Feb 02, 2018 07:53 PM

Youth Exodus Threatens Future of Henan’s Ancient Underground Courtyards

When a German pilot flew over China’s Henan province 85 years ago, the site of a cluster of subterranean cave houses grabbed his attention. Wulf Diether Graf zu Castell-Rudenhausen (1905-1980) took four pictures from the sky and later published them in his classic “China Flight” in 1938.

“All made up with mud, this invisible structure buried underneath the surface, with square walls that were about 10 to 15 meters deep, doesn’t need a single piece of wood for support. It’s warm in winter and cool in summer,” he wrote about these curious pit-houses, which looked like medieval dwellings.

These unique man-made caves known as “dikengyuan,” or “sunken courtyards,” in Shanzhou district, Henan province, have a history of over 4,000 years.

Although they’ve been named as one of the four ancient forms of Chinese architecture by the national government, these unique settlements have turned into ghost villages as inhabitants migrate to cities amid China’s rapid urbanization drive.

There were over 12,000 dikengyuan in Shanzhou in 2013, according to district government data. But the number of inhabitants has dropped sharply in the past five years. Nowhere is this decline more apparent than in Donggou village.

“In 2000, the village had 198 people. But now only 20 are left,” Wang Shuanglin, Communist Party chief of Donggou village, said. “Among them, more than 10 residents have refurbished their homes and they look quite modern, and only three are living in traditional rooms. Also there’s only one child in the entire village.”

Young people have left the village to find work in big cities, and families are abandoning their ancestral homes to live in modern apartments nearby.

Wang Changwu, a current resident, is preparing a house with four rooms in a dikengyuan for his son as a wedding present. But, his son who works in a nearby city, says it’s too early for him to return to his village.

“A dikengyuan is a good place to live in. It has a spacious yard and there is no need for air conditioning, because the way the buildings are designed allows for natural temperature control,” Wang’s son said. “But now as a young man I should follow the trend and make money in a bigger city. When I brought my girlfriend here, she didn’t even know how to enter the house.”

He said most of his friends preferred to buy a house in the city or build a new home in their own village instead of living in traditional homes built in massive pits.

Meanwhile, the provincial government in Henan is trying to turn these settlements into a tourist hotspot to keep the village alive and fund the conservation of the old buildings. They opened some homes to travelers and even created a snack street in the village. Village authorities also worked with internet giant Tencent Holdings Ltd. to create the country’s first smart rural attractions, which allows visitors to scan a QR code to buy tickets or access an audio guide, which explains the history of the village.

On May 1, 2016, when the online ticketing and reservation services were opened, a record 80,000 people visited the area. A representative from Chinese travel agency Wu Wu recently told Sina media that “after opening up the villages to tourists, travel agencies in Beijing, Nanjing and Shanghai continue to call to purchase tickets and reserve rooms in a dikengyuan.”

While the influx of tourists has helped beef up the village’s conservation fund, some locals are concerned that their homes would be taken over by tour operators. But others are more optimistic.

“I still believe that young people will return to the village and live like us (the elderly generation) someday when they get older,” Wang Shuanglin said. “I’m not sure when that will be. But when the time comes, this place will be alive again.”


Donggou village (pictured on Jan. 5) in Shanzhou district, Henan province, has dozens of “dikengyuan,” or sunken courtyard houses, which have a history of more than 4,000 years. Photo: Chen Liang/Caixin


Villager Zhang Tiecheng wets the wall of an dikengyuan with a broom. These homes, which have lasted for generations, require constant maintainance. For example, each time it rains, a villager needs to run a stone roller over the cave roof to make sure the soil isn’t loose. Because there are no young people left in the village, elderly people like Zhang, who is in his 70s, have to take on these backbreaking tasks. Photo: Chen Liang/Caixin


Wang Changjun, who also lives in a dikengyuan, practices on his piano on Jan. 9. Wang said he moved the piano into his home’s storeroom because he was worried that the noise would disturb his wife. Photo: Chen Liang/Caixin


Cai Zengye, another villager in Donggou, talks to his cat. Since his wife died, Cai has lived in the underground home by himself. Photo: Chen Liang/Caixin


Cai loves reading, and has covered his kitchen wall with Communist Party propaganda posters and other advertisements that he has picked up in the village. He moved his bed to the kitchen after his wife died. Photo: Chen Liang/Caixin


Wang Chang-jun (right) watches over his grandson Wang Qifei as the boy does his homework. Wang Qifei is the only child in the village. Photo: Chen Liang/Caixin


A woman slices apples to add to her rice porridge. Apples have become a part of the staple diet in the village since apple prices fell sharply, leaving a portion of last year’s harvest unsold. Photo: Chen Liang/Caixin

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