Treasures of China’s Heritage: Touring with the Global Heritage Fund
(Second of a Seven-part Series)
Nanjing and Pinghe Counties, Fujian
I recently had the privilege of taking a nine-day trip to China in the company of board members of the Global Heritage Fund (GHF)—an organization devoted to supporting underdeveloped rural areas worldwide. Although I’d previously traveled extensively in China, this unusual excursion was uniquely enriching and memorable. It’s my pleasure to share this experience with you in a series of recollections illustrated primarily by my personal photographs. Links to the other installments in this series can be found at the end of this article.
DAY 2: ARRIVAL IN ZHANGZHOU CITY
After landing in Fujian’s modern city of Xiamen and exploring earthen tulou buildings in the countryside on our first day, we proceeded to the historic port town of Zhangzhou and then to Pinghe and Nanjing counties, where we visited tulous of a different style.
Only forty-three miles from the costal city of Xiamen lies Zhangzhou, a second-tier city with a population of nearly five million. Once a big port town known for trafficking in silk and sugar, today it supports agriculture, flour-milling, wine-making, tea-curing, papermaking, printing, the manufacture of jute sacking, and narcissus cultivation.
The modern area of town is a far cry from Zhangzhou’s Old Town, featuring modern buildings, contemporary shops, and endless traffic.
I like to browse in local shops where I can find regional products and designs, so I enjoyed our stop at a large store filled with flat-screen TVs, refrigerators, and small appliances bearing Chinese brands unfamiliar to me. Our trip leader, GHF co-founder Jeff Morgan, noted that Zhangzhou is reminiscent of China in the 1980s, when few imports could be found anywhere—only indigenous goods.
I quickly let go of my notion that I might find bargains on this trip. My Canon G11 camera, for example, cost me $500 in the U.S. and was on sale here for $570.
OFFICIAL BANQUET DINNER
On our first night in Zhangzhou, Madame Yang Li Hua, Director of the Cultural Relics Office, hosted a traditional Chinese banquet for our group and welcomed us with a customary Chinese toast followed by course after course of delicious regional food.
Ganbei (literally, “bottoms up”) is the word for “toast,” and drinking is customary at formal banquet gatherings, where business and government officials bond, tell stories, and enjoy entertainment—all while determining whether their cohorts are trustworthy.
A lot of bai jiu—a traditional Chinese distilled liquor—is consumed and guests are expected to be able to hold their own in the drinking department. I wasn’t sure whether that “rule” applied to women, but Madame Yang set me straight: “You have to learn to drink like a man to succeed in their world,” she insisted.
DAY 3: A CONFUCIAN TEMPLE AND OFF TO PINGHE COUNTY
On an excursion that Madame Yang organized for us, we left early the next morning for a visit to an ancient Confucian temple. After that, it was off to Pinghe County to visit more tulous.
TEA WITH MADAME YANG
Ever the gracious hostess, Madame Yang invited us to her headquarters at the Office of Cultural Relics. She won a UNESCO award for her planning and preservation efforts in this historic area. I hope she’ll succeed in safeguarding Zhangzhou’s original character.
“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.
As we strolled around the old city center, I snapped photos of street scenes, including old men in the town square playing cards and mahjong, smoking, chatting, and generally enjoying life, and people going about their daily lives.
THE DRIVE TO PINGHE COUNTY
Our one-hour ride to GHF’s Shengwu Lou project carried us through mountainous green countryside, where we glimpsed new communities sprouting up next to traditional small villages with factories, rice fields, and Fujian tea plantations.
VISITING A MINNAN CLAN TULOU
We finally reached GHF’s Shengwu Lou Project, in neighboring Pinghe County. The area is quite remote and still undiscovered by tourists.
During the Tang dynasty (618–907 C.E.), a group of Minnan people settled in Fujian to escape warring barbarians in the north. The Shengwu Lou tulou was designed by the eighteenth generation of the Ye family (1798–1820) and used until 1875.
In all of the cities we visited, GHF co-founder Jeff Morgan and his board were warmly welcomed. Here, the local villagers, representatives of the Chinese Academy of Cultural Heritage, and Pinghe County government officials expressed appreciation for the organization’s good intentions and efforts.
GIFTS OF BOOKS
Thanks to GHF board member Judy Koch, we created quite a stir in each village we visited. She brought along bags full of books to distribute to local children as part of Bring Me a Book, an organization she founded in l997 to share the gift of reading with disadvantaged children.
MATRIARCHS OF THE VILLAGE
Spontaneously, two women standing in their doorway invited several of us to have tea with their family. Naturally, we accepted and had a memorable and intimate experience.
OTHER TULOUS IN THE AREA
We visited several tulous in this village, some more rustic than others, some completely untouched, authentic, and beautiful even in their deteriorated state. Farmers still live in the area, but some of the old tulous have been abandoned.
Other sites close to Nanjing and Yongding also remain intact, still inhabited by families who have worked and lived there for generations. Jeff Morgan and GHF are hoping these will become protected sites.
The villagers in these remote areas have lived here for generations, but have begun abandoning these structures and moving into town to find work. GHF hopes to help create alternative means of income for them so they can stay in their ancestral homes.
TIAN LUO KENG TULOUS
As we started off on our long drive back to Xiamen, we stopped at the UNESCO-designated Tian Luo Keng tulou cluster, nicknamed Si Cai Yi Tang (“Four Dishes with a Soup”) for its four round structures and one square one.
The locals are proud of their heritage, concerned about protecting the architectural gems that surround them, and eager to see income from tourism supplement their livelihood as farmers.
Traveling with a group such as GHF, which has a purpose and a connection to the local people, is so much more enlightening than just a typical sightseeing tour.
PIZZA HUT DELIVERED
After a three-hour drive back to the Asia Gulf Hotel in Xiamen, where we had stayed a few days earlier, we arrived exhausted yet exhilarated from all we had seen.
SOME THOUGHTS ON PRESERVATION
In this region, over the years additions have been added to historic buildings. Lately, the villagers have been removing or tearing down the add-ons to protect the authenticity of the original designs. Their hope—and that of GHF—is that, in conjunction with UNESCO’s support, China will tap its own resources to protect its heritage.
Many citizens in Shanghai and Beijing now regret that the government razed so much historic architecture over the years and replaced it with modern high-rises. In the last decade alone, hundreds of buildings in Nanjing, Beijing, and Shanghai have been destroyed and thousands of people relocated.
China might do well to take a page from the American playbook. Those cities in the U.S. that have gone out of their way to preserve their historic sections—including New York and San Francisco—have reaped the benefit of millions of tourist dollars each year. It wouldn’t take a lot of money to protect China’s historic sites, and the upside is clear. We can only hope that the government will take action before time takes an irreparable toll. GHF is doing all that it can to inspire such action.
In my next post, I share my experiences on Day 4, when we traveled north to the ancient walled city of Pingyao. This would prove to be my favorite part of the whole trip!
LINKS TO OTHER POSTS IN THIS SERIES
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.