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Bridging a gap in cultural protection

China Daily| Updated: October 23, 2023 L M S


Wenxing Bridge, known locally as the "Leaning Tower of Pisa" of ancient covered bridges, thanks to its uneven structure, is located in Taishun county, Wenzhou city in East China's Zhejiang province. [Photo by Zhong Xiaobo/For China Daily]

A three-year nationwide action plan to better protect ancient covered bridges was launched on Monday in Taishun county, Wenzhou city in East China's Zhejiang province.

"Covered bridges are a distinctive subcategory of cultural relics and an integral part of traditional Chinese culture, with a long history and rich diversity," said Guan Qiang, deputy director of the National Cultural Heritage Administration, at the conference.

The sustainable preservation of covered bridges is affected by natural and human factors, and faces the problem of unclear documentation and insufficient protection, he said.

Issued in late May by the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, Ministry of Culture and Tourism, and the National Cultural Heritage Administration, the Three-Year Action Plan for the Protection of Covered Bridges (2023-25) seeks to establish a complete preservation system for covered bridges.

This aims to improve their surrounding environment and significantly boost risk prevention and control and emergency response capacity, among other goals, during the country's 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25) period.

To that end, the document outlined 10 major tasks, including carrying out surveys of covered bridges, collecting information about them and establishing risk assessment mechanisms.

A series of institutional and funding support will be given by the authorities to complete these tasks, added Guan.

According to official tallies, 138 of the 5,058 major historical and cultural sites protected at the national level in China are ancient covered bridges, located mainly in the countryside in 13 different provinces and autonomous regions.

In Taishun alone, a mountainous county with a population of a little over 367,000, and billed as the "hometown of China's covered bridges", there are 15 such structures, out of a total of 32 ancient wooden bridges in its territory, with Beijian, Wenxing and Xidong bridges among the most spectacular and best-known.

Their construction adopted some of the most sophisticated bridge-building techniques in China, such as the sunmao (mortise and tenon joinery) structure - indeed, a wooden covered bridge, sometimes also called a "corridor bridge" or "lounge bridge", can be built without using a single nail.

However, since the craft is traditionally passed down from generation to generation through apprenticeship, it has been in decline as a growing number of young people go to urban areas to seek opportunities. In 2009, the craft of designing and constructing timber arch bridges was inscribed on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.

These bridges are not only utilitarian, serving as means of transportation and communication. They are also communal spaces, acting as places to rest and for leisurely gatherings, sites for making offerings and even market areas for trading, said Huang Zi, a lead expert at the Zhejiang Ancient Architecture Design and Research Institute.

"They are carriers of folk beliefs and customs, rural culture and collective memories," he said. "They are works of architectural aesthetics, and they are cultural and social constructions as well."

But their largely wooden structures and the variety of roles they play make them more susceptible to hazards like natural decay, fire, flood and severe winds, said Liu Jie, an architecture professor specialized in covered bridges from Shanghai Jiaotong University.

For instance, residents sometimes burn joss sticks in their sacrificial ceremonial activities near or on the bridges, and the old wooden structures can catch fire as a result.

In 2016, three ancient covered bridges in Taishun were destroyed by torrential rains during a typhoon. In 2020, a covered bridge first built during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and most recently rebuilt in the 18th century in Wuyuan county, Jiangxi province, was destroyed by floodwaters. Not long ago, a 900-year-old covered bridge in Pingnan county, Fujian province, one of the longest in China, collapsed in a blaze at night in early August.

A raft of protective measures have already been put in place in areas with ancient covered bridges.

For example, laws and regulations have been enacted in provinces like Fujian and Zhejiang to lay a legal foundation for their protection. More incentives are being offered to attract young people to learn the ancient craft of bridge-building.

In Taishun, a digitally empowered platform has been applied to monitor risk factors including rainfall, river levels, abnormal bridge temperatures and smoke, and to deal with any emergencies, as well as prevent and minimize potential damage.

It will be a long-term process, said Huang, and greater efforts should be made to keep that sustainable.

One key, according to Huang, is to foster public engagement and participation.

"More preservation concepts and knowledge should be communicated to the general public and residents through related projects," he said.

More relevantly, the protection of covered bridges should be organically integrated into tourism.

"Only when people come to visit, walk and have fun on these bridges, can they truly display their vitality," he said.