Shanghai Social Diary: Treasures of China’s Heritage, Part 1

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On a nine-day trip to China with the Global Heritage Fund, I explored some truly incredible, off-the-beaten-path historical sites, among them the Xuankongsi Hanging Temple that clings to the side of a mountain in northeast China.

Treasures of China’s Heritage: Touring with the Global Heritage Fund
(First of a Seven-part Series)

For many, a trip to China is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, usually limited to the must-see places such as Beijing, Shanghai, Xian, and the other major cities. But if you have the opportunity to make return visits to this vast and varied country, I highly recommend stepping off the tourist trail and venturing into the provinces.

Below are some of the highlights of the Global Heritage Fund voyage that took us from the south to the north of China, on a schedule packed with explorations of numerous historically significant sites.

I first visited China in 1987 and quickly fell in love with its intoxicating beauty, rich culture, and welcoming people. I immediately vowed to return—and not simply as a tourist. Since 2008, I’ve lived in China off and on and have seen many places that are still largely undeveloped and therefore undiscovered by outsiders.


Of all my travels in China, the nine-day trip with the Global Heritage Fund (GHF), led by founder Jeff Morgan, was a highlight. The California-based Global Heritage Fund’s mission is to protect, preserve and sustain the most significant and endangered cultural heritage sites in the developing world. This trip was designed to introduce donors to some of those projects in China.

It’s my pleasure to share this experience with you in a series of recollections illustrated primarily with my personal photographs. I hope these spark your desire to encounter these wonders for yourself, and to support an organization active in safeguarding them.

GHF founder Jeff Morgan, who holds an M.S. in Management from Stanford and a B.S. in City and Regional Planning from Cornell, is the co-author of Saving Our Global Heritage, among other books.
Fujian Province, southeastern China: Our journey began here, where we explored traditional earthen dwellings called tulous.
Fujian Province: One of the tulou residences we visited was the Tian Luo Keng tulou cluster, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Pingyao, Shanxi: In northeastern China, GHF is working to preserve the ancient walled city of Pingyao, which was my favorite stop on the journey.
Pingyao, Shanxi: I felt as if I’d walked onto the set of an epic Chinese historical drama when I first encountered these ancient courtyard homes.
Wutai Mountains, Shanxi: A room in the Foguang Temple, one of the oldest wooden structures in China, houses 1,000 carved-wood disciples.
Datong, Shanxi: The Yungang Grottoes, another UNESCO World Heritage site, are known for their carvings and sculptures of the Buddha.
Yingxian, Shanxi: The only remaining wooden pagoda in China is also one of the tallest wooden structures in the world.
Taiyuan, Shanxi: Jinci Temple, about 1,400 years old, is the best known ancient ancestral temple complex in China.


Our first stop was Xiamen, Fujian, on the Taiwan Strait on China’s east coast. It’s the modern city closest to Taiwan, only an hour’s flight away. In the past, many Chinese from the Fujian area migrated to Taiwan for better opportunities.

I flew from Shanghai’s gleaming new Hongqiao airport, a prime example of how modern China has become, to Gaoqi Airport in Xiamen.
On the thirty-minute ride from Gaoqi Airport to the hotel, I was impressed by the modern Haicang Bridge and mile after mile of trees and flowers lining the highway.
We stayed at the Asia Gulf Hotel, a five-star seaside resort. Though comfortable, it didn’t compare architecturally to the fantastic new buildings in Shanghai and other large cities.
My private seaside villa, with its own large lobby and two floors of rooms, would have comfortably accommodated a family or group of convention-goers.
On a cool, overcast day, I strolled along the beach and explored the grounds.
It amused me to encounter a traditional American-style birthday cake in the hotel café. Clearly, American ritual traditions have worked their way into the obscure recesses of China.
The label “U.S. Cheesecake” made me chuckle. Shouldn’t that be “New York cheesecake”?


Our first dinner in Xiamen was at a local seafood restaurant unlike any I’ve experienced before or since. It featured tanks and tanks of sea critters—sixty-six types in all—including lobsters, crabs, mollusks, sea bass, shrimps of every size, leopard fish, skate, and others we couldn’t begin to identify.

After selecting our sea fare, we chose side dishes from an abundant selection of fresh vegetables, each wrapped in cellophane (for cleanliness, I assume). As is typical of Chinese-style round-table dining, we shared an array of dishes.


In 1980, Xiamen was selected as one of China’s five special economic zones, or “world free-trade zones.” Though it has yet to become a hub for tourists, it is among China’s major cities, with new bridges, a fast train, and international trade.

Xiamen was dubbed the country’s “most romantic leisure city” in a 2011 survey sponsored by the China National Tourism Bureau, and “second-most suitable city for living” in a 2006 survey by Beijing polling agency Horizon Group.
Xiamen’s European-style colonial buildings, dating from the Victorian era, stand alongside modern high-rises.
I was surprised by how big the city was. New buildings seemed to be going up everywhere.
An important shipping port, Xiamen is home to offices of such major companies as Kodak, Dell, Coca Cola, and Nova.


Leaving the city, we crossed over the Haicang Bridge (1999), one of the two links to the mainland. (The other is Xiamen Xiang’an Undersea Tunnel, which opened in April 2010 and cut commuting time from ninety minutes to about nine.)

Haicang Bridge—one of the largest suspension bridges in Asia and a tourist attraction in its own right—empties onto a four-lane highway into the countryside.
As we drove into the rural countryside, we left the factories and bustling ports behind.
Lush countryside on our route was dotted with farms where mushrooms are grown for export.
Because of its subtropical climate, Xiamen farmers grow plenty of tropical fruit both familiar (kumquat, mango, bananas) and less well known (longan, jackfruit, loquat).


