Meet the Chinese artist on a mission to record the country’s ancient heritage

Lian Da has spent the past two decades hiking across the province of Shanxi to document its old temples and other buildings at risk of demolition

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 June, 2018, 11:26am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 June, 2018, 5:19pm

A Chinese artist has spent the past two decades trekking across the north of the country to preserve the memory of its ancient temples and buildings.

In that time Lian Da has visited hundreds of rural villages and has made more than 1,000 drawings of old temples, many of which are on the verge of collapse.

Since 1999, the 40-year-old has spent two months every year walking through Shanxi recording the province’s “precious ancient heritage” to raise public awareness, according to the video media app Yitiao.

Lian said that while he often had to camp out and survive on dried food, his mission was worthwhile.

“If I arrive a day late, it’s quite possible they [the temples] will have been demolished or fallen down, and will never be seen again,” he said.

There is a popular saying on the mainland that Shaanxi province, which is home to the world famous terracotta army, has the most heritage under the ground, while its neighbour Shanxi has the most above the ground.

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Lian said he first went to Shanxi at the invitation of a friend and was impressed by the Jinci temple complex in Taiyuan, parts of which are 1,500 years old.

“Seeing Jinci temple, for the first time, I discovered how charming China’s traditional constructions are,” he said.

After the trip, Lian started doing some research and found that Shanxi has more ancient buildings than any other province.

Even though he had never studied painting or drawing, he decided to make it his mission to sketch as many of them as he could.

Every spring and autumn Lian travels more than 1,000km (600 miles) by train to Shanxi from his home in the northeastern city of Dalian.

Then, travelling by bus, pedicab, motorbike or, if needs be, on foot he explores the province carrying his equipment in his backpack.

In recent years, he has concentrated on the buildings most at risk, such as old houses, memorial gateways or pavilions that are located in remote areas and not on the authorities’ protection list.

He said he once arrived at an ancient temple and found workers had already started to demolish it to make way for a replacement.

Lian immediately set to work, and though he had to work through the dust, smoke and noise of the demolition he was able to make one last record of the old temple.

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He said that many people assumed he came from a rich family to be able to afford to do what he did, but he denied that was so.

He said he had to work to pay off his mortgage and raise his two daughters – although the fact that he worked for a home decoration company run by his sister meant he could take time off when he needed it.

But Lian said he still tried to keep his expenses under 5,000 yuan (US$780) per trip to reduce the financial burden on his family.

He also said he could not do it without his wife’s support. “I feel a bit guilty,” Lian said, but added: “She also loves travel and we travelled a lot before we got married. In her eyes, I am cool.”