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Zhu Liangwen (fifth from left) discusses the Azheke renovation project at the village in Yuanyang county, Yunnan province, with local officials and village leaders. FU ZHENGHUI/CHINA DAILY

Retiree"s efforts have convinced villagers they can improve living standards without demolition, new buildings

Zhu Liangwen, a white-haired retired architecture professor from Kunming University of Science and Technology, is in a race against time to protect traditional houses in Yunnan province.

His efforts to protect Yunnan"s Lijiang old town started 16 years before it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

After a magnitude-7 earthquake rocked the town in 1996, Zhu"s distribution of handbooks illustrating construction styles and features of local traditional houses proved to be effective in saving the buildings from being damaged in the post-disaster reconstruction.

Yuanyang county invited the 79-year-old to help protect the traditional mushroom shaped houses of the Hani ethnic group. Zhu accepted the invitation, but the task became extremely complex.

Zhu started his work in Yuanyang in early 2013 when the local government was attempting to have the county"s Landscape of Honghe Hani Rice Terraces listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The government even went to Laos to buy the twitch grass required for the renovation of the houses, he said.

However, the situation changed in June that year when the local government"s application for funds, as part of a nationwide campaign to construct "beautiful villages", was successful.

The Yuanjiang government offered 30,000 yuan ($4,400) to families that built new houses. After just a few months, many of the traditional houses in the county"s 82 villages had been demolished to make way for new houses.

"I was astonished, and told the county leaders I was only confident of protecting the traditional houses in two of the villages," Zhu said.

One of the villages Zhu chose was Azheke, where 80 percent of the traditional houses remained due to limited access to the outside world.

Villagers had been pressing the government for funding to build new houses, so Zhu had to take urgent action to renovate the traditional houses, he said.

Zhu had it written into the contract he signed with the local government that his team should accompany all processes from planning to construction. "Only in this way could I make sure the houses would be well protected," he said.

It took Zhu six hours by car to travel from his home in Kunming to the village, and another 20 minutes to drive along an unpaved road before arriving. However, Zhu has insisted on going there at least once a month.

Zhu supervises the construction of a lane at a village in Yuanyang county.FU ZHENGHUI/CHINA DAILY

The county head secured him a traditional house that Zhu could use for three years to renovate as a demonstration. With no government support, he invested 250,000 yuan of his own savings in transforming the house.

To prevent damage to the exterior, he chose to dig down inside and around the house to raise the height of the first floor, transforming it into a bar.

He also set up four rooms on the second floor and a loft.

"I am not doing this for money. If I make any money from the house, I will give all of it to the village," he said.

The demonstration proved to be successful. "Many locals came to witness the renovation work taking place and were convinced that they could also improve their living conditions without demolishing the old houses," he said.

However, Zhu has been left frustrated by the village head, who carried out construction work but failed to follow his planning.

"They think they have better plans for the village and do things that go against my planning when I am absent," Zhu said, adding that he often argues with village leaders, but it gets him nowhere.

In Azheke, the village leaders demolished a small house used for sacrifice to gods and ancestors, which was the last one of its kind in the area, ignoring Zhu"s suggestion to preserve it. They also painted power transmission poles around the village green in a color that is not harmonious with the surroundings.

Zhu said he once thought about giving up, but eventually decided to continue his mission. "If what I do can be used as a guideline for the protection of traditional residential houses, in terms of academic research, I have reached my goal," he said. "And if I fail, it proves that my method is not practical and other methods must be discovered."

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