Economic vitality found in ancient Huizhou-style architecture

A carpenter gilds an ancient Huizhou-style building in Huangshan, Anhui province, in September. (SHI YALEI / FOR CHINA DAILY)

Thousands of timber planks, stones and bricks are being reassembled into a house with black tiles, high walls shaped like horse heads and refined wood and stone carvings.

But this is no game with Lego bricks. It is the construction of a house built in the ancient Huizhou style in Huangshan, Anhui province.

While renovation of ancient houses has been happening for years and continues, the construction of new houses in ancient styles has also become important, using old, reclaimed building materials as well as new components.

Both trends are growing, leading to an architectural revival.

Huangshan, in the historical Huizhou region, inspired this important branch of Chinese architecture. Many of these ancient buildings, with detailed carvings and decorations at first not apparent from their often simple exteriors, are considered to be of great cultural and economic value.

Pan Guodong, builder of the house mentioned above and head of Huangshan Huijiang Ancient Architecture Design Co Ltd, said this masterpiece residence has already been sold for an astonishing price of over 50 million yuan ($7.9 million).

"The construction of Huizhou-style houses has become a sound industry with complete upstream and downstream industry chains here in Huangshan. Rising local companies produce pseudo-classic Huizhou-style houses and sell them for commercial uses," Pan said.

"Many companies also ask experienced craftsmen to repair some components taken from abandoned Huizhou-style buildings that were torn down to use in new, modern houses, or to rebuild old Huizhou-style houses," he said.

Like Pan's business, the city is injecting new life into the use of the centuries-old style through supporting development of the Huizhou-style architecture industry. The city government calls the sector one of its 14 strategically important industries over the next three to five years.

"Huizhou-style architecture is like a three-dimensional historical book written with brick, wood and stone. They are not only historical and cultural relics, but also treasures that can generate huge economic value," said Ling Yun, Party secretary of Huangshan.

Ling said potential business models include the restoration of ancient cultural relics and buildings, the integration of tourism with architecture and the revitalization of old villages through the protection and renewed utilization of their architecture.

"As the country's economic and international influence continues to expand, more people from home and abroad are embracing Huizhou-style architecture, thus opening a significant market for the industry," she said.

Last year, the sales revenue of the city's ancient-style architecture industry amounted to more than 1.2 billion yuan. More than 200 local companies are participating in the construction of Huizhou-style buildings and related industry chains.

In 2016, Su Tong, a business woman native to Huangshan, opened a bed and breakfast lodge using seven old houses in Chengkan, a village in Huangshan famous for its well-preserved houses from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

A pseudo-classic Huizhou-style house is being built in Huangshan, Anhui province. (SHI YALEI / FOR CHINA DAILY)

When Su first saw what she called her "dream property", she remembered it as gloomy and forlorn, with decayed wood that had been partly consumed by termites.

"These houses were built by successful business owners called Huizhou merchants who accounted for almost half of China's wealth between the late Ming Dynasty and the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)," she said. "Huizhou culture shouldn't disappear with the passage of time."

She spent millions of yuan restoring the seven run-down houses. Two years of reconstruction and interior work finally turned them into a cozy, elegant hotel.

The 16 rooms in the renovated structures, which go for an average price of 1,500 yuan a night, are all booked on weekends. The hotel has become so popular that tourists have to make reservations two months in advance to get a room in peak seasons.

"Stepping into the hotel, I felt like I was living in the Huizhou region of ancient dynasties. It is really a retreat from busy urban life," said Tan Ziyi, a 33-year-old bank employee from Nanjing, Jiangsu province, who booked three nights in the hotel during his vacation.

Given that many old Huizhou-style houses have been recognized as part of a significant cultural heritage, their renovation can be costly. Local government in the past few years has taken steps to attract private investors like Su to renovate old houses in Huangshan.

The government has set up strict rules allowing only qualified investors to buy, rent or renovate the Huizhou-style houses to ensure structures with great cultural value are not ruined.

But the key bottleneck for development of the industry is expected to be the looming shortage of craftsmen and people with related skills to ensure work is done properly, according to Ye Shan'en, deputy head of a branch of the Huangshan Chamber of Commerce, who has spent decades building Huizhou-style houses. The branch is located in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, a city that is relatively near.

"Repairing ancient Huizhou-style buildings is not easy. The joinery used in the buildings is a complex system based on mortise-and-tenon principles to connect the wooden components of the timber frame," he said.

"Since the original components were all made by hand, almost no modern machines can be used in preparing the replicas. To qualify for the work, a carpenter must have mastery of more than 100 specific types of carpentry tools," he added.

Pan, of Huijiang Ancient Architecture Design, said most of his wood carvers are around 50 years old and the most experienced craftsman is 70.

Carving done for windows and doors is one of the signatures of Huizhou-style buildings and requires experience, Pan said. The carvings span a wide range of imagery, including birds and flowers, auspicious beasts such as dragons or lions, characters from folklore and scenes from daily activities such as carrying water, farming and reading.

"However, it has been impossible to find young people who are interested in and also good at carving work, which requires not only good skills but also great patience and a good knowledge of ancient history from different times," he added.

To solve the problem, Huangshan government officials said they will accelerate the formation of a group of centers to train people to work on Huizhou-style building and restoration, integrating teaching and research, skills development, innovation and entrepreneurship.

More subsidies and other incentives will also be given to those who want to work in the industry, especially the young, to boost the availability of local craftsmen, the government said.

Despite such challenges, Huangshan Party Secretary Ling Yun said that the sector has been developing rapidly in recent decades, and many of the companies have been invited to undertake design and construction projects for important ancient buildings in other countries.

A local team restored the Chinese Garden of Heavenly Peace in Frankfurt's Bethmann Park in Germany after it was destroyed by arson in June 2017. The necessary building materials for the garden, including roof tiles and decorative wooden elements, were produced in China, and components were then shipped by sea in six containers to Frankfurt. Such efforts helped retain the style of the original building.

Yinyutang, another Huizhou-style house, was shipped more than 11,200 kilometers from its original site in Huangshan to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, in the United States in the late 1990s. Although the move cost more than $100 million, many visitors call it an invaluable addition.

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