Breathing new life into Zhejiang's ancient towns
Ancient towns in Zhejiang Province once thrived because of the booming trade, ideal geographical location and enriched culture. However, they gradually weakened because of the downfall of waterway transport and changes in economic focus during modern times.
Their weak economic foundations required new energy, but most have encountered lack of talent, capital and land.
Over the past few years, some of these towns have initiated restoration projects to attract tourists, but management and operation problems have hobbled those efforts.
To rejuvenate these ancient towns, Zhejiang government recently released an official five-year plan which designates the first group of 11 towns as pilot projects. All the selected towns share some similarities, including well-preserved buildings, original layouts and ample cultural heritage.
“The revival plan is an innovative exploration of a new type of people-oriented urbanization,” said Weng Jianrong, vice director of the Zhejiang Development and Reform Commission. “The plan emphasizes cultural heritage protection and developing local industries. We will avoid making them look the same by retaining their original features.”
The towns of Xindeng and Meicheng in Hangzhou are among the pilot projects.
Xindeng was once a prefecture established during the Three Kingdoms Period (AD 220-280) with high status thanks to its location at the confluence of the Luzhu, Gexi and Songxi rivers. In 1958, it was downgraded from a city to a town.
Throughout the centuries, groups of prominent people sprang up in Xindeng, a reflection of the town’s booming economy and educational resources. The former residences of local dignitaries have been renovated to attract history buffs.
Renovating other decrepit buildings is a priority of the revival plan. Ancient structures are made of wood and bricks, so they are vulnerable to deteriorating. The local government will relocate original residents and invite professionals to restore their original appearance.
Moreover, facilities will be upgraded to raise people’s living standards. Old wells, pavilions, temples, folk houses, stone bridges and archways will be protected to revive the town’s vintage ambience. Time-honored brands and outlets will be rejuvenated to attract younger visitors.
Meanwhile, the local government will boost Xindeng’s agricultural industry.
The town sits at a high altitude with large temperature fluctuations which form a prime condition for growing flowers and fruit. Every year, the local government hosts flower and fruit-picking events to increase farmers’ incomes.
When the weather gets warmer during spring, blooming rapeseed flowers in Xindeng’s undulating fields attract many visitors.
In addition to cultivated rapeseed flowers, the area also features wild mulberry trees. Locals climb mountains to pluck the ripe, succulent berries, most of which are sold in May.
Meicheng literally means “plum blossom city” in Chinese, named as such for its layout designed in the shape of a plum blossom. The town dates back more than 1,800 years and still attracts flocks of tourists for its well-preserved walls and architecture.
Today, Meicheng is considered one of the most successful revamped ancient towns in Zhejiang Province. Since 2016, the local government has been working to improve the local environment of Meicheng and other towns and boost tourism by upgrading sanitation facilities, removing illegal buildings, paving roads and building parking lots.
The local government has invited six universities and institutes, including Tongji and Tsinghua universities, to carry out the planning and design work.
Meicheng is situated at the west of the Grand Canal’s drainage basin. In ancient times, the river was a thriving belt of commerce and culture. By the 1990s, however, the century-old waterway had lost much of its charm, as cars and high-speed trains replaced the river travel.
To increase the flow of visitors and upgrade tourism facilities, the Hangzhou Grand Canal Group is building two boutique hotels which will open to the public in October. The new hotels will embody the town’s design aesthetics and cultural environment.