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Migration of ancient houses (2)

By Feng Shu (Global Times)

09:26, September 27, 2012

Wood carvings on a beam of the theater stage re-erected by Wang in the outskirts of Beijing. (GT/Feng Shu)

Moving across the Pacific

Before Le Quai, another house went on a much farther journey. In 1997, Yin Yu Tang, a 16-bedroom Qing Dynasty home, was meticulously transported piece-by-piece from Xiuning county, Anhui Province, to Salem, Massachusetts, for permanent display at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM). Compared with the three truckloads it took to move Le Quai, Yin Yu Tang's parts filled 19 containers across the Pacific Ocean, including 2,735 individual pieces of wood, 972 pieces of stone, and a lot of assemblies, such as the timber frame, roof framing, room partitions and wood flooring, according to PEM's official website.

As the only Qing Dynasty building to have left China, Nancy Berliner, PEM's curator of Chinese art and the originator of the project, called the house "an ambassador of Huizhou culture in America."

Today, the beauty and uniqueness of the building is being appreciated by many visitors from the US, few of whom have ever been to China before. "A house is one of the best ways to communicate cultural values, as everyone (or almost everyone) lives somewhere and understands the concept of home. Exploring the rooms and details of a house can offer a visitor a much richer experience of Chinese life than, for instance, viewing a porcelain vase," Berliner told the Global Times in an e-mail.

But no matter whether the commercial use of the Huizhou house represented by Wang's efforts, or the cultural purpose of Berliner's endeavor, both feel that they helped preserve the houses and their history.

As China rapidly urbanizes, many such architectural treasures are disappearing, together with many villages, at a tremendous rate.

For Wang, this justifies his efforts to relocate a total of 16 Huizhou-style houses to other parts of the country over the past decade. Besides Le Quai, two were restored in Chongqing, two in Guangdong Province, one in Shanghai, with the rest still in his own hands.

"In my eyes, these houses tell the stories of many ordinary Chinese families. Every house can be a thick book to read about our history and culture," said Wang, standing in the middle of one of his three re-erected houses in the outskirts of Beijing.

As an antique furniture dealer, Wang said his passion and love for Le Quai all started with the delicate wood-carved windows he originally purchased to sell. "I wondered what the house looked like when I found those beautiful windows," said Wang. "I was immediately attracted by its beauty," Wang said, trying to express his feeling upon first seeing the house in 1999.

Difficult decisions

But even as a skilled carpenter for more than 20 years, it took Wang several years before he decided to move the house to Beijing. "For many years, I felt that the houses, which always stood more than 7 or 8 meters high, were impossible to move," Wang added.

Now, after he has restored nearly 10 such houses himself, Wang still finds the restoration very challenging. "It's very difficult to find similar materials from the era when the house was built, especially if certain parts are missing," he commented.

It took six years for Berliner's team to re-erect Yin Yu Tang in Salem. The most challenging part was how to present the house's appearance as it had been lived in by people across different eras. Unlike Wang who put all of his attention to the structure of the house, Berliner's team tried to pay special care to details. This involved thorough research on the house's appearance as well as the lives of the people who lived there in the past century.

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