Turning Gucuo into a “Fuzhou Element”

2020-02-17 10:43:16

Turning Gucuo into a “Fuzhou Element”

The “Meicheng Imprint” historical and cultural block used to be the downtown area of the ancient Minqing County in the Qianlong period of the Qing dynasty. The streets still retain the urban pattern of "five streets, nine lanes, four markets and one shop" during the Republican Period of China (1911-1949). (Photo source: Fuzhou Evening News)

Turning Gucuo into a “Fuzhou Element”

Liangcuo historical and cultural block is a replicated ancient village in rural style built according to its positioning as "gateway to Fuzhou’s art" and "the most beautiful village in an urban setting".

Turning Gucuo into a “Fuzhou Element”

In Ningyuanzhuang, Yongtai County, local experts and scholars are preparing to build a museum of ancient Chinese weapons. As a special form of architecture, zhuangzhai (a type of traditional stronghold) is another architectural treasure in Fujian besides Tulou (Hakka Houses) and Tubao (a type of earthen fortress). It was mostly built by wealthy families, with stone walls outside as its defenses. (Photo by Deng Xiaolin)

Preparations for the 44th session of the World Heritage Committee in 2020 are in progress.

As the venue for this year’s session, Fuzhou, based on its characteristic gucuo (ancient houses), takes the World Heritage Committee as an opportunity to elevate the quality of the city.

15 Historical Blocks Opened

Fuzhou Intends to Build a Brand with Gucuo

Majestic academies are surrounded by ancient banyan trees, while the ancient road of “Number One Scholars” has been the birthplace for many famous people. Visitors wandering in it would feel like traveling in a painting, intoxicated by history. In a small block, there are many well-known educational institutions such as Aofeng Academy, Fujian Superior Normal School (a predecessor of Fujian Normal University) and Gezhi High School. This is the scene presented by Fuzhou’s newly opened Aofengfang historical and cultural block.

In order to prepare for the World Heritage Committee session in 2020, each district or county in Fuzhou has established at least one characteristic historical and cultural block, which highlights the memories of the ancient city with attention to detail. On January 21, 2020, 15 characteristic historical and cultural blocks, including Aofengfang, Southern Park, Yantai Mountain, Liangcuo, Chuanzheng (shipbuilding), Tanshishan and Shuixilin, were opened to the public. This is but one aspect of Fuzhou's efforts to promote the protection of gucuo by taking advantage of the opportunity of preparing for the World Heritage Committee session.

In the Fujian dialect, cuo refers to a place where people live. As a national historical and cultural city with a history of more than 2,200 years, Fuzhou is "a city in the mountains with the mountains in the sea". Gucuo is one of the most distinctive features of Fuzhou. The many gucuo buildings in Fuzhou, such as Three Lanes and Seven Alleys, Honglincuo and Sanluocuo (or Three Juxtaposed Houses), enable it to keep the original layout of the ancient city relatively intact.

The 2020 World Heritage Committee session will be held in Fuzhou, China. The local government has made good use of the influence of cultural heritage as an opportunity for urban development. "By hosting the World Heritage Committee session in 2004, Suzhou has made its gardens a famous brand all over the world. With the same opportunity in 2020, Fuzhou could highlight more local elements by promoting the gucuo brand,” said a local researcher of cultural inheritance.

Fuzhou has always been committed to the protection of cultural relics, and has invested heavily in the protection of gucuo. Since the commencement of preparations for the 44th session of the World Heritage Committee, Fuzhou has successively held the "Fuzhou Ancient Houses Protection and Cultural Inheritance Forum", and issued the Work Plan for a New Round of Protection and Upgrading of Gucuo in Fuzhou (hereinafter referred to as the Plan), which puts forward six tasks including listing a number of historical and cultural sites protected at the municipal level, historical buildings and famous historical and cultural towns (or villages), launching a number of key projects for cultural heritage protection, organizing a number of theme exhibitions, completing a number of cultural heritage protection projects, preparing a number of World Heritage application projects and others.

