Wuhan Lifen: Deep and Sincere Historical Emotion

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Wuhan Lifen: Deep and Sincere Historical Emotion


Lifen, similar to bystreets in Beijing and Shikumen in Shanghai, is typical of traditional residential building in Wuhan. Born in special periods, each of them contains special local culture of a city and is a main component exhibiting the distinct charm of the city. Currently, the campaign of 「Saving Bystreets」 has broken out in Beijing and Shanghai has become the example to other cities for effective protection and reconstruction of Shikumen. Then, how shall we do with the centurial Lifen in Wuhan with a considerable scale?


Zhimin Lane in Hankou.jpg

Zhimin Lane in Hankou


In recent years, reconstruction of old urban areas in Wuhan is under way like a raging fire. Most old urban areas have been replaced by modern high buildings, and the age-old Lifen in busy areas are doomed to be demolished. Dalufang, Jianghancun and Tongxing Lane were appointed as two-grade outstanding historical protective architectures by Wuhan Municipal Government as early as 1993, but a great number of excellent Lifen weren』t placed into the protective project and were torn down. According to some statistics, 208 Lifen in Wuhan sharply decreased by 68 to 140 in 1996, and in 1998, only after two years, 30 Lifen were razed to the ground. In later 2003, Shengcheng Lane, the biggest Lifen, disappeared in humming of machines. A great many names of Lifen became historical names overnight.


Can Lifen become an important symbol building to exhibit the distinctive local culture of Wuhan as bystreets in Beijing and Shikumen in Shanghai? With this question, I once called at Mr. Li Baihao, the dean in Architecture Department of Wuhan University of Science and Technology. He pointed at a case of documents and said regretfully: what we can do is preserving the documentation about Lifen as soon as possible for the Lifen we measured in the past two years have already disappeared this year. With regard to their value, Dean Li said, 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. When we referred to how to deal with the buildings which had been torn down, Li believed, it is meaningless to rebuild them because they haven』t been themselves yet. And we should learn something from it to protect the valuable ones and avoid making same mistakes in future for historical relics like this will disappear forever if they are destroyed.


I spent a rather long time in looking for extant Lifen through mazed streets and crooked lanes in Wuhan. Walking into Linfen is like approaching a history that still continues. I am deeply attracted to its exquisite and delicate architecture design, and impressed by people’s elegant and tranquil life as well as its strong Han culture, thus unwilling to leave for long time. Its mysterious history makes me full of memories and longings, and arouses my deep love for the city with a bright future.


   Splendid Epitome of Dwelling Houses in Wuhan 


Thanks to exchanges between eastern and western cultures, Lifen, as an exemplar of blending Chinese national style with the characteristics of western architecture, was built in Hankou, which is not only an epitome of nearly 100-year residence culture but also the combination of western duplex town houses and our traditional quadrangles after Hankou dock was opened. For over 30 years from the end of 19th century to 1937, total 208 Lifen were built in Wuhan, whose development can be classified into three stages and in each stage there are brilliant dwelling houses. As a simple and unsophisticated, precise and elegant artistic masterpiece, the wonderful Lifen has experienced nearly over 100 years, whose art and culture value sparkles most brightly in Wuhan’s history instead of declining with lapse of time.


Actually modern Lifen features typical Han style. Western scholars have ever called Hankou a city of 「Wufangzachu (a city where people from all regions congregate)」. That is to say, Hankou is characteristic of deep cultural tolerance. The outstanding representative Lifen in Wuhan such as Fuzhong Lane, Tuisi Lane, Jianhancun, Liuyecun, Dongtingcun, Shanghaicun and Dalufang, built from 1920 to 1936, play an important role in the history of urban construction in modern China. Lingering in such marvelous Lifen, we marvel at those architects, who apply their own architectural style into practice based on modern western architectural skills. In such Lifen, there are buildings of different styles like Chinese Shikumen (Chinese stone house), Tukumen (adobe house), European-style buildings and buildings of Chinese and Western style. Decorated with traditional design of flowers, birds, fishes and insects, the lintel of Shikumen is elegant and full of nobility. Inside the house, delicate decorations, such as wooden grilles of exquisite workmanship with an annulus board under it, flower heart and waist plate of traditional architectural curlicue and elaborate wooden balustrade, represent the simple but elegant style of traditional exquisite architectures. Their distinctive characteristics of different styles have formed a unique culture and left people an unforgettable memory of the history at that time.


