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City's heritage restoration gives it an enduring and modern appeal

Xinhua | Updated: 2023-07-01 16:10
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The Slender West Lake is a big draw for visitors to Yangzhou, a historical city in Jiangsu province. JI CHUNPENG/XINHUA

At the easternmost end of Dongguan Street in Yangzhou, East China's Jiangsu province, stands the Marco Polo Memorial Hall, a museum showing the Italian traveler's journey to the East in the 13th century.

Alessandro Prosperi, an Italian who has lived and worked in Yangzhou for almost eight years, visits this memorial hall and strolls around the old streets with his family regularly.

"In these old streets, I can not only see some historical buildings but also feel the vitality of them after renovation," Prosperi says.

Yangzhou has a history of about 2,500 years. Its preserved old city covers an area of 5.09 square kilometers with about 340 alleys attached to some major streets, including Dongguan, Renfengli and Pishi.

Renfengli is a well-preserved community constructed in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The street is fishbone-shaped, stretching 700 meters from south to north with 15 alleys connected to it on both the eastern and western sides.

While strolling down Renfengli, people can visit historical buildings and traditional residential areas. They can also experience the charm of Yangzhou's rich intangible cultural heritage, including paper-cutting, woodblock printing and puppet shows.

Yuan Li, 52, was born and raised in Renfengli. She moved out of the old city at 18 and returned two years ago. Around her home, there are stores, teahouses and Western-style restaurants run by Chinese and Brazilians.

"When I came back, I was impressed by the new appearance of Renfengli, which combines both cultural heritage and modern vitality. The old buildings and neighbors are still here. Living here is very comfortable," Yuan says.

The restoration of Renfengli symbolizes Yangzhou's broader efforts in breathing new life into its ancient cityscape, a feat achieved through the persistent and effective strategies of the authorities.

In 1975, the local government formulated its overall urban planning, laying a solid foundation for the protection of its ancient city. After years of work, the authorities renovated historical streets and communities while maintaining the city's traditions and cultural charm.

Stretching 1,122 meters, Dongguan Street serves as a vibrant canvas, portraying the rich tapestry of Yangzhou's canal and salt-merchant cultures. It stands as a premier destination for both Chinese and international visitors, offering an immersive experience of the city's historical narrative, cultural richness, and distinctive lifestyle.

However, Dongguan Street used to be characterized by cramped lanes, dilapidated houses, and substandard sanitation. In 2007, the local government decided to focus on repairing and updating this old street.

Cheng Aixiang, the safety director who participated in the renovation, says the construction teams adhered to promoting the repair work by preserving the street's original style.

Pishi Street, stretching 689 meters, was once a bustling leather trade center and now forms a connection between Dongguan Street and two other historical districts.

Under the collaborative initiative of the government, local residents, and young entrepreneurs, it has been transformed since 2006 into a vibrant locale featuring bookshops, cultural and creative stores, and coffee shops.

Every morning, Wang Jun, a bookstore owner, walks through Pishi Street to his bookstore. Along with reproductions of ancient books, the bookstore also sells cultural and creative products such as lamps and umbrellas.

"Ancient books are an important carrier of preserving traditional culture, which cannot simply be shelved or placed in libraries, but should be as close to young people as possible and integrated into daily life," Wang says.

After some alterations, the remnants of ancient books can be turned into exquisite and elegant cultural and creative products that are popular among both visitors and young locals.

"Yangzhou has made continuous efforts to preserve and promote the old city over the years," Prosperi says, adding he plans to share its blend of rich history and modern vibrancy with more people.

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