Posted by: Lotus Light | February 2, 2012

Disappearing China

With nearly 50% of the population now living in cities, Chinese rural villages are disappearing rapidly.  Villages close to cities are subsumed almost daily, retaining little of their original form.  They are replaced by ‘beehives’ of buildings, shopping streets and blank walls.

The rural villages disappear more slowly, and disappear differently.  Villagers build new homes, allowing the old to disintegrate.  The styles become ‘modern’, and old techniques of building are forgotten.  Fewer people live in the villages – usually only the very young, the old and a few young wives to look after the elderly.

Water tank

This water storage tank used to be filled with water and each morning families would come here to wash clothes and pass along local news. In summer children would swim here.   Today, it has become a wasteland, no longer the community centre.  A rubbish dump.

Information wall

Painted walls like this one gave work to the local artists and were one method of passing along ideas and concepts in times when there was no ready access to TV, radio or newspapers.  Used for propaganda?  Sure, but also for creating a community.

Local materials, local knowhow.

The skills are no longer being transferred from generation to generation.  Building materials are now brick and cement, constructed by hired gangs, not local neighbours.  Materials are brought in from outside, and houses lose their unique traditional flavour in favour of a bland uniformity.  Houses in rural Guangdong look like houses in rural Shaanxi.

Traditional style house

Traditional houses in Shaanxi villages were built with on a ‘half-house’ design, with a single angled roofline.  The back and sides were high and without windows.  Families built like this, with houses facing each other across a small courtyard.  This meant each son could have his own ‘apartment’, private and connected at the same time.  It was also cheaper than a more usual two-angled roof design.  This one is a little fancy – clearly this family were a little wealthier.

Traditional house design

Along with the disappearing villages, is disappearing lifestyle and cultural traditions.  Weddings are being held in hotels rather than in family courtyards.  Funerals no longer have the villagers carry the coffin.

Spirit lanterns

These spirit lanterns are used during the funeral and on the annual anniversary of the death of a family member.  They are to guide the spirit home.  With so many villagers leaving their home village, their purpose becomes more important, but less possible.

Money and warm coats

Qing ming jie or Tomb Sweeping Day is when families go to the tombs of their ancestors, clean them and burn spirit money, clothes, houses etc to ensure the ancestors have these necessities in the spirit world.  With fewer people in the village, this tradition is slowly dying.  Family members away from home will burn the paper offerings on street corners in the city , but again, this is slowly dying.

Local elder eating his lunch in the street, looking for a little company

Other cultural traditions are rapidly disappearing as well. In October, the Mid-Autumn Festival occurs and traditionally families made ‘moon cakes’ – yuebing.  These decorated pastries were filled with bean paste, nuts, dried fruits, meats etc.  Savoury and sweet, they were the highlight of many a child’s year.  Today few people make their own yuebing, finding it easier to buy them mass produced from the bakeries.  Everyone will tell you the flavour is nowhere near as good.  The skill in making yurbing has almost disappeared.

Yue bing molds.   This mold has been used for generations, repaired and kept ready for its yearly use.  But is now on the scrap heap – no longer used, and the intangible heritage  lost.  “Who wants that old thing?” I hear.

China’s rush to modernisation and development is leaving many people lost in its wake.  With education and employment policies, social welfare reforms and a greater focus on welfare programs, these people may be cared for.  But the loss of the traditional skills, the disappearance of what makes China Chinese cannot ever be replaced.  The Government is spending vast amounts of money on ‘culture’ but not on preserving the real culture of China.



  1. excellent observation. prosperity owes culture and ecology an apology

  2. Fantastic post – it really is a shame that modernisation always costs so much in terms of culture, and here in China – it’s frightening. With over 70% of historic sites already vandalised, or demolished, or victims of theft already – time is running out for China to preserve some of what it was.

  3. great story and photos on the old way of life disappearing in China, they should try and preserve some of the Culture

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