Calls to preserve buildings linked to general who helped found the Northern Song Dynasty

Shanghai is in danger of losing a key part of its history, say experts, if a Pudong compound is destroyed to make way for an urban renovation project.
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

A firewall overlooks the ruins where an abandoned well remains in the Gaohang compound, known locally as Cao Villa.

Appeals are being made to save a historic residential compound from an urban renovation project in rural Pudong’s Gaohang Town.

The compound, known locally as Cao Villa, once housed the descendants of the renowned general Cao Bin, who helped Zhao Kuangyin to ascend to the throne and found the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), according to the Cao family’s genealogy records.

“Cao’s family is prominent in Shanghai history,” said Shanghai history and architecture expert Lou Chenghao.

Lou and other experts want the building complex saved and cite the city’s urban planning body’s call for better preservation of historic buildings. 

Cao genealogy records show the family moved to Shanghai in the early South Song Dynasty (1127-1279), an era when the imperial army was defeated by northern marauders. They first settled in the Caojiadu area of Jing’an District, and from 1403 to 1424, they moved to Gaohang.

Also, as documented in the genealogy, a town called Huating was set up 1074. 

“Huating was precursor of Shanghai and Songjiang. It was the only historical document dated back to Song Dynasty that we have so far related to Shanghai’s birth,” said Zhou Minfa, vice chairman of Pudong’s literature and history association.

He added, “It’s not only the matter of protecting Cao’s family compound, it is also a matter of retaining our history.”

A nearby teashop owner surnamed Xu said the site used to be dotted with eight courtyard estates. But five of them have been pulled down.

One of the three remaining buildings used to be a kindergarten. Shanghai Daily found the buildings in a dilapidated condition. Carvings on stone gates had almost disappeared, and windowpanes were rotten. 

Two walls 6 or 7 meters high still stand proud among the remains in the northern part of the compound. Surrounded by the firewalls is the courtyard where two stone gates stand. “This is known as yimen, only wealthy families from the old times built such a thing,” Xu said.

Yimen is a kind of gate built inside the main gate in ancient China, the gate represents the manner of the host as they usually see their visitor off at there, rather than at the main gate.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

The inscription on a stone plaque has faded away.

‘Traces of Song and Ming eras’

Lou said the remaining buildings have a high architectural and historical value.

The compound area covers a block nearly 200 meters long and 100 meters wide.

“The main structure is preserved, and interior decoration shows traces of Song and Ming dynasties,” he said. “In a narrow lane built for servants to walk, there are some holes in the walls used to place candles. It is a solid evidence proving the house was built long ago.”

Professor Ruan Yisan from Tongji University said the building, judging by its look, was built during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).

“The style is rare in Pudong, I think it is better to take action to protect it than tear it down now and regret it later.” 

None of the Cao Villa buildings have heritage listed status. But on November 8, the city’s urban planning and land resources authority said historic buildings without protected statues should be protected first, which may boost the chance of the three remaining buildings surviving.

“I suggest the buildings can be preserved and repaired to form a museum,” Lou said.

Relocation started in September last year. “We plan to remove 332 families from the area and most of them are happy to be relocated to new home,” said a township government officer who declined to be identified.

A senior citizen surnamed Xu is one of those who will move out soon. “I am happy with the place that government arranged for us, but still it is bitter to part the home where my family lived for four generations.”

A woman surnamed Zhu said she is looking forward to moving out to “a bigger and brighter place.” Nearby vendors and store owners said it is better to pull down the old houses because they are shabby and dangerous.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Detailed handmade carving on a roof beam.

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