The Plan focuses on the three mountains and two towers in Fuzhou, Kushan and Kuliang, Fujian shipbuilding architectural complex and industrial heritage, Three Lanes and Seven Alleys, Shangxiahang, Yantai Mountain, Zhuzifang and other landmark buildings and gucuo. But for Fuzhou, gucuo covers a wider range. In the countryside of Fuqing City, there are many gucuo buildings, such as Huangjialaocuo, Lin's Family Mansion and Guo’s Ancestral House which dot Langguan Village, Qiaofeng Village and Lianhua Village. These gucuo buildings have experienced the vicissitudes of time, they still stand as treasures known to few people. The reason for this is that most of the owners of these gucuo buildings have settled overseas for many years. For example, Lin Yuangan and Lin Yuankai, the owners of Lin's Family Mansion, are now overseas Chinese in Indonesia. Compared with other landmark buildings and gucuo that are already known to tourists, architecture, clan, immigrant culture and other elements involved in these yards are worth no less attention.

Retaining the Roots and Spirit of Gucuo

Focusing on Development and Inheritance

"At present, we have done a good job in the protection of the hardware of gucuo, but we need to do more to tap into its software," said Lu Meisong. As the former Director of Research Institute of Literature and History of Fujian Province, he has much experience in the protection and development of gucuo in Fuzhou with his long-term dedication to the research of Fuzhou’s local history.

According to Lu Meisong, although commercial development of some local blocks with gucuo has achieved some success, many gucuo buildings are not fully utilized. His analysis of Three Lanes and Seven Alleys concluded that apart from Shuixie Stage, Ermei Bookstore, Ye's Former Residence and Lin Zexu Memorial Hall which have been used respectively as venues for folklore museum, intangible cultural heritage exhibition, patriotism education base and national drug control education demonstration base, there were many gucuo buildings left vacant or receiving few visitors due to admission fees. Therefore, he had a "radical" idea: suggesting that Fuzhou follow the practice of "returning the West Lake to the people" in Hangzhou and allow institutions and individuals with the ability to protect to claim and manage the 159 cultural relic buildings where they can showcase the life stories and family history of historical figures. Furthermore, Fuzhou should take more measures to explore the culture behind different types of gucuo, such as the history of lanes, commerce, gardens, zhuangzhai and others behind Three Lanes and Seven Alleys, Shangxiahang, Yantai Mountain and Yongtai Zhuangzhai. "The protection of gucuo also needs to focus on the inheritance of intangible cultural heritage. For example, there is a Memorial Temple of Zhuo Youzhi on the Minshan Lane of Wenrufang. The temple fair held there shows rich elements of Fuzhou’s intangible cultural heritage, hence Fuzhou should rescue it immediately," added Lu Meisong.

Like the culture of Three Lanes and Seven Alleys, Fujian’s shipbuilding culture is also a well-known culture of Fuzhou. In the eyes of Chen Yue, a famous expert in shipbuilding history and naval history, the shipbuilding architectural complex and industrial heritage should also be protected fully and systematically. In his opinion, "Fujian's shipbuilding endeavour had an important position in coastal defense, aviation, education, industry, diplomacy, translation and other aspects of modern Chinese history, and gained a lot of groundbreaking achievements. Fuzhou should not only apply to list its shipbuilding heritage as industrial heritage, but also look for ways to add it to the world cultural heritage list."

Chen Chuyue, a Fuzhou resident, has been engaged in editorial work for decades, but he has also been devoted to exploring the culture of Fuzhou’s gucuo. Residence of Liu Family is a gucuo building with a long history covering an area of more than 4,000 square meters. Liu Qixian, husband of Lin Zexu's eldest daughter, Electrical Liu,once the richest family in Fuzhou, and Yu Dafu, a literary giant, used to live here. Chen Chuyue and his friends have transformed this place into a famous family education hall featuring the legacy of celebrities of Three Lanes and Seven Alleys, and created the cultural brand of "Yu Dafu's Afternoon Tea". "I propose to bring one hundred gucuo buildings in Fuzhou to life before the World Heritage Committee session by holding a wide range of poetry and folk customs exchange activities in gucuo, with plans to establish an international poetry and art exchange center here," said Chen Chuyue.

