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Villages shelter traditions enroached by urbanization

Author  :  Li Yu     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2016-03-07

The Spring Festival has always been a holiday that makes people homesick and fills them with nostalgia for Chinese tradition. Many people living in cities long for the kind of idyllic rural life that still thrives in regions south of the Yangtze River in the cluster of traditional villages surrounding Shanghai.

Villages as scarce social resources

A warm atmosphere permeated the old village of Zhaojialou in Pujiang Town, Minxing District, Shanghai, during the Spring Festival. At a market fair, throngs flocked to the street to buy groceries, sample traditional foods and soak in the sights and sounds of the sleepy hamlet. A din of excitement filled the narrow alleys as people jostled with one another on the way. Local delicacies, such as dry-blown duck, braised pig knuckles, bacons, fried pork rinds and New Year’s cakes greeted window shoppers from displays outside the doors of shops while the shopkeepers called out to passersby, inviting them to sample their wares.

Zhaojialou was the first region where the wasteland and virgin soil of Shanghai was reclaimed. It is also where the farming culture and agricultural civilization of Shanghai originated during the early Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), and the tradition stayed alive during the following two dynasties—Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1616-1912). Liu Shilin, dean of the Academy of Urban Science at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, said that there are about 10 old villages like Zhaojialou in Shanghai. Some of the most famous are Zhujiajiao, Liantang, Qibao and Fengjing. In highly urbanized areas like Shanghai, such villages are increasingly scarce resources that preserve the historical vestiges and cultural characteristics of the cities that evolved around them.

Revival of cultural tradition

Unlike Zhaojialou village, which is bustling with people, the scene in Fengjing, on the first day of Chinese New Year more closely resembles a scenic resort where tourists relax and enjoy a leisurely time. Fengjing village was once geographically at the intersection of Wu and Yue states, two ancient kingdoms of China. It has been well preserved and is a relatively large time-honored water village in Shanghai. Two-storey wooden buildings crowd the bumpy, stone-paved road. The facade of each household is decorated with ebony lattice windows that open out over the water lane. Lacking the regular structures, new buildings and the crowds of Zhaojialou, Fengjing has a stronger nostalgic appeal.

“The traditional villages are closely related with the past of the cities. Some believe that Shanghai started out as a city from the very beginning when it was built and therefore has little to do with agricultural civilization,” Liu said. “However, it is biased to draw this kind of dichotomy between cities and villages. They are not diametrically opposed to each other. In fact, the preservation and development of these old villages should be based on the recognition of the agricultural tradition of Shanghai though it is a metropolis today.”

As Shanghai underwent development from a traditional agricultural civilization to modern urban civilization, it evolved step by step, and today it has a richness that was inherited from its ancient trading history, Liu said. For example, Qinglong village, the history of which dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907), cannot be defined completely in the urban sense because in the context of its agricultural civilization in ancient times, the village differed much from cities in lifestyle, commodity production and trade. Therefore, it is worth reflecting on how to integrate the historical and cultural traditions of a city with its modern elements.

To protect and develop ancient villages in Shanghai, it is of paramount importance to revive their culture. The revival and continuation of their cultural traditions and lifestyles is crucial for extending Shanghai’s urban culture because “each metropolis has its own historical background of once being a village in which the fountainhead of agricultural culture can be found,” Liu said. “For the development of the city, what the content brings exceeds that of the form.” Nowadays, mere formality tends to prevail in some regions. Many Westernized designs and exhibitions turn out to be imitations of folk customs and rites, “which ultimately makes the city hollow and mediocre,” added Liu.

Evolutionary views needed

“But it is also noteworthy that it is hard to preserve old villages in an intact way without any alteration because each traditional village will transform itself as its urbanization gradually progresses. New forms will develop along with the villages, which require the contemporary people to regard old villages from an evolutionary point of view. It is important to learn to respect the law of urbanization and carry on the law in a dynamic way,” Liu said.

The preservation of villages also faces the threat of over-exploitation by commercial interests, Liu said, “Therefore, the government needs to shoulder most of the responsibility of protecting villages so that the commercial factors involved can be minimized.”

The priority of village protection is to integrate the task with the development of cities while providing appropriate financial and policy support, Liu said. “Moreover, the fact that the pragmatic function of traditional villages is fading also makes the revival of their cultural heritage important,” he said.

Editor: Yu Hui

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