Care about Wuhan Lifen

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Care about Wuhan Lifen

Both quadrangles in Beijing and lanes in Shanghai have been distinctive cultural sights of the cities. So, what about Wuhan? Wuhan also has its Lifen with special style. Alongside the development of cities, there are activities of 「Saving Quadrangles」 and 「Saving Lanes」 in Beijng and Shanghai, achieving a good result. Then, what about the Lifen in Wuhan? Should they be torn down or be saved? It is really an issue that needs to be well pondered and reckoned with.

A Little Dilapidated Xian』an Lane in Hankou.jpg

A Little Dilapidated Xian』an Lane in Hankou  

Like quadrangles in Beijing and lanes in Shanghai, there are also residential buildings in Wuhan, which were called Lifen by native people living in Wuhan for a long time. Most buildings in Lifen are two-storeyed, which were superb residential quarters with best residential location, environment and relevant facilities in urban Wuhan of that time. Going through a long history, up to the present, housing conditions of Lifen haven』t met the requirements nowadays, such as high population density, poor water and power supplies, and many ramshackle houses. With the powerful reconstruction of old urban areas, those Lifen such as Changqing Lane, Rushou Lane known pretty well by native old people are becoming historical names gradually. While at the same time, activities of 「Saving Quadrangles」, 「Saving Lanes」 and 「Saving Old Neighborhoods」 are happening in renowned historical and cultural cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing and Tianjin. When Wuhan is ranking as an international metropolis, should some old Lifen be worth preservation as a certain symbol to reflect characteristics of Wuhan? With these questions, the writer visited and investigated relevant quarters.


Wuhan Lifen with Distinctive Flavor

The earliest Lifen in contemporary Wuhan originated in the end of 19th century when Hankou dock opened. By 1949, there had been 208 Lifen in Wuhan with 3294 houses and a total floorage of about 3 million square meters. According to Mr. Xu Mingting, a senior librarian in Wuhan Library, Lifen are located in all three towns of Wuhan and are mainly spread over Hankou, especially its Jiang』an District and Jianghan District, with the greatest architectural accomplishment and value. Lifen are also concentrated in the area along Yangtze River in Wuchang.

Lifen in Hankou can be classified into the following types on the whole. Some were built by townspeople voluntarily, featuring poky wooden houses, incomplete living facilities but most civil flavor, such as Manchuan Lane in Hanzheng Street. Some were jointly invested and built by some merchant princes, which had a little implication of earlier real estate development. These Lifen feature their better layout of most two-storyed buildings, orderly exterior appearance, capacious interior passages and complete living facilities, such as Ping』an Lane and Xincheng Lane near Youyi Street, Chezhan Road. Houses in these Lifen are apartment buildings closely located in a line (a little like the latest real estate concept: TOWNHOUSE), with a central house of the main wing, main rooms on sides, the staircase and kitchen in the back and backyard sometimes. After five commercial ports of Guangzhou, Fuzhou, Xiamen, Ningbo and Shanghai opened by the

Qing Government to the foreign powers under compulsion after the Opium War (1840-1842), Kankou became foreign concession and was first influenced by modern western civilization, where some Lifen with foreign style were built, like Kunhou Lane in Yiyuan Road, featuring two-storyed buildings with red-black bricks, higher ceilings and typical European style.

Wuhan Lifen have some common features: most buildings in Lifen are structures of wood and brick with wooden floor and staircases inside, and most alleys are paved with flagstones. Though nearby busy streets, many Lifen in old urban areas of Hankou always enjoy peace and quiet against the noisy surroundings. Neighbors in Lifen live in friendliness and harmony. Because of pubic living facilities like water supply and dense residents, rules took shape in Lifen: people have a good habit of helping each other, keep close and harmonious relationship and consciously follow some unwritten distributed rules of living resources. Bamboo beds were thickly placed in every Lifen in summers of those years, but the residents claimed their own places without any disputes. Lifen also can be regarded as residential communities in earlier Wuhan. Mr. Xu Mingting called to mind that there were special persons in charge of public security, guarding against fire and theft, which were similar to property management nowadays. And they were conscientious in their work.

