For Chen, houses have stories to tell

Chen Xiaogang, a college student, promotes the old architecture in Jiading through his official Wecaht account, trying to arouse people's attention to Jiading's treasure.

Dihua, a series of patterns on ground in the yard in ancient houses, are commonly seen as a part of ancient houses. You will find dihua in various patterns at many old houses across Jiading. Chen Xiaogang, a Jiading resident, knows where to find them as he elaborated in his latest WeChat account to promote traditional architecture in 800-year-old Jiading.

Chen Xiaogang

The turtle-back pattern of dihua found at Chun Ai Tang in Loutang is called guibeijin. It has the meaning of getting rich and living longer.

He is a rising sophomore student, born and raised in district’s Nanxiang Town. Regardless of the fact that he is among the younger generation, he knows as much about the past as elderly residents.

He likes to visit old houses where people still live instead of district’s tourist sites. He records the information and expects to draw people’s attention to the ancient architecture.

His first visit was four years ago, but the idea of walking around Jiading generated when he was still a kid.

It was triggered by the stories about Zhi Mei Tang told by his grandma, an old house in Chen’s family built around 1937 in Nanxiang.

When the battle of Songhu began, Chen’s family fled the house. The family went back to Nanxiang after the war and surprisingly found that the house still stood there, while others had been destroyed.

Chen remembers the stories of the old house. It was rebuilt in 1982, replacing the old style with a modern construction. That was when he made up his mind to visit old houses that still survived.

The first place Chen visited was the Twin Pagodas in Nanxiang. “I learnt at school that the Twin Pagodas are the only brick-style tower in China,” said Chen. “At that time, I was like a tourist, being attracted by the height and pretty appearance.”

Since then, Chen wanted to deepen his knowledge about Jiading, so he went to libraries, reading books about Jiading’s history and architecture and then bought a lot of books for reference.

Yu Hong / SHINE

Chen Xiaogang reads a book at Jiading Museum where he frequently visits to search for traditional Chinese architecture records.

That led him to check out jiaoquan houses, a style that existed at the same time as the shimumen in Shanghai but which had disappeared.

Jiaoquan houses are built in a ring-like shape. All family members live in it, symbolizing the family harmony, which also reflects traditional Chinese attitude. It is interesting to get ancestor’s thoughts through watching his house,” Chen said.

Ti Gong

The Jiaoqua  house

Then Chen realized that he should do something for the public to avoid the ancient houses slipping from people’s memory. So he visited more places to observe. Since the famous tourist sites are well preserved by government, his targets are the unknown houses that once flourished.

One time, when visiting Chun Ai Tang in Loutang Town, he found that the main structure of the Chun Ai Tang is traditional Chinese style while the windows are Western-like. After talking with the residents living inside, he understood that it was because the house was built during the time of Republic of China era (1912-1949) when a lot of ideas and things came from West.

Chen Xiaogang

Dun Yi Tang, a shikumen style of house in Loutang Town, features a combination of Chinese and Western architecture styles.

Chen noticed another impressive architecture style called guanyindou, a baroque style Chinese residential house popular in southern China. However, the district’s style is gentler than the one in other areas, even in Shanghai’s other districts.

“I believe the difference was formed because of the residents living inside. The structure seems the same, but the resident’s living stories and his own appreciation caused the change. If you say the house is dead, then the resident’s spirit makes the house a living creature,” Chen said.

Also, there are different patterns on the door or wall, such as two dragons chasing one pearl, Four Gentlemen — plum blossom, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum. These patterns tell the feature of the landlord and his expectation to his posterity.

Chen Xiaogang

“Zhu Bao Song Mao,” the Chinese characters on the plaque, has a meaning of "being prosperous." 

As college student, Chen has a two-month summer vacation so he volunteers at a summer camp. Sometimes, he teaches painting and handcraft. Sometimes he tells stories about the district’s history and ancient architecture.

Although these children are young, Chen is still keen to share his experience and stories to them. With urbanization developing fast, more ancient houses are being torn down, which may result in the young generation seeing ancient architecture only in museums. So it becomes more important to talk more with them about Jiading’s treasures.

“Not only the ancient architecture is the treasure from the ancestor, but also the building technique such as niezuo, a kind of sculpture on the architecture listed among the intangible cultural heritages, that we should cherish as well,” said Chen. “When the house is restored, we can use the same technique on it, making the house the same as before.”

So Chen uses his official Wechat account to promote these ancient architecture features in Jiading.

Jiaoquan houses are lucky as two Minhang residents tried every thing to arise the attention to the public. That is also my intention. The houses present the landlord’s spirit and the worker’s technique that values a lot,” said Chen.

“I hope more people especially the young become interested in this ancient architecture by reading my posts. While they move to downtown to make a living, don’t leave the ‘living architecture’ with stories behind here.”

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