Ancient China comes alive in heart of modern city in Fujian

An aerial photo taken with a drone showing the night scene of the traditional block of Wudian City, Jinjiang, Fujian, on June 20, 2018.
An aerial photo taken with a drone showing the night scene of the traditional block of Wudian City, Jinjiang, Fujian, on June 20, 2018.PHOTO: XINHUA

FUZHOU (XINHUA) - Every Saturday, Chen Mingwei leads a group of young people to perform an ancient Chinese musical art called "Nanyin" at a restored traditional district dating back more than 1,000 years.

The district, called "Wudianshi," was the historical centre of Jinjiang City in south-east China's Fujian province.

Jinjiang is a cradle of southern Fujian culture, and the county-level city has witnessed booming growth thanks to four decades of reform and opening up.

Known by many for its clothing and shoe brands and its local pioneering spirit, Jinjiang is among China's top 10 richest counties, with a gross regional product of 198.15 billion yuan (US$29.9 billion) in 2017.

However, locals haven't forgotten historical heritage during the course of rapid urbanisation. Wudianshi, covering an area of 8.4 hectares in a commercial area, adds ancient architectural charm to a cityscape full of modern plazas and tall buildings.

Fan Qingjing, who led conservation work on Wudianshi, can still recall the thrill three years ago when he first saw tourists taking pictures of the newly renovated houses.

"At the beginning, we simply wanted to preserve these houses and make them a place of nostalgia for locals," Fan said. "Now we receive 10,000 visitors on average every day."

Back in 2010, when Jinjiang started to renovate the city's old houses, the local government was determined to keep a historic area that preserved traditional houses.

A Weinan-style ancient architectural courtyard in the traditional district of Wudian City, Jinjiang, Fujian. PHOTO: XINHUA

To keep the original feel of the buildings, only about 10 per cent of construction materials and decorations used, such as glass and lamps, were not original to the old houses.

More than 140 houses in the area represent traditional southern Fujian culture through their unique design and style. Some are red brick houses with swallow-tail ridges on the rooftops dating back to the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties (1644-1911).

"The houses look familiar to me, and remind me of where I lived when I was a child," said 29-year-old resident Wang Jingya.

There are also houses that blend Chinese and Western styles, built by successful overseas Chinese who returned home from South-east Asia in the first half of the 20th century.

Fan said that the local government has invested more than 380 million yuan into the renovation of the district since 2012.

To better serve tourists, some houses have been leased and made into bookstores, bars and restaurants, but their interior decor must follow a set of rules to maintain the original flavour.

"No one wants to see the place over-commercialised," said Wang.

Visitors touring the traditional neighbourhood of Wudian City in Jinjiang, Fujian Province, China. PHOTO: XINHUA

Nian Liangtu, a scholar of Jinjiang culture, has helped bring regional traditions to Wudianshi.

With his help, the district functions as a place for traditional art performances, such as Nanyin, Gaojia Opera, and puppet plays.

Every day, different Nanyin societies from neighbouring communities perform at the Nanyin hall in Wudianshi, with performers ranging from college students to retired people.

Chen, leader of Jinjiang Nanyin Arts Troupe, has been promoting the old melodies for years.

Nanyin, which originated during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), has been listed by Unesco as an intangible cultural heritage.

Sung in southern Fujian dialect, it is traditionally performed with string and wind instruments such as the pipa, a plucked string instrument, and the dongxiao, a bamboo flute.

Nanyin has been a type of popular music for locals passed down over generations. According to Chen, some 220 societies perform Nanyin in Jinjiang. However, the ancient art has been losing young performers.

Chen's troupe has 25 people with an average age of 27. They consider Nanyin their calling, but they have devoted great efforts to innovating the art to attract a younger audience.

"Nanyin was court music in ancient times, so we incorporate etiquette, burning incense and tea ceremonies into our performances," he said.

He also adopted elements from stage design such as lighting and costumes to create a visual experience that is lacking in traditional performances.

The troupe has thrilled audiences at home and abroad, but their gathering at Wudianshi every Saturday always reminds them not to lose their original flavor.

"We need to keep cool heads in the face of praise, and not go off course," he said.

To make full use of Wudianshi, Nian also organizes festivals. Some 100,000 people flocked to the block on the night of the Lantern Festival in January this year as thousands of lanterns were lit up.

"We didn't expect to host such a large crowd when we mapped out the development plan five years ago," Fan said. "Our new task is to increase water and electricity capacity, restrooms and other facilities to accommodate more visitors."

"Jinjiang is rich in both business opportunities and traditions, and Wudianshi is a shining example of local people's reverence for traditions and culture," he said.