From tragedy: a quest to save tradition

When a former TV director's husband died, her friends helped her find a new meaning in life: recording and saving traditional villages.
Ti Gong

Zhang Anmeng (right) searches for a child she met back in 1989 in Zhangguying Village.

When Zhang Anmeng lost her husband over 10 years ago, she was so devastated that her family and friends tried to find a new purpose for her.

They found it: traditional villages. Or what Zhang now calls “my dream and my new career.”

“They thought of traditional village probably because over the years I had always been so passionate about it and talked about it all the time,” Zhang says.

It worked. She had already been helping research traditional villages now and then. So in 2006, a few years after her husband died, she co-founded the Scholarly Commission for the Protection and Development of Traditional Villages, an NGO devoted to finding and protecting traditional villages.

“When we just started, many villages we visited had no idea why they needed to be protected. I would have long given up if not for that first encounter 18 years ago,” says the retired TV director,  referring to a trip to Hunan Province in the late 1980s.

She was on an assignment to film villages around the country that were undergoing rapid industrial and economic expansion.

“Many were chaotic. It was long before environmental protection or ecological balance became important, and most places prioritized development over environment,” she recalls. “Almost everywhere I went was dirty, decrepit, old gone and new in the process of building.”

So when she found Zhangguying Village by accident, she was pleasantly shocked — and went back twice more on the same day. And again with a film crew a few weeks later to record her accidental find.

“It’s been almost 20 years, but the splendid structure of the village, the amazingly interconnected houses and — most of all — the simple and well-mannered villagers, who look like they have walked out from an ancient painting, all feel like yesterday,” Zhang says.

“More like a dream, because it can no longer be reached, not even at the same village. Much has happened in the past 20 years. The environment has changed,” she adds.

Ti Gong

Zhang Anmeng (center in blue) joins in a villagers' meeting in Zhangguying Village.

Zhang calls herself a “dream-chaser,” as she knows what she tries to achieve is too idealistic to be realized.

“My ideal is to create a healthy ecological system for the villagers, including schools, hospitals, job opportunities; and a good system that encourages them to protect and continue to live in their old houses,” she explains.

“Only by doing this can it be possible for villagers to stay there. A village has no value if all its residents have left. People are the core value of the place.”

Zhang says each traditional village, although sharing some common aspects, requires individual research to judge its value and need for a protection plan.

“Chinese villages have been set where they are for a reason,” she says. “The entrance of the village is usually close to a water source, which is mostly covered by big roads or other constructions today.

“Many villages contain one or two big family mansions that were once the homes of returned royal court officials. Through such details, you can find out many intriguing aspects of the history and culture of the place that are no longer known by today’s villagers.

“Sometimes, it may even help explain local traditions — why the locals do what they do today.”

Every summer, Zhang and others from the commission visit remote villages all over the country to learn about their values and give an award to a handful of well-preserved ones.

She hopes the recognition will help protect them.

“Village offices and residents have a much better understanding of protecting the villages today, thanks to the supportive policies and subsidies from central and local governments,” Zhang says.

“I only hope they will neither overdo it nor copy and paste. Every village has its distinct culture and ecology,” she notes.

Ti Gong

Zhang Anmeng with a fourth-generation girl in Zhangguying Village

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