Preserving history with Chinese characteristics in Qianzhou, Hunan

Since 2006, the quaint stone city of Qianzhou (乾州) is no longer an ‘ancient’ town.

The Chinese use the word “翻新“ (fanxin). Individually, the character “翻 “  means “to turn upside down” and “新“ means new. The two characters together mean “to revamp”, “to make over”. Many ancient towns and villages have had a major make over in China. Usually, the make-over or fanxin process consists in tearing down the old structure and rebuilding it anew.

In an earlier post, I wrote about Longli (龙里), an ancient Ming era garrison in eastern Guizhou (贵州) that was being given a major face-lift when I visited. Also, in the remote village of Lushi (鲁史) on the old Tea and Horse Road (茶马古道) in Yunnan (云南) province, I told about an 300-year old Ming dynasty temple that had been taken down and completely re-built.

The new face of Qianzhou, a 500-year old town in Hunan, China

The new face of Qianzhou, a 500-year old town in Hunan, China

Make-over and embellishment

As foreigners visiting this country, we are quick to lament over the loss of traditions and to worry about the way China is preserving its cultural and historical heritage. When an old town or an ancient temple go through a make-over process or”翻新“ (fanxin), nothing from the former historical structure remains.

In Longli and Lushi, locals and workers do not see the fanxin as a loss or destruction. This make-over process, which consists in the total destruction of the original building and its reconstruction, is seen by locals as an embellishment. In most cases, this “embellishment” process is a step towards an opening to mass-tourism, commercialisation and commodification of the place. In the case of Longli, a town I visited during the fanxin process, I was told that an entrance fee will be charged once work is completed. In Qianzhou (乾州), the entire town was levelled to the ground and rebuilt anew. Of course, visitors are charged an 80 RMB entrance fee. 

The renovated Confucius Temple of Qianzhou, Hunan

The renovated Confucius Temple of Qianzhou, Hunan

The case of Qianzhou

Nothing remains of the original Qianzhou (乾州). Located south of Jishou (吉首) in western Hunan province (湘西), Qianzhou used to be an military outpost and command centre in an ethnic region where the Miao people had to be tamed and integrated into the empire. Founded during the Song dynasty in 1070, walls were built during the middle of the Ming dynasty in 1514. By the Qing dynasty it was a small stone fortress where Confucianism prevailed.

Qianzhou was implanted near the territory of the Miao where, since the Yuan dynasty a system of indirect rule known as tusi had been implemented. Local Miao rulers could govern their own people. Everything changed during the Qing dynasty when the emperor decided to abandoned the system of local rulers and replace it by Han government officials appointed by the imperial court.

I did not know exactly what to expect when I set my mind to visit Qianzhou. At that time, I had seen Qianyang (黔阳) an intact and well-preserved ancient town that has not yet succumbed to the commercialisation and ‘disneylandification’ that I saw in Fenghuang (凤凰). Yet, I did not expect to have the witness of an important part of China’s military history like Qianzhou to have been physically erased and replaced by shiny new town, too new to be look old.

Yes, the streets lined with newly built structures home to dozens of trinket stores and local delicacies were re-built at the same spot as the Qianzhou that started 1000 year ago during the Song and flourished as a military centre during the Ming and Qing dynasties, but my brain could not accept that the barely 10-year old walls, houses and watchtowers had any sort of historical value.

This “ancient” town has no soul. To me, Qianzhou was as fake as NorthFace backpack bought at the Silk Market in Beijing …

Doing laundry in the river in the new Qianzhou, Hunan

Doing laundry in the river in the new Qianzhou, Hunan

Different views

While heading south of Guangzhou to visit the Kaiping watchtowers (开平碉楼), a Chinese friend worried they had gone through a fanxin-like renovation process. I said that it was not possible because part of them are protected by UNESCO and listed as world cultural heritage. She raised an eye-brow.

In China, the fanxin-like renovation process does not bother everyone. Somehow, the entire destruction and re-construction of a 500-year old town can be inscribed in the process of history. In 200 years people will say that Qianzhou was renovated at the beginning of the 21st century. After all it was expanded and renovated during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

If the new Qianzhou is still at the same geographical location of the ancient Qianzhou, to me, it has lost its historical value, soul and interest. A lot of villages in the region look exactly like Qianzhou … and they are free.

What if the cathedral of Notre-Dame of Paris finished during the 14th century was torn down and re-built anew with contemporary materials?

