Wuyuan, an eastern China county loved by many for its pastoral beauty, is finding a novel way to give a new life to centuries-old houses that have fallen into disrepair.
People can "adopt" those rundown buildings and have them renovated as many owners lack funds or skills. Some have been redesigned into stylish boutique hotels sought after by travellers from across the country.
The attempt aims to complement a recent building protection drive, which listed key buildings to be maintained. The buildings up for adoption did not make it on the official list because they are not old enough to be eligible for government-funded protection.
Wu Zhixuan, 41, was the first outsider to rent and renovate a house in Wuyuan. He turned it into a village inn.
When Wu visited Wuyuan in 2008, he said he was taken aback by the local houses, many of which are in a Hui style featuring gray tiles and white walls.
Hui architecture can be seen across China in exquisite homes, ancestral halls and memorial archways.
As many houses are in a dire state, Wu, who has a degree in civil engineering, felt it was his civic duty to stay and do something.
He rented Jiusi Hall on a 40-year lease for 800,000 yuan (around 120,000 U.S. dollars) in total.
The 500-square-meter house in Luoyun Village has two halls, a kitchen and a backyard. It was built in 1902.
"It looked good but was in a bad state of repair," said Wu. He recalled that the second floor collapsed when his friend was filming the space. "My friend was so cool about it, he just held on to a beam," he laughed.
In 2011, Jiusi Hall opened to the public after renovation work that cost one million yuan preserved many of the original features -- wooden doors, brick walls, paved courtyard and elegant wood carvings.
Wu added modern characteristics to the house, such as soundproofing, air conditioning and modern bathrooms.
The renovation project was the start of the adoption craze.
Wuyuan has more than 4,000 ancient houses, many built over a period of 600 years, up to the end of the Qing Dynasty (1911).
So far, more than 110 houses in Wuyuan have been rented or purchased by outsiders.
The houses up for adoption are not covered by government protection grants, and repair and maintenance fees for each dwelling can reach millions of yuan.
Moreover, it is difficult to find traditional craftsmen to renovate them.
"My heart was broken when I saw these excellent examples of architecture disappearing," said Yu Youhong, a woodcarver.
Edward Gawne, 32, was the first foreigner to purchase a building in Wuyuan. With help of Yu, he has just completed renovations on a Qing Dynasty house.
The house in Yancun Village covers 600 square meters and was built more than 200 years ago. When Gawne first saw it, many of the wood carvings were damaged and much of the structural integrity needed attention.
The man from London and his Chinese wife Liao Minxin turned the house into a family inn.
"We restored it and decorated the rooms with modern elements to make it comfortable. We also have a bar and a British-style garden," said Liao.
RENOVATION OR PRESERVATION
The adoption wave has resulted in a boom for tourism in Wuyuan, which covers an area of around 3,000 square kilometers. More than 70,000 of its total population of 360,000 work in tourism.
Wuyuan has over 570 family inns. Critics say adoption may damage original houses and commercialized ancient villages may upset the tranquility of the local area.
Wuyuan publicity department responded that major structures are not allowed to be changed.
The county government has drafted a regulation that is under review, it said.
"Private investment is being used to renovate and preserve those ancient houses that are not classed as 'cultural relics' but are historically valuable nonetheless," said Cao Guoxin, deputy director with the tourism development research center at Jiangxi University of Finance and Economics.
Wu Zhixuan has rented more than ten ancient houses in Wuyuan and Huangshan City, Anhui Province.
He said that people have purchased ancient houses in neighboring Zhejiang Province and relocated them. For him, keeping houses in their original setting is ideal.
"They only care about the aesthetics," said Wu. "Protection is not only renovation but preservation of the stories behind the house and the families who came before us," said Wu.