A theatre in the square of Sideng Village in the old town centre of Shaxi, China Image Credit: Adam Dean/New York Times

The woman shuffled around her shop in the village square, telling visitors how she came to be selling wooden swords and woven slippers to tourists rather than tending to her fields.

He Yuqing, 60, wore a blue tunic and apron, common among older ethnic Bai women of this verdant valley in the Himalayan foothills. In the plaza outside, afternoon sunlight fell across cobblestones on which horse caravans once trod.

She said she had been renting the shop from the local government for eight years. If an international architecture team had not restored the square’s ramshackle wooden buildings, she said, she would be doing hard labour among her fields of corn, fruit and grains.

“Before they restored this, it just wasn’t as beautiful,” she said. “They did a good job.”

In a project little known outside China, a Swiss-led team worked for years to renovate the square of Sideng Village. The square was the site of the main market in Shaxi, a valley dotted with Bai villages in the Hengduan Mountains of southwest China.

The renovators aimed to remake Sideng’s former marketplace to be fully consistent with historical design and artwork, a commitment rare in China. They say the project could be a model for other village renovation efforts in the country. It has been praised by Unesco, the United Nations cultural agency.

The restored buildings include a centuries-old Buddhist temple that had been converted to government offices after the Communists took over China in 1949. Facing the temple is a four-storey theatre with soaring eaves and an outdoor performance terrace for local orchestras. Every June, valley residents converge on the plaza to hold the Torch Festival, in which they erect and light on fire a towering pine trunk.

The village square is now considered by some to be one of the most beautiful in China. It evokes the era when the Tea and Horse Caravan Trail passed through the valley. This part of Yunnan province lies east of the Tibetan plateau, and Tibetans traded horses for tea that was then transported across the plateau, all the way to Lhasa.

Yet, Shaxi remains free of the tourist hordes that swarm the streets of Lijiang, a drive of just a couple of hours to the north, and Dali, a couple of hours to the south. They, too, have renovated ancient town centres, but the new homes and storefronts there were built haphazardly.

“When the Chinese do this, they think, ‘How can I attract as many people as possible to this place?’” said Chris Barclay, the American owner of a boutique guesthouse, the Old Theatre Inn, in the countryside outside the Sideng square. “None of that has happened here, which is great.”

Barclay and his wife have been using their own money to renovate the Pear Orchard Temple, mainly in thanks to the fertility aspect of the deity Guanyin there. His Thai wife, a Buddhist, became pregnant at age 45 after praying to Guanyin on a visit; their first child had died years earlier.

Barclay said he had also been inspired by the marketplace work done in Sideng.

That project began with Jacques Feiner, a Swiss conservation expert who had worked on the old city in Sana’a, Yemen. Around 2000, he was looking for a project along the South Silk Road and settled on the Shaxi Valley because the scale of the Sideng marketplace was manageable, said Huang Yinwu, a team leader and Swiss-trained architect.

At Feiner’s urging, the World Monuments Fund, based in New York, added the marketplace to its 2002 watch list of 100 Most Endangered Sites. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and the government of Jianchuan County put together a conservation team.

Huang, originally from Hubei province, joined the team and came to Shaxi in 2003. The team had an advantage doing conservation here: The local Bai carpenters are considered among the most skilled in China and get commissions across the country.

“In this process, the main purpose was to understand the local tradition, the local knowledge, the local craftsmanship,” Huang said. “We wanted to see how far we could go with the local knowledge.”

The team restored low-slung wooden façades around the old marketplace and a 100-year-old caravanserai. Most of the plaza’s buildings are just a century old because they have been repeatedly rebuilt — bandits burnt down the buildings in constant raids.

When the project began, most of the buildings had been abandoned. In 2006, the buds of commerce appeared.

A couple from faraway Shenzhen asked to rent one of the smaller buildings near the theatre; they wanted to live there and turn it into a café.

Huang said this went against his idea for the plaza — he had intended for the fronts to be shops and the interiors to be courtyards open to the public.

“I didn’t agree to that,” he said with a laugh as he sat in the square one recent morning, pointing to the Old Tree Café run by the couple. “The government wanted them to move in, so they started living there and running the business there.”

The Xingjiao Temple took four years to refurbish. A fierce blue guardian deity and a red one flank the main entrance. The Bai here worship local deities and practise Esoteric Buddhism.

“Having the temple and theatre together facing each other is a local custom,” Huang said. “The locals think the Buddha should enjoy the performances along with the people. I’m working on another temple in Shaxi where there is a stage in the main temple area. You move a wooden deity to face the stage.”

That temple, Chenghuang, is part of the next phase of the renovation project, as envisioned by Huang: founding community centres across Shaxi to help residents tap into the tourist economy.

Huang, who still lives in Shaxi even though his Swiss teammates have left, said the first such centre would be at Chenghuang Temple. His plans call for the centres to have computers where villagers can go online; tourists following cycling and walking routes through the valley would mingle with the villagers at those centres.

Thirteen villages would be part of this network, and residents might start homegrown industries such as craft beverages to appeal to the tourist crowds, he said.

“We can have internet-based education,” he said. “This is a way to help people to understand more and get the capability to develop things on their own.”

Guesthouses and cafés have boomed in Sideng Village, but they are mostly run by outsider Chinese rather than locals.

The Shaxi Horse Pen 46 Youth Hostel next to the central theatre was opened in 2010 by Huo Wanfei, 36, who moved here from Sichuan province after visiting as a backpacker. Now that the Swiss-led team is done with the plaza, these Chinese outsiders are the main force behind renovating buildings, mostly to start tourist businesses.

Huo said she had employed local carpenters and completed the renovation after much trial and error.

“It made me realise there’s a way in nature that makes things work out,” she said.

The evolution of the village is beginning to mirror what happened in Lijiang. The locals are renting out their homes to outsiders and moving elsewhere. So visitors to Sideng increasingly meet Chinese outsiders and not Bai locals such as him.

“The market is driving Shaxi in this direction,” Huang said. “This is not something in our control. That is why I’m doing this new project to encourage a community economy.”

–New York Times News Service