Against a backdrop of dark hills, a giant white billboard pricked up against a breeze upon newly leveled-off jet black soils in Beichuan, southwest China's Sichuan Province.
"We shall construct Beichuan well." The scarlet Chinese characters on the billboard made clear the determination of the mountain-based county, where countless buildings were toppled and more than 15,000 people were killed and 4,000 missing in last year's earthquake.
The plans for the new county seat look impressive: a bustling town with dense buildings surrounded by hills and rivers. The Anchang River flows southward across the new county seat amid sunshine, lined with greenbelts on both sides. A trunk axle line stretches from the east to the west, joining the cultural center, earthquake memorial park, shopping street of Qiang ethnic features, and a bridge-based pedestrian street.
"Construction of the new county seat will come into full swing in June," said Meng Lei, assistant director of the Shandong Aid-Beichuan Construction Office.
East China's Shandong Province, designated by the central government to support reconstruction in Beichuan, poured about 5 billion yuan (733 million U.S. dollars) to rebuild the new county seat of Beichuan, in addition to another 2.6 billion yuan earmarked for township, rural housing and road construction in the county. The investment was about 80 times the annual financial revenue of Beichuan County, and was far higher than the state-stipulated norm of 1 percent of the annual financial revenue of Shandong Province.
"We are waiting for the detailed layout, which will come out soon. Only with detailed prescriptions for each quarter, will we be able to break ground and set to work," said Meng. "The good news is the overall layout has been recently approved by higher authorities for the new county seat. Some of the blueprints were released by the media."
Under the layout, the new county seat, 23 kilometers to the south of the old county seat, will be 10 square kilometers in size in a region in the Huangtu Town. Under the program, the new county seat will develop into the political, economic and cultural center of Beichuan. It will also serve as a tourism service base in western Sichuan, an industrial base of western Mianyang City, a modernized Qiang ethnic group cultural center, and an ecological park. The county seat's shopping malls will occupy 150,000 square meters. Tourism and entertainment facilities will cover 387,000 square meters.
"They are fairly large for a town of only 30,000 permanent residents," said Meng.
Beichuan, laid waste in last year's earthquake, is China's only Qiang ethnic group autonomous county. Reconstructing a county seat in another place after a natural disaster is also unprecedented in the country.
"We have to shift the county seat, because the old county seat sits on a geological zone of fracture, too dangerous for local residents. The old county seat will be used to build a museum to lament the dead in the earthquake," said Meng.
Li Xiaojiang, director of China Academy of Urban Planning and Design, a major designer to map out the layout for the new county seat of Beichuan, said, "Our biggest problem in programming the layout is how to properly harmonize the relations of building a brand-new modern town and inheriting local histories and cultures."
Li said designers had integrated traditional architectural features of Qiang ethnic group into many modern buildings. They had also considered supplying people with meeting places for Qiang ethnic cultures, traditions and social customs.
"Take the construction of the memorial park, the square, and the greenbelts along the streets. We will keep some sites large enough for people of Qiang ethnic group to dance Guozhuang, a favorite collective bonfire dance of the Tibetans and Qiang nationalities, allowing them to show respect and awe to nature.
"We will continue to use a large number of old place names and street names in the new county seat, to let the people feel the continuity of history," Li said. "We will retain the names of the six villages of Huangtu Town that host the new county seat when naming residential quarters. But when it comes to naming roads and streets, we will use as many old names as in the old county seat, such as the most important Xiqiang Road and Yulong Road."
"Different from other cities and towns, the new county seat will come up against residents having gone through great calamities. Like other cities and towns, the new county seat remains as well in the new stage of social development," said Li.
"In this sense, we need to satisfy local residents' demands to reconstruct their homeland, and also meet the new values generated by social progress. To put it simply, we cannot merely return to the old patterns in city construction."
When they started to design the new county seat last October, Li and his fellow designers were worried that the local culture might be lost in the course of forwarding a mountain-based ethnic group to plain belts on the hills.
To their contentment, Li's survey with local residents showed most people agreed with the plans.
"Yes, we love mountains. But we cherish more to have us all live together. So long as we Qiang ethnic groups gather together, we will be able to pass on the core of our culture," said Lei Huiqin, a 24-year-old woman who previously ran a small clothing store.
"It will take a fairly long time to reconstruct communities and social structures in building the new county seat in the days to come. We hope our layout could supply a wonderful platform of sites and materials for Beichuan people to reconstruct their spiritual Eden," said Li.
In the eye of Meng Lei, the new county seat is ingeniously positioned. It is a link embedded in the chain stretching from the earthquake memorial park at the old county seat to the tourism zones in Qingpian and Piankoun towns, of Qiang ethnic group features, and to the virgin forest in the end.
"Business opportunities brought along by the tourism industry and the 1.4-square-kilometer industrial park aided by Shandong, the new county seat will serve as two wings to boost the local economy," said Meng.
Meng is puzzled with one thing: the construction team is running short of time. According to the schedule, Meng's team must complete the first-stage construction, preparing four square kilometers, for the new county seat in two to three years.
"We have given wing to all preparations. We must not lose a second now. I think the best way for us to lament our brethrens' passing away in the earthquake is to achieve great construction results with arduous work," said Meng.