Songjiang's restored historic homes mix cultural and architectural grandeur

Tan Weiyun
The preservation of such homes as Du's Carved House, the Qian Yitong Residence, Zhang's House, and the Kai and Tang residences speaks to Songjiang's rich past and dynamic present.
Tan Weiyun

As the echoes of history resonate through the narrow alleys and grand courtyards, a remarkable transformation is underway in Songjiang. Here, historic houses, once the epitome of cultural and architectural grandeur, are being meticulously preserved and repurposed.

This initiative is not just about conserving bricks and mortar; it's a vibrant celebration of heritage, bringing these venerable structures back to life. Among them, Du's Carved House, the Qian Yitong Residence, Zhang's House and the Kai and Tang residences stand as testaments to Songjiang's rich past and dynamic present.

Songjiang's restored historic homes mix cultural and architectural grandeur

The courtyard of Du's Carved House, featuring intricate wood carvings, is lush with vegitation.

Du's Carved House: A Symphony in Wood and Stone

Du's Carved House at 266 Zhongshan Road W. is a remarkable example of Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) residential architecture. It was the residence of local notable Du Lingmei. The house is a classic Liang-column style structure, a signature of Qing design, featuring a four-courtyard, three-hall layout that is both grand and intimate.

The architectural brilliance of the house lies in its intricate wood carvings and thoughtful design. The main building, known as the "Carved Flower Building," was constructed for Du's daughter's wedding. Its brick walls and Dougong-style wooden frame, a traditional Chinese structural component, showcase the ingenuity of ancient Chinese carpentry. The roof, with its horse-head gables and small green tiles, reflects the typical Jiangnan-style architecture, characterized by its simplicity and elegance.

"During the 2010 renovation, we pondered over how to extend its functional value. It's not enough to just restore; we need to breathe new life into these structures," said Zhang Feng, director of the Songjiang Cultural Heritage Protection Management Office.

Since 2013, the old house has undergone a remarkable transformation, evolving from a historical residence that once shut its doors to the public, into a dynamic center for intangible cultural heritage. This initiative has turned the house into a living museum where the past and present intertwine, offering citizens and visitors a unique opportunity to immerse themselves in traditional Chinese arts and culture.

Each room and courtyard within the house has been thoughtfully repurposed to showcase different aspects of intangible cultural heritage. Workshops and exhibition spaces are dedicated to arts such as calligraphy, traditional Chinese painting, paper cutting and silk embroidery.

In one courtyard, skilled artisans demonstrate the ancient art of Chinese lacquerware, while another area is devoted to the intricate craft of jade carving. Visitors can witness these craftspeople in action, gaining insights into the meticulous processes and historical significance of each art form.

Songjiang's restored historic homes mix cultural and architectural grandeur

The Qian Yitong Residence exemplifies traditional Chinese architectural elegance.

Qian Yitong Residence: Blending History with Aesthetics

The Qian Yitong Residence, hidden in an inconspicuous and narrow lane, was built on two main axes, east and west, covering approximately 2,331 square meters. This brick and wood structure, topped with a hard mountain roof, exemplifies traditional Chinese architectural elegance.

The eastern axis of the residence includes the entrance hall, study, main hall and rear building, while the western axis was constructed on the ruins of the garden of Lin Youlin, the residence's first owner during the Daoguang era (1821-50). The ancient trees and lake stones within the courtyard are believed to be relics from the original garden. Ownership was transferred to Qian, a high-ranking official during the Qing Dynasty.

Entering the residence, the eye is immediately drawn to the spacious courtyards and traditional architectural halls. The deep courtyards, lush with vegetation and fronted by a a 15-meter-tall magnolia tree, believed to have been planted by Qian himself, radiate tranquility.

Its first owner, Lin, a Ming Dynasty official, was an accomplished guqin (a traditional stringed musical instrument) player and author of "Lotus Elegance," a significant historical work on the guqin.

