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Migration of ancient houses (3)

By Feng Shu (Global Times)

09:26, September 27, 2012

A bedroom inside Yin Yu Tang. (GT/Courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum)

In the refurbished Yin Yu Tang, traces of history can be found everywhere, from the poster dating back to China's Cultural Revolution (1966-76), to the utensils of daily life such as thermos flasks or a loud speaker.

Despite the mammoth task behind every migration of these ancient Huizhou-style houses, many have followed suit since the late 1990s. In Shexian county, Anhui Province, a big yard features a total of 26 Huizhou-style houses, all found and re-erected by a local entrepreneur. In Shanghai, a total of 12 Huizhou-style houses, otherwise scattered in remote villages, have found a second wind in a theme park, having moved from Anhui and Zhejiang Provinces. At the Expo City of the Folk Houses of Ming and Qing Dynasties in Hengdian, Zhejiang Province, a total of 120 houses have been rebuilt, many of which have been used in period films and TV shows.

Not very ethical

Though most houses on the move were purchased from individual owners, who hadn't been using them for many years, the sales of such houses remain a legally murky market, especially when they are to be shipped overseas.

In 2006, the proposed purchase of an old tea house called Cui Ping Ju in Shitai county, Anhui Province, by a Swedish company for 200,000 yuan ($31,740) was finally denied by the local government at last minute by claiming it a historical building along an ancient alley, which is regarded as a provincial-level cultural heritage site. The news immediately attracted huge controversy. While some see such moves as a good way to preserve the old houses before they are dismantled for scrap wood, some decry the industry as smuggling cultural relics.

As a result, the Cui Ping Ju tea house was finally tagged as a cultural relic by the local authorities and remained there.

"The house was not sold in the end, and neither has it been used for commercial purposes. Today, the Tianfang Tea Company is in charge of protecting it, but the house still belongs to its original owner," Li Xiuyun, director of the Shitai Bureau of Cultural Relics, confirmed with the Global Times.

"In principle, any buildings built before 1911 should be under our supervision and protection. But in reality, it's hard to effectively implement this rule due to the lack of capital in cultural heritage preservation," said Chen Rongjun, curator of the Dongyang museum in Zhejiang Province.

In Dongyang alone, only around 180 houses have been named cultural relics, while another 1,350 need protection. In the past, Chen's museum only received 1 million yuan a year as its cultural protection budget. Despite a huge boost to 5 million yuan from this year, Chen laments that it is still not enough to protect the 180 houses already listed. Over the past five years, the Dongyang museum has spent a total of 25 million yuan, mostly from private sector fundraising, for the protection of 125 houses.

"Our most important job is to protect the most valuable ones within our capability, for those not in the list, if house is sold to be better conserved, then why not?" Chen noted.

Slimmer opportunities

In the face of the rapid losses of many Huizhou-style houses, China has seen an increasing interest and concern from the government to preserve traditional architecture nationwide. Recently, the government of Huangshan in Anhui Province approved a 600 million yuan investment to move a total of 140 houses into an "international cultural corridor" for better protection.

As cultural heritage protection authorities have issued stricter regulations to prevent ancient houses from being moved out of their original regions, antique dealers find it harder to find good houses. But for Wang, the biggest concern now is how to make the best use out of those already in his care.

Among Wang's collections, a theater stage that he rebuilt in his workshop is one of his favorite pieces.

"Beside a broken main beam and part of the wooden materials, the whole stage was mostly buried in the earth and some of it had rotten away," Wang described the status of the 450-year-old stage when he first found it.

After the local cultural heritage protection authority failed to restore the house in its original home at a cost of 1.5 million yuan, Wang purchased it from the house owner and finally restored it at two times the cost of the proposed budget.

"If I just had only this one house, I would feel no regret for my whole life," said Wang, who hopes to turn the stage into a place for performances and variety shows. "I hope that in this way, more and more people could have the chance to appreciate it. After all, we always take our own heritage for granted but more houses like this could be saved with a joint effort," he added.

Zhang Yan contributed to this story

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