with 86 rooms.
In 1990s, preliminary maintenance was performed on the courtyard. Later, the local government decided to overhaul Gao Yuesong's former residence and open it to the public. Xi'an Institute of Chinese Painting was entrusted with the management and development of the estate. The original look was kept intact during the renovation; even the old bricks were indexed and reused. After the surgery, the historical estate was opened to the public in 2004, and has become a popular site of historical interest. In 2007, approximately 300,000 tourists visited Gao's estate. Many entertaining activities have been hosted in the yard, including shadow puppet performances, ancient music concerts, pottery making and brick carving.