Peaceful Jiang』ancun in the City.jpg

Peaceful Jiang』ancun in the City

Age-old Houses and Door Planks in Yanchang Lane, Jianghan Road.jpg

Age-old Houses and Door Planks in Yanchang Lane, Jianghan Road

Are Wuhan Lifen worth protection?

At present, reconstruction of old urban areas in Wuhan is under way like a raging fire. Many old urban areas will be torn down and reconstructed. It is a focus of attention for all walks of life whether to tear down or protect the Lifen in the bustling area of old urban areas in Wuhan. According to some statistics, there were 208 Lifen in 1949, only 140 in 1996 and 110 in 1998 in Wuhan, which indicates the number of Lifen has decreased year after year. Actually, relevant departments have confirmed the cultural value of Lifen for a long time. Dalufang, Tongxing Lane and Jianghancun were appointed as the second-grade protective architectures by Wuhan Municipal Government in 1993. When reconstructing the ramshackle houses in Rushou Lane, people consulted some native old people in Wuhan such as He Zuohuan and Xu Mingting for their opinions of how to protect Lifen well. In the opinion of Professor Li Baihao, a doctoral advisor in Architecture Department of Wuhan University of Science and Technology, the Lifen in Wuhan is so valuable that they should be protected well. He used a simile to explain: Lifen are like old men and inherit something valuable. It is too stupid to simply regard them as a social burden and tear them down widely, which is just like waging wars to kill old men. Mr. Xu Mingting also pointed out that Wuhan was proclaimed to be a renowned historical and cultural city by the State Council in 1986, but there are few buildings built in Ming Dynasty and even not many buildings built in Qing Dynasty, which didn』t match its status as a renowned historical and cultural city. And Wuhan trails behind Beijing and Shanghai in protection of cultural and historical relics.

As an inseparable part of Wuhan history, Lifen certainly reflects the real living state of Wuhan in a certain period. However, some first-rank Lifen are located in the central city, covering the invaluable business area. Because houses in Lifen of half timber structure have stood for years, most become shabby or even ramshackle, which haven』t meet the requirements of modern habitation. In that case, how shall we protect the Lifen in Wuhan?

Lifen protection is not only of historical and cultural value, but also of great business value.

According to Professor Li Baihao, Lifen should be protected in a developmental way step by step and from an area to another, and be utilized on basis of protection. Reconstruction of a city never means simple tearing down and rebuilding. Huge business value also can be exploited from lots of old buildings. He set Shikumen, a kind of age-old architecture in Shanghai, as an example. After reconstruction, Shikumen has been a business area with distinctive style in Shanghai and attracted a great many tourists all over the world to visit and do shopping there. Many Lifen in Wuhan also have such potentials. For instance, Jinghancun can be rebuilt to be a mini Jianghan Road if it is developed well. With regard to shabby houses in Lifen, Professor Li believed the problem didn』t rest with the houses but our human beings. Excessive exhaustion of the houses was caused by too dense residence, but the houses can be rebuilt and strengthened.

Mr. Xu Mingting said that there was a fiery debate on demolishing or saving quadrangles in Beijing in those years, and a number of quadrangles were preserved eventually. Nowadays, quadrangles are an attraction in Beijng to attract foreign tourists to visits by taking pedicab, which bring along the development of relevant industries such as tourism. Similarly, Lifen can be developed as a brand of Wuhan to create social and economic benefits for the city.

Actually, shrewd businessmen have made use of the cultural effects of old buildings to promote their business. 「Rushou Lane Household」, a residential building complex built on the foundation of former Rushou Lane, was advertised as 「Old Place with New Life」, which made use of Lifen to attract buyers. And a centurial bell tower on the site of 「Blue Bay Garden」, a famous residential building complex in Wuhan, was completely saved by the developer, which brings about a substantial cultural atmosphere to the community.

It is thus clear that Lifen does not hinder urban development of Wuhan, but boost cultural and economic development of the city. As citizens of Wuhan, we expect the old Lifen to emerge with a brand-new outlook just as quadrangles in Beijing and lanes in Shanghai, and to grow to be a charming view in the central city.