Alison Steinbach, a Program Assistant in the summer of 2017, spent two weeks of July in Yunnan Province’s Tibetan Plateau to assist with a documentation and relocation project of a traditional farmstead house. For more information about the project, see here.
In southwestern China – neighboring Tibet and Myanmar, intersected by the “Three Parallel Rivers,” and sheltered by high Himalayan peaks – exists a part of China far different from what generally comes to mind. The area is unique in its cultural diversity, biodiversity, and ethnic diversity. I was lucky to be part of a team that spent several weeks of the summer in the village of Cizhong on the upper banks of the Mekong River, a village that exemplifies the region’s multiplicities in its own way.
Under the direction of Dr. John Flower, Director of Chinese Studies at Sidwell Friends School in D.C., a group of seven American and Chinese with interests in rural China and traditional houses came to study, document, and disassemble a Tibetan-style folk house in a lower hamlet of Cizhong that will soon be flooded due to a dam project on the Mekong River. During the first half of the project, we worked to document the house and learn about the area in as much detail as possible. Our team spent days photographing and mapping the house, talking with locals, exploring the area, and learning as much as we could of the history and ways of life of the house and its surrounding village. The second half of the project consisted of the careful deconstruction of the house using the skills and expertise of a local carpentry crew, followed by the transport by truck of all the house pieces to an eastern Chinese seaport, where they will be shipped to the United States. If all goes as planned, the pieces of wood and furniture that made up the house will arrive in Virginia later this fall where, eventually, the house will be reassembled as a cultural and educational site.
The village of Cizhong is a fascinating locale in terms of its location, ethnicity, and religion, as well as the variety of changes it is currently undergoing. By all standards, the village is quite remote. The closest major city (although in no sense major compared with the huge cities common across China), Shangri-la, is a five-hour drive away along a road that is truly a feat of infrastructural engineering – the road passes over turns in hills held only by concrete stilts, tunnels channel vehicles through mountains, and the thin road winds and bends a countless number of times. This adventurous drive made arriving in Cizhong all the more exciting. On our first day’s walk down the main road, the village appeared relatively typical for the area. There are big Tibetan-style homes, several small shops, the local Party office, and scattered construction projects.
Yet upon closer look, Cizhong is quite unique. On the same first walk, we were struck by interesting markers of ethnicity and religion, many jumbled together – Tibetan clothing, Buddhist prayer flags, and a large Catholic church – as well as the big loud construction projects marking the village’s upcoming changes, all aspects of Cizhong we learned more about each day. In terms of ethnicity and religion, the area is a fascinating melting pot. Nearly everyone in the village speaks Tibetan, yet 80% of the thousand-odd villagers are Catholic, a religion introduced by French missionaries in the mid-nineteenth century and maintained through shifting periods of history and revolution by a devoted congregation. Buddhist prayer flags and stupas stand just down the street from a large Catholic church, which inside reflects a similar blend of cultures. The church combines Bai, Tibetan, Han Chinese, and European design and imagery: on the outside, the Bai-style ethnic architecture has a European look; on the inside, walls are adorned with European-style images of Christ, Buddhist lotus flower etches, classical Chinese dragon and phoenix paintings, and Tibetan prayer scarves, to name a few. The Sunday morning service we attended seemed like any other Catholic service, except for the fact that congregants arrived an hour early to chant memorized prayers in unison and in a cadence that sounded far more Tibetan Buddhist than Christian. The church is bordered by rows of vineyards, originally harvested to provide Communion wine but now sold across the region as an added form of household income. These fascinating explorations at the start of our visit provided a background for understanding the history and unique culture of Cizhong.
Like much of rural China, Cizhong has been increasingly wrapped up in projects of development and change. Later this year, a dam currently under construction downstream will flood a hamlet of Cizhong—Ximalaza—that lies close to the Mekong. The twenty-odd families who live and farm in Ximalaza will all be relocated and compensated, but in the process, their traditional farmstead homes – both the physical structures and ways of life they represent – will be washed over, both literally and figuratively. Part of our goal, then, was to try to document and preserve one such typical rural farmstead house. Documenting the house and its story was a fascinating experience. We had the chance to conduct extensive interviews with Mr. Zhang, the man who owned, built, and raised his family in the house. Mr. Zhang talked about the construction of the house – how in his late twenties he personally chopped down all the wood from up in the forest and practically constructed the house by himself as a new home for his wife and two young kids. He described all the functionings of the house and its surroundings, including who lived where and how agriculture fit into the house (the Zhang family has a large backyard field that has grown grapes, corn, walnut trees, and more, all of which were fermented, stored, and dried in the house after harvest). He showed us family pictures and described, in his ever-friendly demeanor, everything we were curious about the house as well as the area’s history, religion, and ethnicity.
The next stages of the project involved days of physical documentation of the house. We labeled every piece of wood and furniture and diagrammed how pieces fit together to ease the eventual reassembly. We photographed all the rooms from a variety of angles to make a 360-degree computer model of the house. We also mapped the house, hamlet, and fields to understand the layout of how individual homes and fields make up the hamlet and larger village. After all this, a crew of local carpenters came to take down the house. Over the course of five days, we watched and assisted in the whirlwind and fascinating process of deconstructing the house. During this stage of the project, we had the chance to see in greater detail how parts of the house physically fit together and to learn aspects that will be helpful in rebuilding it. While the house was in the hands of the expert deconstruction team, we also had the chance to have time away from the house and explore even more of Cizhong and surrounding areas, including the neighboring village, which is Catholic Cizhong’s Buddhist counterpart across the river.
All in all, I’m extremely grateful for the two weeks I spent immersed in Cizhong and for the opportunity to help preserve this traditional Tibetan structure. And I am very excited that, possibly soon, Americans will have the opportunity to visit and learn from this house for themselves!