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Researcher calls for new safeguards as number of communities declines
The lead author of a research report on China"s traditional villages has called on legislators to draft a law that protects these culturally important communities from fading away.
The number of these villages fell from more than 3.6 million to about 2.7 million between 2000 and 2010, according to the Investigation Report on the Protection of Chinese Traditional Villages.
In the report, traditional villages are defined as those established in farming civilizations on the basis of tribal and family groups that still retain original architectural styles and features, village settings and a way of life centered around cultural traditions.
Hu Binbin led a research team to investigate traditional villages in 902 townships in 17 provincial regions along the Yangtze River and Yellow River basins from 2008 to 2010 for the report.
The number of registered traditional villages in these regions decreased by almost 4,000 to about 5,700 from 2004 to 2010, his team found. In 2014, the team revisited 1,033 of the villages they reached in 2010 and found 461 of them had vanished.
"The traditional villages are fading away at an unexpected speed and many of them had vanished before we reached them. We have to race against time in our on-site investigation," he said, adding that rapid urbanization has worsened the situation.
Born in 1959 in an ancient village in Shuangfeng county, Hunan province, Hu started to research traditional villages in 1984 and has visited about 4,700.
As director of the Central South University"s Research Center of Chinese Village Culture in Changsha, Hunan, Hu developed his interest in traditional villages from his father, who was a teacher and was enthusiastic about traditional culture.
He became a public servant after graduating from university but later chose to study traditional customs.
"In the beginning, I visited the villages just out of interest. Gradually, what I found during the visits stimulated me to look into these villages from a cultural perspective," Hu said.
Traditional villages play an important role in passing on Chinese culture. In the past several thousand years, though troubled by constant wars and dynastic changes, Chinese civilization has not been interrupted thanks to these villages, he said.
"I have always thought of traditional villages as cultural treasuries. During each of my visits to these villages, I always learn something new and different, which cannot be found in the works of China"s social elites," he said.
"Culture renaissance is a must for a greater China. As a source of Chinese culture, traditional villages should be protected."
Though a lot of attention has been paid to village protection from various sectors in recent years, Hu said he still is not optimistic because of the lack of specific laws.
Urbanization is leaving more villages empty. Excessive commercial development in some traditional villages has resulted in damage and sped up their demise. The need of residents to improve their living conditions also conflicts with the protection work, he said.
Though there are laws and regulations that relate to traditional village protection, how to enforce them is still not clear without proper supervisory mechanisms. The costs for violations are low. The lack of protection standards is also to blame for damage by some so-called protection projects, he said.
Hu said protection should be carried out not only for tangible heritage in these villages, but also intangible heritage such as traditional opera, crafts and customs, which don"t have enough attention attached to them.
"The interests of residents should be brought into consideration in a specific law. As important cultural and historical heritage, traditional architecture in these villages is in private properties left by villagers" ancestors," Hu said.
"When protecting these dwellings, attention should also be paid to improving people"s living conditions and quality of life. It needs a special and detailed law to handle the conflicts between protection and life improvement."