Shells worth saving

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 September, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 September, 1996, 12:00am

When Da Cheng was built in the Ming Dynasty, it was a prosperous town on the banks of the Daning River about eight hours upstream by boat from Wushan on the Yangtze.

Successful merchants built themselves large courtyard houses, grand temples to worship in and thick stone walls to keep out brigands.

These days Da Cheng is a sleepy, abandoned place of 7,000 souls, a few hours' ride beyond the point where tourist boats visiting the so-called Little Three Gorges, turn back.

Local officials like Li Jitang believe that even in the Shang Dynasty (1600-1027 BC), Da Cheng was already inhabited.

Antiquities dealers are already traversing the region offering to buy up relics before all is covered by the Three Gorges Reservoir.

Professor Yu Weichao of the National History Museum in Beijing says the most important thing to preserve at Da Cheng is the little town itself.

'This is a rare collection of 200 houses dating from the Ming and Qing dynasties and a model of Ming town planning. Ideally we want to move them all to a new site,' he said. Locals say they plan to build a new town for themselves and a separate museum town for tourists which will be made up of the old houses, the city gates and five temples. Tourists going up the river to see the Little Three Gorges would then go on to old Da Cheng.

To the Western eye, Da Cheng is something of a disappointment because so little is left and what there is in a sorry state. Everything was taken away and destroyed, explained Fu Shaoxiang somewhat angrily as she showed visitors her shell of a house.

It had been in her husband's family for 12 generations but there is little left to show for it, apart from one table of dubious antiquity. The walls are broken and the roof in disrepair but it was once a large, comfortable household.

'We used to have four courtyards but they took two away from us. My husband tried to take the government to court and eventually the police came and locked him up,' she said.

In the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), the Communist Party turned her house into the communal canteen. When food and fuel ran out, she said, they took the original roof off and burnt it as fuel. In fact, the beautifully carved wooden windows and doors of all the medieval houses in Da Cheng were stripped and burned during the Great Leap Forward.

The town's eight temples were put to other uses - one became a school, another devoted to the god of war became a factory and a third is still used as the party headquarters. In the Cultural Revolution, three were destroyed entirely.

With Da Cheng as with many other sites, between 1958 and 1979, there was so much deliberate destruction and neglect by the state that little enough remains worthy of preservation. Yet given this past, there is perhaps an added incentive to cherish what does remain.

For residents like Ms Fu, the coming of the dam is viewed with little sentimentality. She partly laments the loss of her home. However, when the town is moved to high ground, her family will receive 50 per cent more compensation because it is a historic relic.

'We must yield to the needs of the state,' said a neighbour, pharmacist She Shengshi. 'But I am glad they are taking a lot of trouble to preserve and restore these houses because they represent hundreds of years of our history.'