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A Kham Aid Foundation Report

Wooden Architecture in Ganzi

by Pamela Logan, November, 1998

Anyone traveling through Kham is struck by the region's beautiful houses. Made of traditional materials in diverse styles, Tibetan homes in Kham are handsome, spacious, and well adapted to their environment. What distinguishes them most from the houses of central Tibet is the abundant and skillful use of wood. Kham has always possessed great forests, wood is an excellent building material, therefore carpentry skills in Kham have been developed to a high degree.

House, Baiyu County. The Chinese-style tile roofs are not common in Kham, but areincreasing in popularity because they are more rain-proof than traditional flat roofs. A less lavish house is visible to the right rear.

Detail of wood construction, Ganzi County

Now, however, forests are dwindling, and the government recently banned further commercial tree-cutting throughout Ganzi Prefecture and surrounding areas. What does this mean for the carpenter and his skills? In Lhasa, the government is tearing down many old houses, threatening the city's timeless Tibetan character. What is the status of traditional wooden architecture in Kham--is it thriving or struggling to survive?

During my many travels, I've had ample opportunity to observe traditional Kham architecture both inside and out. I've watched cityscapes grow and change as the region develops, and I've worked with builders. With this background, I went with architect and environmental planner William Semple to interview carpenters in Kangding County. For many years Semple has been researching the connection between natural resource management and preservation of Tibetan building traditions. Our exploration brought us many surprising discoveries, and showed how, despite the influx of ethnic Chinese, Tibetans still have a strong hand in shaping the architectural landscape of their homeland.

Kangding County contains Kangding City, which is the prefectural capital of Ganzi. It is the most economically developed county of Ganzi, both because of the proliferation of government offices, schools, and other state-owned enterprises, and because of its nearness to Han-dominated eastern Sichuan.. Kangding county was heavily logged decades ago, and almost no old-growth forest remains. Thus, timber is used sparingly in home exteriors, which are primarily made of random stone.

Inside rural Kangding homes, however, wood is used lavishly. The roof is supported by horizontal timber beams and held up by wooden columns. Rooms are paneled and often contain ornate cabinetry. Floors, ceilings, and furniture are also wooden. This kind of interior decoration is not particular to Kangding; in fact it's common throughout Kham, being used by virtually everyone who is at least middle class and lives in a traditional Tibetan home. When there are no locally harvestable trees, wood is imported from other areas.

Farm-house kitchen. Stove is in the foreground, with tile-covered chimney.
A door at the far left looks into the living room beyond.

From the sheer numbers of traditional houses, it is evident that there is a plentiful supply of carpenters. In fact, their numbers are probably growing as economic prosperity slowly increases and more people can afford their services. Customarily, raw timber for house-building is supplied by the home-owner. The carpenter brings only his equipment, which consists entirely of hand-tools, some home made. Carpentry skills are passed down from father to son. Wages are 20-40 yuan a day, depending on the experience of the carpenter and whether or not he receives food from his employer. Typically, a new house lasts for sixty years before it must be replaced.

Painting is also an important trade, for few Tibetans would regard their home as complete until it has been painted inside and out. Outside painting is generally much plainer than the interior decorations. I have been told that prior to about 1980, private homes were not lavishly decorated--this honor was reserved for monasteries. But within the last couple of decades it has become acceptable for ordinary families to enjoy richly painted designs and carvings in one or more rooms of their homes. Nowadays, for a middle-class or wealthy family, such interiors are almost de rigeur.

Painting skills, when not learned from a parent, can be studied at a few schools scattered around Kham, for example the Tibetan School in Kangding, or Gyalten Rinpoche's Private Charitable School in Ganzi. Famous thanka painters such as Thonglha Tsewang at Palpung Monastery in Derge train many students over the course of their careers, and those who are not successful at thanka painting can try their hand at the less demanding job of household and monastic decoration. Painting is done not only on wood, but also on clay walls and sometimes even concrete.

It's been my experience, amply repeated in many parts of Kham, that the Cultural Revolution not withstanding, traditional home painting and carpentry are alive and well today. Lack of trained builders is not a problem. What about lack of materials, especially with the newly enacted ban on commercial logging in western Sichuan?

Gaba Township, Kangding County, about three hours' journey from Kangding City, is a prosperous agricultural area. The population is overwhelmingly Tibetan, with only a handful of Chinese teachers and other experts stationed here by the government. Except for official buildings such as schools, virtually all the structures in Gaba are traditional. Dorje Tsering, a carpenter living and working in the area, told us "The houses built nowadays are better than the old houses. Materials and technique have improved." Dorje Tsering did not expect the ban on commercial cutting to affect his livelihood, because according to the law, local people will still be allowed to harvest timber for local construction. There is good timber to be had three kilometers from his house, he told us. Whenever they cut one tree, they plant seven or eight more, he said. He did not expect he would have to change professions any time soon.

