Adapting Villages  Gaobu 2018 - 20

To talk about China’s rural villages one cannot escape the reality of unprecedented urban development in China.  Since the late 1970’s following Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, China has experienced an unparalleled exodus from the countryside to the city.  As a consequence of this mass migration, villages are rapidly disappearing.  According to China’s ministry of Civil Affairs, in 2002 there were 3.6 million villages, while in 2012 the number reduced to 2.7 million. In an effort to transit its economy to an increasing domestic market, it is estimated that China is losing 300 villages a day (Poon, 2015), where in the next decade the Chinese government plans to move hundreds of people from rural areas to cities.

To understand Dong culture in is essential to be acquainted with their environment.  Dong live in a mountainous area in south China at the junction of the provinces of Guizhou, Hunan and Guangxi.  The landscape of rice terraces, bamboo forests and tea plantations is still predominantly intact.  Their architecture is intrinsically connected with the land and the topography, generating a harmonious relationship between nature and man-made structures.  Their architectural timber heritage is one of the last remnants of an ancient culture in china that is still alive.

Central to how the Dong community adapt to nature, is the role of the family unit and social rituals.  Dong society is organized around the concept of Kuan (款), which is a form of hierarchical social organization, with a common ancestor or elder at its core; Kuan society links many households that are blood relatives to form a larger family unit. Each family unit constructs a ‘Drum tower’ that is regarded as a symbol of the family’s wealth and status. Drum towers are considered the centre of the Dong’s cultural and spiritual life.  Symbolically, they represent both a tree and a shelter, Drum Towers are located according to fengshui rules and all other buildings in the village must not exceed the height of the village’s drum tower. Drum towers, still today are the centre of all political decision making, also function as a type of totem pole and a spiritual symbol for each large family unit, where important events such as celebrating a baby’s first month of life, as well as public gatherings, debates, official announcements, dancing and singing events are all held.

Our study will focus on Gaobu, a village located along the Pingtan River in Tongdao County, Hunan Province of approximately 2500 inhabitants with a rich history dating back more than 1000 years, as a pilot village for regeneration.  The methodology was based on an alternative regeneration approach of “Adaptive Re-use”, engaging and transforming the Dong Minority’s existing rich social heritage in order to reimagine and enhance collective life and work experience, providing better rural living for the Dong community for years to come.

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Our study focused on nine Dong Minority villages located along the Pingtan River, Tongdao - Huaihua region, Hunan Province, namely: Gaobu, Gaotuan, Yanglan, Pingtan, Hengling, Pingri, Shangdutian, Huangdu and Yutou (ordered from South to North).  The methodology of the survey relied on generating a Dong Village atlas, that traced and detailed the historical and current status of the villages, exploring how a common, collective ethnography in embedded into the social and spatial rituals.  Rather than pursue a tectonic and symbolic study of Dong Architecture, a topic which has already been comprehensively studied by Klaus Zwerger in his book, Vanishing Traditions: Architecture and Carpentry of the Dong Minority in China, (Zwerger, 2006) our survey looked into the symbiotic relationship between architecture and the collective, exploring how inherent social systems embedded into the village can become projective platforms and reveal new possibilities within the existing.


Research Design team

Prof. Peter W. Ferretto (CUHK)

Prof. CAI Ling (GZU)

LAM Man Yan Milly  LIU Ziwei Paula

WONG Yuk Tsin Beryl

WANG Haoran Howard (CUHK)

WU Haoming  LIU Xiaoyun (GZU)