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Through the keyhole: the homes modern China forgot

The distinctive, traditional houses of some of the mainland's most remote villages reflect a way of life that is fast disappearing, find Matthias Messmer and Hsin-mei Chuang, authors of 'China's Vanishing Worlds - Countryside, Traditions, and Cultural Spaces'

 

Throughout our numerous trips to far-flung parts of the mainland over the past eight years, we have always been fascinated by the way residents organise their living spaces. Most of the villages we have visited still boast characteristic vernacular architecture - Hakka earth buildings, underground cave courtyard houses, Siberian-style log cabins and adobe houses.

These buildings, though charming and often strikingly beautiful at first sight, were not designed for modern lifestyles. The typical rural home interior is usually arranged in a pragmatic way; many feature a simple dining table, a few chairs, a cabinet and a television set. Rural people tend to decorate their walls with posters of political leaders or pop stars, family photos or the school certificates of grandchildren.

When entering a traditional home, it often feels as though one has gone back in time. The "old" China that was so vividly described by American writer Pearl S. Buck in the 1930s and 40s comes back to life in a labyrinth of dimly lit interwoven spaces. When hazy sunlight creeps through a narrow sky-well in a traditional southern courtyard house, for example, the poetry of ancient China fills the air and makes one forget - for a moment - that most of the people living in these houses are either elderly or disadvantaged, and often both.

These spaces offer a unique insight into the living standards of Chinese peasants today. Many seemingly ordinary objects in these rural houses not only lead us to imagine what might have happened here, but also reveal the hardships of everyday life in the countryside.

Modernisation is creeping into every corner of this huge country. Fortunately, for the nostalgic and those resisting urbanisation, some places have been spared - for now. The following pictures, taken over a period of eight years, offer a glimpse into worlds and lifestyles that will, inevitably, soon disappear.

China's Vanishing Worlds - Countryside, Traditions, and Cultural Spaces, an encyclopaedic volume with almost 1,000 images and published by The MIT Press, is out now.

 

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