We next headed to Yongding and Nanjing Counties. About 1,000 years ago, a group of Han Chinese migrated to this fertile mountain region to escape war and famine in the north and central plains.

The newcomers were dubbed Hakka (meaning “guests”), but they weren’t always welcomed, since they were vying with the natives for limited resources.

As we arrived in Yongding County, a billboard featuring (now former) President Hu Jin Tao greeted us.
Through the van’s window, we got our first glimpse of an earthen dwelling known as a tulou (at right), which is exactly what we had come to see.
It isn’t just foreigners who tour the provinces in buses. Everywhere we went, we saw groups of Chinese tourists exploring their own vast country.
In China, the juxtaposition of new and old never ceases to fascinate. Here, a young man on his cell phone trails a woman working as the rural Chinese have for generations.


Tulou (pronounced “too low”) literally means “earthen building,” and is a traditional communal residence consisting of a central courtyard surrounded by rings of family quarters. Like a moated medieval European castle, a tulou is a miniature fortified city—a fortress—where the original inhabitants formed a community for safety from invaders. The oldest of them was built in the twelfth century, while new ones have gone up as recently as the twentieth.

There are about 20,000 tulou structures in Fujian, 3,000 of which are considered true Fujian tulous. More than 46 of them are UNESCO-designated, and the Chinese government has named them a National Cultural Heritage Protection Unit.
The multi-story, multi-family dwellings are made of earth, gravel, and bamboo. Some of them are still inhabited today, but young people are increasingly moving out for jobs in cities.
On the ground floor, tulous have an open courtyard and communal space for ancestral worship, along with a well and storage rooms for livestock and food.
L. to r.: Shared kitchens and bathrooms are on the first floor; on the upper floors, a communal corridor connects individual, vertically divided family quarters. ; Tulous are often built in clusters; some dwellings are round, others square, and some enclose smaller interior buildings.
GHF board members Judy Koch, Lucie Jay, and Marie-Françoise Bertrand stand in front of the stylized eaves that keep rainwater from eroding the buildings.
It is wonderful to see that in modern China, many citizens are interested in exploring their country’s heritage.
The round tulou design is reflected in a lot of contemporary architecture—even as far away as the U.S.—including Apple’s planned “Campus 2” in Cupertino, California.


Tulous have been described as “little kingdoms for the family” or “bustling small cities,” housing up to eighty families or eight hundred people. But there is no monarch in residence, just a clan of several generations.

Traditionally, entire clans and families lived very closely together for mutual protection. Imagine how essential it was to get along with your relatives and neighbors!
I saw many grandparents caring for children while the parents were presumably off at work. Like young people around the globe, many leave this rural region for better opportunities in the city.
L. to r.: This room residence is decorated in contemporary style. ; Another room has been converted into a souvenir shop.
Keeping and breeding pet birds has been a Chinese hobby for centuries.


Our next stop was the Yongding County Tulou Cultural Village, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that features numerous round and square tulous. We took a stroll along the banks of a stream that led into the village, where we enjoyed lunch.

At the entrance to the village, a map illustrates the numerous tulous dotting the riverbank.
Across the street from the ancient tulou cluster is Chuxi Village, a lively, if nondescript, little town.

GHF supporters Jeanne Lawrence, Marie-Françoise Bertrand, Lucie Jay, Jasmine Arneja, Cathy McMurtry, and Sandee McCaffrey.


While in Yongding, we lunched at the Five-Phoenix restaurant, located in an original tulou that also houses a store and a little inn. One way to preserve these architectural gems is to establish sources of revenue that can support families living in the area.

During lunch, the background music was supplied by Kenny G. and Michael Bolton­—more proof that the modern world has infiltrated even the furthest corners of the globe.
The Five-Phoenix is a family affair: the father and grandson are managers, the daughter is the cook, and everyone works as a team.
All over China, it’s customary to remove your shoes when you enter a building.
Seated in a former family room, we ate a traditional lunch consisting of many dishes—vegetables, chicken, pork, eggplant, cabbage, sautéed potatoes, and rice dumplings.
The grandmother-proprietor led us on a tour of the upstairs and downstairs guestrooms, which were small and simple (and, quite typically, without a private bath).
Although ours was a day visit, the hotel would be an intriguing place to stay for the adventurous and budget-minded.


In the courtyard of one Yongding tulou, we were treated to a traditional tea ceremony. Its ritualized preparation and presentation is called gongfu—literally, “making tea with effort.”
Judy Koch and Sandee McCaffrey enjoyed the world-famous Fujian tea, picked when it’s young, which many of us purchased to take back home.
“Tea culture” is very important in China; the ritual tea ceremony originated in Fujian, where many types of tea are grown and its appreciation is central to everyday life.
Lucie Jay bought sacks of Fujian tea as gifts for friends.
I was thrilled to experience a part of China unknown to me.

All of us who are interested in world culture and history are the lucky beneficiaries of GHF’s impressive work preserving these historic architectural gems. It is the organization’s hope (as well as my own) that the Chinese government will be inspired to step up its own efforts to safeguard its heritage before its precious landmarks disappear. Judging from the number of Chinese tourists I encountered on my travels, this work will be deeply appreciated by natives as well as visitors from far and wide.

In my next post, I share more of Days 2 and 3, including tulous of a different style in Pinghe and Nanjing counties, and the historic port town of Zhangzhou.

Photographs by Jeanne Lawrence.

*Urbanite Jeanne Lawrence reports on lifestyle and travel from her homes in San Francisco, Shanghai, and New York, and wherever else she finds a good story.

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