The ancient dwellings of the Li ethnic group aregrass and mud houses constructed in the shape ofinverted boats. This technique of residential architecturewas listed as a national intangible culturalheritage item in 2008.
Baicha Village in Dongfang City, Hainan Province, is theonly place where boat-shaped dwellings remain. However, thevillagers moved to a new locale a kilometer away, leaving thevillage empty like a film set.
“Empty houses are useless,” lamented a disappointedvisitor after driving a long way to see the village. “Onlypeople living here can revitalize the dwellings.” For many,the vitality of the village is more important than protection.
Baicha villagers now live in brickhouses coated with white paint and featuringbroad gates and halls, which lackdistinct ethnic flavor. The villagers neverreturned to their old houses to clean up, sothe homes were left in shambles. With asubsidy they received from the government,it took villagers three months to renovatetheir previous homes, according to HuangYangqiong, a staff member of DongfangMunicipal Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Center.
“After refurbishment, the houses needto be waterproof and highlight boat-shapecharacteristics, otherwise they cannotpass inspection,” explains Huang. Whenconstructing a boat-shaped dwelling, thebuilder first needs to erect a frame of woodand rattan before building the wall withmud and thatch and finally covering it withthatch – without a single nail and usingonly natural material.
The technique seems simple yet leaves the home warm in the winter and cool inthe summer. However, only by cookingwith firewood regularly can the houses beprotected from rotting due to humidity andinsects. Also, the structures cannot survivemajor storms and are highly flammable.Villagers need to reconstruct the thatchedroofs every couple years.
Thanks to 12 art professors, BaichaVillage escaped demolition. In 2007,Huang brought the professors to the remotevillage. “Pulling along a cart of oilpaint, they were fascinated by the scenery,”Huang recalls. “They planned to stay fivedays, but ultimately stayed ten.” The professorsdubbed Baicha Village beautifulfrom every angle and vowed to bring theirstudents there to sketch every year.