There are many gucuo buildings along the Min River and its tributaries, such as Qinjiang Manchu Village, Min'an Ancient Town, Linpu Village, Pandun Village, Luozhou Ancient Town, Songkou Ancient Town, and Yuezhou Village, among others. The "Taishan Palace" in Linpu Village, the "One Minister, One Number One Scholar and Fifty Imperial Scholars" in Yuezhou Village, the "Five Ministers in Three Generations and Eight Imperial Scholars in Seven Examinations" in Linpu Village, and the "Nine Golden Belts" in Dacheng Village contain rich imperial examination culture and clan culture. These traditional villages, towns and gucuo have similarities in type and significance. Although they are protected to a certain extent, most are not fully developed and utilized, thus some historical memories are in danger of being lost. With the acceleration of the urbanization process and the expansion of the scale of urban redevelopment, there will be a test on how to protect a large number of traditional villages, towns and gucuo. In order to give full play to the role of young talents introduced into Fuzhou in recent years, the Organization Department of Fuzhou Municipal Party Committee has set up the Rongbohui think tank, under which there are many sub-committees such as the committee for historical and cultural tourism. Huang Hanwei, currently assistant to the general manager of Fuzhou Investment Promotion Service Co., Ltd., is not only a witness but also a participant in the protection of gucuo. She is also a member of the Rongbohui think tank. "Relying on the platform of Rongbohui think tank, I participated in the survey of the Beifeng Mountainous Area of Jin'an District, and conducted a comprehensive investigation into local cultural and tourism resources such as gucuo, with a view to improving the standard of tourism in this area before the World Heritage Committee session."

At the same time, Huang Hanwei has also actively participated in the program "oral history of Fuzhou’s shipbuilding culture" initiated by graduates of prestigious universities such as Tsinghua University, Peking University, Renmin University of China who were introduced into Fuzhou. In addition to this program about shipbuilding culture, she also conducted oral history interviews with people related to gucuo in Junzhu Village, Jinsha Village, Baiyun Village and other traditional villages and towns so as to rescue the historical memories of Fuzhou’s gucuo through text, picture, audio, video and other media forms.

The Future of Fuzhou’s Gucuo

Becoming a “Buzz Word” in the field of Cultural Heritage

"Although there are abundant historical and cultural tourism resources such as gucuo in Fuzhou, there are few world heritage sites and AAAAA scenic spots – the people of Fuzhou are relatively low-profile, and these resources have not been fully transformed into economic benefits yet," said Ren Yiguo, President of Ren Family Association in Fujian. He has been to many places in Fujian and formed his own opinion on the protection and utilization of gucuo in Fuzhou.

According to the data of relevant research in Fuzhou, domestic tourists’ awareness level of  Three Lanes and Seven Alleys, an AAAAA scenic spot, was only 59.9% in 2018, far lower than that of Wuyi Mountain (83.6%) and Kulangsu (82.3%) which are also AAAAA scenic spots. In 2018, Fuzhou ranked only 39th in the list of China’s tourist destination cities. Moreover, more of the visits to Fuzhou are one-day tour and fewer are overnight tours; more of the visitors are domestic tourists and fewer are international tourists. These figures have also aroused the concern of the local government and local people, hoping to take the World Heritage Committee session as an opportunity to enhance the publicity of their cultural heritage.

Coincident with the opportunity of the World Heritage Committee session, Fuzhou is also vigorously promoting the development of its happiness industry, which also provides a good opportunity for the protection and development of gucuo. The happiness industry covers tourism, culture, sports, health, elderly care and other fields. Fuzhou is blessed with rich resources to develop the industry. It ranks among the top when compared with other provincial capitals in China in terms of forest coverage ratio and air quality index. Its exhibition, sports, online games and other industries have a solid foundation. Its Fujian cuisine, Min opera, tea culture and intangible cultural heritage have a long history and it has Gucuo buildings scattered all over the city. Liu Xintong, deputy general manager of Fuzhou Cultural Tourism Investment Group, has personally experienced the process of common development of cultural resources such as gucuo and the happiness industry at Kuliang. According to him, "Kuliang has a number of cultural relics and historical buildings, such as Yixia Villa, Kuliang Club, Summer Post Office, and Former Residence of Li Shijia, which belong to the category of gucuo in a broad sense. By seizing the opportunities of Fuzhou’s preparations for the World Heritage Committee session and Fuzhou’s new round of protective measures for gucuo, Kuliang vigorously develops its happiness industry. It strives to find new uses for historical buildings based on Kuliang's unique architectural culture, leisure culture, religious culture, celebrity culture and overseas culture, and develop tourism products such as forest health recovery, religious pilgrimage, cultural industry and hot spring regimen. It actively promotes the joint application for world heritage by Kuliang and Kushan, and collaborates with the hot spring leisure industry in Gui'an, Guihu and other places. These measures have produced significant social impact and economic benefits. "

Compared with Suzhou Gardens and Yongding Tulou, "Fuzhou Gucuo" is still a new buzzword. With the protection, development, renovation and upgrading of gucuo and the convening of the World Heritage Committee session, is this cultural phenomenon going to develop further?