Lifen also embodies profound humanism in architecture, for Lifen is designed to adapt to different seasons with good ventilation and equipped with sunshading facilities to cool off inside rooms because Wuhan is an extremely hot city. Windows of the houses are installed into two parts: the inside part is a glazing while the outside part is a wooden Persian blinds. When the sun shines at the type of house vertically, the closure of the Persian blinds has an effect of sunshading and ventilation. In the house, spacer boards carved with delicate and beautiful design and made of wooden balustrades with wooden skirtboard inside are erected to separate the house into several rooms. In winter, such traditional arrangement gives people a feeling of classic elegance and unsophisticated simplicity. In summer, remove the spacer boards to make the room ventilate and convenient for people to enjoy the cool at night. Thus the house can feel clearer and more spacious.

  

Deep Love for Family Members in Lifen


As an important residence, Lifen is not only a symbol of culture but a place full of love for family members and neighbors. In Lifen, several generations were born there and brought up there, so they love each other deeply. There exists a common space for neighbors to communicate in any Lifen, where youngsters and adults get along with each other, the old sit at leisure, and children play games. In summer, people enjoy the cool on thickly dotted bamboo beds. While in winter the old bask themselves and chat about their domestic trivialities in front of the door. This common space shapes people in Lifen without blood relationship into a big harmonious extended family.

  

The other day when I passed arcades in Kunhou Lane, a family was stolen of a pot flower. Immediately, neighbors gathered, comforted the victim, and condemned the thief angrily, which moved passersby greatly. However, people in high buildings and large mansions will never enjoy such comfort. So people in Lifen are willing to undertake the common responsibilities and safeguard the security consciously. Incidents happening to any family will make the whole people worried and more concerned with future security.


At the entrance of each Lifen there stands a pailou (decorated archway) with the Lifen’s name on it, which is like a wordless advertisement to make people know its place and remember its name.


Lifen is also the witness of Hankou’s booming business. Due to the influential businessmen’s constant endeavor in business circles in Taixing Lane, Xian』an Lane, Tongxing Lane and Jianghancun, Hankou enjoys the reputation as the famous and important commercial city which dwarfed other cities during nearly 100 years. From 1865 to 1973, the indirect trade value of Jianghan Customs has been ranking the second place for 42 years and the third place for 18 years in the four main ports (Shanghai, Tianjing, Hankou and Guangzhou). There is no doubt that Lifen is the witness of the history.


Lifen is of special value for the construction of a unique Wuhan.


Boasting such rich cultural connotation and humanism, Lifen is destined to be not only physical products but intellectual products. Therefore, the protection of Lifen is very significant for protecting our culture in Wuhan. Wuhan has ever done much work on the reconstruction and protection of Lifen, For example, when rebuilding the shabby buildings in Rushou Lane, they have ever assigned relevant experts to make a special consultation with experts living in old Wuhan on how to protect. But the reconstruction failed to be just as was wished. The protection wok is still in discussion. According to Dean Li Baihao, the protection should be developmental, and be undertaken step by step, section by section. Then Lifen is used after it is protected. Reconstructing a city does not simply mean demolishing and then rebuilding. Some old buildings can be utilized to produce great commercial value. For example, after reconstruction, Shikumen in Shanghai is so characteristic that a great many tourists both at home and abroad go to visit and shop there. So does Lifen in Wuhan. Take Jianghancun as an example, it possesses the potential to be built into a small Jianghan Road. The too dense population of dwellers for years causes much damage to houses, so some old and dilapidated houses now exist. But the damage can be mended and consolidated.


In the new round of reconstruction, a significant and meaningful issue has been raised, that is how to construct Wuhan as a unique city on the premise of regarding inheriting and developing local culture as one’s own duty according to specific resources of regional culture. As a peculiar brand of Wuhan dwelling houses, Lifen plays a vital role in constructing a characteristic scenic spot in Wuhan in the future.