Ancient villages under threat from overwhelming numbers of visitors

Updated 2017-12-18 10:00:17 Global Times

The unkempt but charming village of Chengkan in Anhui Province is connected to the outside world by twisting roads revealing spectacular views of buildings, rivers and rugged landscapes of hills.

Inside the village itself, there are more than 150 ancient buildings that date back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). But this historical village may be in jeopardy. The village is now bracing itself for a tourist boom after the reality TV show Where are we going, Dad? filmed its latest season there.

Many other traditional Chinese villages are finding themselves in the same situation as Chengkan. TV audiences mesmerized by their remote locations and exotic cultures are starting to visit these places in droves.

Unfortunately, however, traditional villages in China are dying at an unprecedented rate because tourists are coming in such large numbers, in addition to other factors such as environmental damage and pollution, experts said.

A recent report revealed that 11 ancient villages in China die every week. Over the last 15 years, more than 920,000 such villages have disappeared.

As these villages die out, so do the memories of the nationalities and regional cultures that once lived in them.

Lacking variety

Ancient villages that have been exploited and economically developed are also losing their individual appeal. Visitors traveling between various villages now find little difference between them.

Souvenirs purchased in an ancient Beijing village can easily be found in an ancient village in Sichuan Province, He Xuefeng, an expert on rural governance at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology, told the Global Times.

Tourism is an essential industry that many village governments use to promote the local economy. But with a surge in tourism comes an influx of investment that usually results in villages being over-exploited, He said.

He's worries echo a recent report on the protection of traditional villages released by the Research Center of Chinese Village Culture (RCCVC) on Sunday, which said that some local governments tend to crudely renovate local buildings in one uniform style. The report says that they often lack awareness of how to protect ancient buildings.

The rampant speed of commercialization and development encourages local residents to make a living by selling tourist products. This means their traditional way of living and culture run the risk of disappearing, according to the report.

"There is also another factor of local residents moving out of town for jobs and a future, leaving just a few, mostly elderly people in town," He said.

In 2012, China launched its preservation program for ancient villages, which were selected from a total of 2.6 million rural villages. As of 2016, it has placed a total of 4,157 ancient villages on a State protection list to preserve thousands of years of agricultural civilization, the Xinhua News Agency reported.

Experts from the RCCVC went to Lühe village in Yunnan Province in 2016, one of the places put on the State protection list in 2014.

During the field survey, most of the residents had no idea that their village had been put on a preservation list, or that the central government had allocated funds to support local maintenance.

The local government was running a one-man show. Villages have limited knowledge about their buildings, and see them as nothing more than a place to live, RCCVC experts said.

Preserving heritage

China has more than 1,300 national intangible cultural heritages and 7,000 local-level heritages, most of which are kept in ancient villages, said the RCCVC report.

But it's hard to find intangible cultural heritages in most villages, apart from traditional customs, experts from the RCCVC found when they visited Yunnan Province in 2016.

Traditional villages are the origin of the country and represent the essence of Chinese culture - courtesy, justice, integrity and honor, Zhong Fulan, director of the Shanghai Folk Culture Society, told the Global Times.

The aim of renovating ancient villages should be to improve people's lives, not destroy their essence and spirit, Zhong said.

Zhong called on local governments in ancient villages to not only strive to boost the local economy, but also preserve their local customs and cultural heritage.

Officials from the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development said in 2016 that legislation and enforcement of heritage protection laws need to be enhanced and strengthened, Xinhua reported.

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