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Recap: Pieces of China (S2, E5), Ronald Knapp on China’s Oldest Covered Bridge, 12.3.20

Recap: Pieces of China (S2, E5), Ronald Knapp on China’s Oldest Covered Bridge, 12.3.20

Pieces of China is an online series using objects to tell the story of China.

Season 2, Episode 5– the season closer- looked at the Rulong Bridge, Qingyuan county, Zhejiang, which dates to 1625, China’s oldest woven arch bridge. Why should we care about this bridge in a remote rural hamlet of China? As it turns out, that bridge, in its own way, tells the story of China.

The Rulong Bridge spans a small stream within the tiny village of Yueshan that was — until recently — all but forgotten by the modern world. Back in the Ming Dynasty and for centuries since, the bridge anchored rural traditions of fengshui, principles of natural spatial organization, symbolically helping to protect the village’s wealth from getting washed away. Nowadays, decades after urbanization left the remote village behind, the community and its deep traditions are coming to life again. The magnificent bridge, and the village, are on the map as a tourist destination.

Ronald Knapp, one of the world’s leading experts on traditional Chinese architecture, and Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the State University of New York, New Paltz shares the history of his favorite bridge and explains why it matters today.

Selected Quotes from Ronald Knapp:

It wasnt until 1987 until I saw a covered bridge in China after seeing hundreds of villages. …My journey really started 15 years ago to understand covered bridges in China. I’ve traveled all over China documenting bridges.

America and Europe have a great tradition of covered bridges. But the Chinese established that there was a covered bridge 2000 years ago. Since then, China had and has had more covered bridges that North America or Europe…even though we dont know a great deal about them yet.

What is most significant about this bridge is that it is most characteristically Chinese. Here we see a style of construction we see all over Southern China in temples and houses.

We dont know what bridge existed there before 1625 but we know this one is from 1625.

This is a so-called woven timber arch bridge. There are scores of bridges with this structure. [Ed: See our Pieces of China episode with Alfreda Murck where she talks about one of these bridges as seen in the most celebrated painting in Chinese history.]

Covered bridges in China are called “corridor bridges” and they are used as social spaces. Their construction is as much to do with the social spaces as they do a path over [a waterway]. In many villages they serve as market stalls on a regular basis.

They also serve as religious spaces. In some bridges, the shrine is a full-sized temple as a second story. Sometimes the shrine is on the outside, and that is more likely today because of fear of fire.

You usually had to walk a great distance [over stone lined paths] and…many of these bridges exist as nodes in [trading] networks. It tied villages to villages and ultimately to towns and metropolitan spaces.

[The Rulong Bridge] has a long history of use. Probably early in the Ming dynasty and earlier…this county was famous during the Ming dynasty for shitake mushrooms. They were transported all over China.

Reflecting Feng Shui

Bridges were significant in the feng shui landscape. In this particular village, upstream was the rising phoenix bridge and downstream was the Rulong, or the dragon bridge.

There are Daoist priests and feng-shui practices involved as well as many artifacts and animal sacrifices involved. This is a living culture in this area of China.

About The Rulong Bridge and Village Tourism:

[Yueshan village] because it was a remote county, in a remote village…did not open early. But it did learn from the experiences of other counties and villages.

There are 97 covered bridges in this county, more than any other in China.

By 2014, they put lights on the bridge…to encourage folks who were staying there to come out at night to wander, eat and, drink. Promotion of tourism became a big thing in this particular village…and there are bilingual signs [for tourists].

The village is being reborn, and this is all happening at the same time that the traffic infrastructure in the counties have become well-developed so the place is now much more accessible. …from 2015 now to the present, you can find many articles enticing villagers to come [by various means] and get here.

To learn more: China’s Covered Bridges: Architecture Over Water is a 500-page book now available from University of Hawaii Press.

Full Video of Pieces of China with Ronald Knapp

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