There are 19 comments

  1. Steve Griffith

    I think you are being a bit hard on Quanzhou , I visited before the make over and it was frankly a slum . Yes it has been rebuilt but in many building they used some of the orginal structure usually wooden doors and windows. One thing I like about Quanzhou is that it is home to quite a large population of ordinary people .there are some good restaurants and wonderful tea houses that are definitely genuine. To me this makes it a real place not like the ghost towns that places like Wuzhen in Zhejiang have become. Also it must be the worst enforced entrance fee you just walk in only buy if you want to visit the temples and mansions.
    Yes Qianyang is a wonderfully preserved town but I don’t think any of us would want to live in the ancient buildings so why would we expect anyone else to? In the west we have strict rules about preserving old buildings but we wouldn’t expect people to live as they did say 500 years ago.
    I guess the difference in China is the speed and scale of destruction. So much has been lost in the last twenty years .unless an indigenous movement develops for conservation things will only continue ie further disneyification and more destruction. Sorry to end on a negative note

    1. Gaetan

      Dear Steve, thank you very much for your comment.
      If you say I have been too harsh, it’s probably true. I remember going to Qianzhou after visiting Fenghuang and Dehang, which were both expensive and, although somehow interesting, I was very disappointed. As I was making my from Jishou to Qianzhou, I had high expectations …. it did not seem like a touristy place. After spending 148 RMB for Fenghuang and 100 RMB for Dehang, the 80 RMB of Qianzhou were the cherry on the cake.
      You are absolutely right, we cannot expect to have people living in ancient centuries-old houses with no running water or electricity. I think as foreigners we romanticize a ‘traditional China’ which does not exist anymore.
      Also, what is making traveling in China increasingly frustrating are the expensive entrance fees to access ancient villages and places like Fenghuang and as you say, the Disneyification of many places.

  2. W. John Rogers

    Perhaps someone could help me. I watched a documentary on French television a while ago concerning an old Chinese town that was largely destroyed by bombing/shelling by the Japanese during the invasion (I believe, or it could have been during WW2). The town has been rebuilt in replica of the original, and to achieve this the local authorities sort the help, and were advised by, the German authorities of Dresden due to their considerable experience of reconstuction of that town following its destruction by the allied bombing. I did not note the name of the Chinese town, but believe it is in north-west China.
    Thanks in advance for any ideas about this.

      1. W. John Rogers

        Thanks Gaetan. Seems I got the geographic location (ahemm) slightly wrong. But during the reconstruction of this town did the authorities seek the help of the Dresden counterparts? I cannot see this mentioned following a rapid reading.

      2. Gaetan

        Very interesting question, unfortunately, I do not have an answer to give you at the moment. I guess we should do some research.

  3. Ruth Silbermayr-Song

    In the case of Lijiang (I think it was Lijiang and not Dali, couldn’t find the article), they considered revoking the UNESCO World Heritage title because it was being “renovated” so much. When I went to Kaiping, the area was still fine (I didn’t go to the park with an entrance fee, but the surrounding area features so much great scenery and watchtowers that paying for the park really wasn’t necessary). And the town itself is just gorgeous. It looks like out of a Western – a Chinese Western.

    1. Gaetan

      I also heard about the UNESCO considering revoking Lijiang status as World Heritage (Dali is not listed). This would not really impact the flow of tourist, but who knows what might happen to Lijiang if it’s not protected anymore.
      When you went to see watchtowers in Kaiping, do you remember which villages you went to? Were there around Chikan?

      1. Ruth Silbermayr-Song

        Yes, I started out in Chikan and just walked around the area, so I don’t remember any names. It wasn’t far from Chikan, I just turned right somewhere in the town and went to a nearby watchtower and rice paddies and went on from there.

  4. Ulrike vom Bambooblog

    There are cases almost like that in Germany. WWII destroyed a lot. Now some cities rebuild old palace like the city palace in Berlin or the old Herrenhauser castle of the KIngs of Hannover.. Those building look very orginal from the outside, but are very modern conventionscenter insidde.

    1. Gaetan

      Thank you for your comment. I was not aware of that some cities in Germany decided to re-build old buildings destroyed during WWII. In China, it’s slightly different, because in the case of Qianzhou (and other locations) they do tear down the original structure and replace it with something new.

  5. Steve griffith

    What you illustrate is the very different conceptions of Chinese and Western attitudes and approaches to preserving the past. When I worked in china in the 80,s the modernisation was just starting we foreigners lamented the destruction of tradition ping fang ( single story building in the north mainly) and their replacement by high rise flats. But for the first time people were getting running water sanitary conditions etc. in many ways the Chinese are just making the same mistakes we made I the west through much of the last century.
    30 years ago there was very little domestic tourism , I discovered Zhouzhuang near Suzhou like some thing out of the middle ages . You could even get there by road you hitched a lift on a boat with your trusty Flying pigeon. Now it’s a theme park….
    It’s amazing what survives I found in the main hutong street in Beijing Nanluo some 60,s slogan: still readable by lignored by all :

    Nong he xue Dazhai gong he xue Daqing

    In agricultural learn from DaZhai in industry learn from DaQing.

    1. Gaetan Green

      Hi Steve! Thank you very much for your input. I have seen pictures of Zhouzhuang and it does not sound appealing to me. It’s true that Chinese and Westerners have different attitudes concerning conservation of ancient towns. I feel that some of them are being transformed into theme parks while others will simply crumble away because the locals have left to the cities.

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