Zaoziping Manor: This courtyard house, part of a large manor located in a hilly region of Chongqing, is not serviced by any road network. To reach it, visitors must drive for three hours from the nearest city and then hike for an hour. The quotations, from Mao Zedong's "little red book", were painted on the wall during the Cultural Revolution.

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.

<B>Shangqiantan village, Hunan province</B><BR>An elderly member of the Miao ethnic minority tucks into a bowl of rice as his dog runs across the stone floor of his sparsely furnished wooden house, in western Hunan province. A dim lightbulb is the only nod to modernity to be found in the home.

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,

<B>Sicheng village, Hunan province</B> Managing China's vast territory and its people has never been an easy task, and propaganda has long been a key tool for the Communist Party to "educate and lead the masses". Television, the most ubiquitous modern home appliance in the countryside, is not only a means of relaying ideology, it is often the only way rural children can learn about the outside world.
<B>Mapingguan village, Yunnan province</B> Mapingguan lies on the ancient Tea and Horse Caravan Trail, which connects Yunnan and Sichuan provinces with Tibet, Myanmar and India. This remote village, at 2,800 metres above sea level, was founded in the 14th century as an outpost for collecting salt taxes. The interior of this house is of a higher standard than others in the village. The painted wall and newly laid floor are achievements of the owner, who for several years was a migrant worker in the city.
<B>Dayang town, Shanxi province</B> Many female migrant workers, upon returning home to get married, complain about a lack of hygienic facilities. No matter how simple a living environment may be, however, there's always room for the beauty basics, such as this mini make-up station.
<B>Dikaner village, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region</B> Dikaner village is the last inhabited settlement on the edge of the Taklimakan Desert (the name of which translates as "he who goes in never comes out"). Explorer Sven Hedin set out from here to discover the legendary kingdoms of the ancient southern Silk Road. This village, which is composed of unadorned adobe houses, has yet to experience modernisation. Most of the younger generation have moved to the cities, in search of work, while those who remain lead a hard life, in constant battle with the ever spreading desert.
<B>Nangou village, Henan province</B> This elderly woman has lived in this underground courtyard house since her wedding day. Her husband died many years ago and her children have left to work in distant cities. Like many other households in the village, she decorates her walls with newspaper.
<B>Changsong village, Jilin province</B> For families in the Changbai Mountain Range, the Lunar New Year is a time for gathering around the kang – a brick-bed stove typical of northern China – to prepare dumplings together. The Changbai (literally “forever white”) range is considered holy by both Manchus and Koreans. Today, most residents here, like this family, are Han Chinese, the descendants of people who came here to escape famine over the past two centuries.


This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Through the keyhole