cultural landscapes

cultural landscapes
Over thirty years ago one of the twentieth century’s
greatest human geographers wrote:
The Chinese earth is pervasively humanized through long occupation…Even in the rugged parts of China, in areas that look like untouched wildernesses, subtle evidences of human presence occur…Landscapes depicted by Chinese artists…owe their expressive grammar at least in part to the special character of the Chinese environment.
(Tuan 1970:1)
In human geography, cultural landscapes are seen both as the material expression of culture and as ‘texts’ that inform us regarding cultural values, meanings and characteristics. In one sense they form the link between the natural environment and human experience.
For example, the soft, yellow earth of the loess plateau (huangtu gaoyuan) in the dry north is the backdrop to a contemporary cultural landscape that has been in the making for more than thirty centuries. This is the region that is often referred to as the cradle of Chinese civilization. Although the city walls are gone (with a few exceptions such as Pingyao in Shanxi province; see Knapp 1992), various models of cave-like, underground dwellings are still actively built and used in large areas. Estimates vary greatly, but a reasonably conservative one places the number at some 30 million people in the provinces of Shanxi, Henan, Shaanxi and Gansu who live in underground homes that are either dug down from the surface, carved into soft loess cliff-faces or are combinations of above-ground and loess-covered dwellings. In spite of certain drawbacks, there are considerable advantages to this traditional type of dwelling: they are cool in the summer, warm in the winter, and relatively inexpensive to build.
Although cityscapes in China tend to be rather similar to each other, two-thirds of the people still live in rural areas where there are indeed a variety of cultural landscapes. In central and south China there are some village types that are frequently found, depending on the basic physical features of the landscape mixed with local history and tradition. A common one is the village built around a man-made pond that serves practical (e.g. fish farming, water supply), aesthetic and/or religious (see fengshui) needs.
Then there is the village that is typical of the ‘water country’ found in Jiangsu province, northern Zhejiang province, and the municipality of Shanghai. Here, dwellings are strung along the ubiquitous canals so that villages take on a linear (as opposed to compact) form. These villages tend to be smaller than those on the Northern Plain (the lower reaches of the Yellow River), where settlements are compact and many times as large. One of the more unifying features of the rural landscape is that of burial grounds. Even though officially discouraged, rural China places a high premium on a suitable burial place for the departed: most often, where possible, on a hill not far outside of the village or town (see tombs and cremation). Finally, there is a kind of village landscape found in low mountainous areas in the centre, south and southwest of China where there always seems to be a multi-purpose central ‘square’ (for drying, threshing, winnowing and other agricultural or social activities), as often as not one or several drum towers (see Dong, culture of) and often traditional waterwheels or other water-lifting devices to take maximum advantage of the river along which so many villages are built (see Miao, culture of).
Tuan, Yi-fu (1970). China. London: Longman.
Knapp, Ronald, G. (1992). Chinese Landscapes: The Village as Place, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
——(2000). China’s Walled Cities. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.