Emilie Lagneau spent her first two weeks in China repairing an ancient house in a remote mountain village in the eastern province of Fujian.
Tucuo mud houses in Jiulong village, Fujian Province (Photo: IC)
The French archaeologist joined a two-week architectural heritage preservation work camp. Together with 16 volunteers, three from France and 13 from China, she arrived in Jiulong village in Nanping city on July 16.
Relics of the past
The two-storey house, with a wooden inner structure and rammed earth outer walls, is located on a mountain. The volunteers carried tiles and logs up the mountain, and dug-up earth near the house. Under the guidance of three local craftsmen, they built a rammed earth wall to replace a rotten wooden beam.
Lagneau said the manual labor was not a challenge for her as she had been an archaeologist for 10 years.
"I'm interested in the old way to build houses with wood and mud," she said. "I wanted to have a trip in another country and to learn carpentry. Then I found this work camp online."
The work camp, co-organized by the Shanghai Ruan Yisan heritage foundation and French relics protection association Rempart, has been raising public awareness of architectural heritage conservation since 2011.
For eight years, the work camp invited Chinese and French volunteers to repair heritage sites in the two countries, such as temples, former celebrity residences and city walls.
This was the first time the camp chose Jiulong, where Tucuo mud houses have been home to locals for more than 1,000 years.
Ding Feng, secretary general of the Shanghai Ruan Yisan heritage foundation, said that the old houses demonstrate the traditional residential architecture of northern Fujian.
"In recent years, young and middle-aged people have left the village to seek job opportunities, leaving about 90 percent of these old houses vacant and unprotected," Ding said. "These houses will disappear in a few years without some preservation efforts," she said.
Zhan Zhenfen, who taught the volunteers how to make rammed earth walls using raw materials such as earth, clay, gravel and straw, said the last time he did such work was in 1986.
"Villagers used to build these houses on their own. But now, people under 50 don't know the techniques," he noted.
Since the 1980s, villagers began to move into brick or concrete houses with modern facilities, leaving many old ones abandoned.
More than 120 traditional houses still exist in Jiulong, among them two were built 400 years ago, and another seven have a history of about 200 to 300 years.
Hu Xiaowen, a volunteer and interior designer, said she appreciated the way the traditional houses were built.
The external walls make the houses cool in summer and warm in winter. The houses are strong, durable and eco-friendly, as they adopt local raw materials.
"There are some Chinese architects who are bringing rammed earth walls into modern construction for the purpose of sustainability," Hu said.
Liu Chunlan, a volunteer who led the team in Jiulong, said she believes the work is important for locals. "Villagers used to think that their hometown was a place left behind by modern development, but our arrival and labor can provide them with an outsider perspective and let them see the value of the traditional architecture in their hometown."
Wu Chunsheng, a local official, said the local government had also been encouraging the villagers to repair their deserted houses to protect local culture.
Wu said the county was preparing to build an artist base in the village to attract painters, photographers and sculptors to create works inspired by the idyllic rural scenery, and create more jobs for the locals.
After the voluntary work in Jiulong finished, Lagneau and French volunteer Audrey Garrouste headed to Shanxi Province to another work camp to repair a historical hall.
Lagneau said she was looking forward to getting to know more about Chinese architectural culture.