In recognition of this legacy, the Shanghai Guqin Research Association and Suyuan Music Hall established a presence in the residence in 2014. The hall not only showcases various aspects of guqin culture but also serves as an educational base for intangible cultural heritage, enriching the historical ambiance of the residence with the melodious sounds of guqin music.

"By establishing the music hall here, we're not only preserving but also promoting this ancient art form, aiming to introduce the rich heritage of Songjiang and Chinese guqin culture to the world," said Dai Ruchen, director of Suyuan.

It has become a community hub, where people of all ages come to learn about and enjoy guqin music. Regular community events, such as guqin recitals, cultural talks and music festivals, are held, fostering a sense of community and shared cultural heritage.

The hall also collaborates with local schools to introduce young students to guqin music, embedding appreciation for this ancient art form in the next generation.

Songjiang's restored historic homes mix cultural and architectural grandeur

Zhang's Residence has experienced a long journey of preservation and transformation.

Zhang's House: Preserving Ming Dynasty Elegance

Zhang's Residence at 33 Jiangjing West Street, a historic treasure uncovered in 2008 during the third national survey of cultural relics, has experienced a long journey of preservation and transformation.

It featured a series of structures - a front hall, main hall, grand gate and residential building. Due to its antiquity, much of the building was in ruins, but the main hall and parts of the residential area retained their structural integrity and were carefully relocated to the south side of the nearby Shihe River.

The main hall is an exemplary representation of Ming Dynasty architecture. Its exterior walls and roof are well-preserved, featuring a unique "water wave" roof structure with several inscriptions made by the original craftsmen. The remaining stone column bases, though low and broken, add to the authenticity of the structure.

Songjiang's restored historic homes mix cultural and architectural grandeur

Young people are watching Lu Yongqing (second from right), head of the Songjiang Printmaking Academy, as he paints.

In 2021, the Guanlu Intangible Cultural Heritage Workshop was established within Zhang's Residence, breathing new life into the historic structure. The workshop hosts a variety of intangible heritage projects such as woodblock printing, embroidery, sugar painting and leather carving. Regular cultural experience and learning activities are organized for the public, fostering a deeper appreciation for traditional arts and crafts.

"The Zhang family, known for their philanthropy and artistic contributions 300 years ago, have now paved the way for us to popularize these art forms among the general public," said Lu Yongqing, head of the Songjiang Printmaking Academy. "We're not just reviving traditional arts; we're creating a cultural landmark, a place where people can come to reconnect with Songjiang's rich literary heritage and rekindle a sense of cultural identity."

Today, Zhang's Residence stands as a symbol of cultural resilience and rejuvenation. Its white-washed walls, interwoven with moss-filled cracks, and the newly installed red doors and windows blend historical authenticity with modern restoration. Inside, the residence is adorned with paintings and handicrafts, visible from the outside, inviting visitors to explore and engage with the rich heritage within.

Songjiang's restored historic homes mix cultural and architectural grandeur

Kai and Tang Residences, now repurposed as the Songjiang Homespun Exhibition Hall, displays items made of Songjiang homespun fabric.

Kai and Tang Residences: A Tapestry of Traditional Textile Architecture

These two neighboring residences, built during the late Qing Dynasty and now repurposed as the Songjiang Homespun Exhibition Hall, showcase the unique relationship between Songjiang's textile heritage and its architectural history.

In ancient times, Songjiang was known as the largest cotton textile center in the country, earning the esteemed title of "Clothing the World."

It was also the hometown of Huang Daopo (1245-1330), a pioneer in China's early textiles industry, who improved the techniques of weaving and spinning fiber, and passed her three decades of weaving experience on to Songjiang women, enabling villagers to make suits and fine silk clothing at home.

Today, the residences are a showroom of Songjiang's homespun history and culture and living spaces of affluent families involved in the textile industry, combining both residential and commercial architectural elements.

It displays hundreds of old Songjiang homespun fabric with varied patterns, styles and colors. Most were collected from old locals, with some fabrics dating back a century.

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