A bigger threat to Dorje Tsering and his brethren is the Chinese carpenters with whom they must compete. According to another man who is also called Dorje, in his home village in Gonlo Township, Ganzi County, "People hire Chinese carpenters because the Chinese can finish a house in two weeks. Tibetan carpenters take a month." The reason for the difference, according to Dorje, is that Chinese carpenters will build a whole house for one lump sum payment, whereas Tibetan carpenters want to be paid by the day. "Tibetan carpenters build a better quality house, [but] they don't want to contract for the complete job because they don't want to work so hard."

Another threat to traditional carpentry is a growing preference for concrete buildings. William Semple and I heard that in Tagong we would find a construction site where we could see carpenters at work, so we drove there full of anticipation. Upon arrival, we found a huge pagoda under construction on the plain beneath the sacred Zhara La mountain, not far from Tagong Monastery. But to our dismay, we saw that the temple was in Chinese style, and made of steel-reinforced concrete, not timber. Was this an example of deliberate Chinese cultural infiltration into Tibet? We asked around until we found the foreman, Huang Nengqing, an employee of Ganzi Number Two Construction Company.

Chinese-style temple under construction outside Tagong. The main
building material is steel-reinforced concrete.

Huang told us that the temple had been commissioned by Dorje Tashi. This was astonishing news. Not only is Dorje Tashi indisputably Tibetan, I met him in Los Angeles about a year ago. He is a rinpoche, well-regarded, and has built an orphanage and a home for the elderly in Tagong. "He raised three million yuan from overseas Chinese," Huang said. "Also, some Americans and French donated money, and people in [the special economic zone of] Shenzhen. It will be his private stupa."

Although Huang is Chinese, he has lived in Ganzi Prefecture all his life, and is accustomed to working on Tibetan buildings. He said, "My father was a carpenter; he built many monasteries. I've worked in construction for 40 years. My favorite project was Anjue Monastery." (Anjue, called Ngacha in Tibetan, is a landmark in Kangding, located prominently next to the government guest house.) "The one I built was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, and the new one is not in wooden style. The wooden style needs much more skill to construct than the concrete style. In the future, wooden buildings will be fewer and fewer."

We were sad to learn that more buildings are being made from concrete, and that this is basically in accordance with the wishes of many people, Chinese and Tibetans alike. There are several reasons why people prefer concrete. First, concrete is thought to be stronger--"if we use wood, it won't last as long," said one workman in Tagong. Second, as the foreman Huang noted, concrete buildings requires less skill to construct. Third, concrete is thought by Chinese and Tibetans alike to reflect a more 'modern' lifestyle: "The tall buildings in Kangding are beautiful. The higher, the more beautiful," said carpenter Dorje Tashi. In Yajiang Semple and I found that wealthy families were covering the outsides of their stone walls with a layer of concrete because they liked the clean, finished look that concrete imparted to their homes.

Lastly, concrete buildings are much less vulnerable to fire. This is easily overlooked by those of us who live in countries where advanced fire-fighting equipment can be summoned with a phone call. In history Kangding has been swept several times by devastating conflagrations, and even now, with primitive electric wiring and numerous other hazards, fire is a constant threat. Earthquake is another serious hazard, for the region is extremely active seismically. William Semple noted that new concrete buildings going up in Kangding City appeared to be fabricated very soundly for earthquakes, including strongly built foundations and other structural details.

Kangding City, it should be noted, has not one single traditional Tibetan building apart from its three monasteries. These days it is fashionable for apartment blocks to have Tibetan-inspired flourishes such as trapezoidal outlines for the windows, and faux beam ends beneath the roof-line. Almost all new buildings in Kangding are so embellished. But the basic construction and layout is identical with those of concrete apartment blocks found all over China.

Even Kangding's monasteries are not loath to use concrete for construction, or to include Chinese-style temples on their grounds. In fact, Tibetans do not seem to make much distinction between Chinese-style and Tibetan-style temples. Often, a monastery's most important temples will be in Tibetan style surmounted by a Chinese curving roof of gold-covered tiles.

Carpenters construct a pavillion with a Chinese-style roof at Palyul
Monastery, Baiyu County

Nevertheless, it would seem that economics is a far more important driving force for architecture in Kham than taste. In Kangding City, land is simply too valuable to be expended on single-family homes. No one in Tibet or China has yet to devise an apartment building that houses ten families, occupies minimum acreage, includes plumbing and electricity, and is made of traditional Tibetan materials. There is a cement factory just outside the city, so concrete is cheap and plentiful, whereas stone blocks and timber are expensive and must be carried a far distance.

Apart from aesthetic considerations, there is one serious drawback to concrete as a building material in Tibet: it is an extremely poor insulator. According to Semple, a concrete wall has the same insulating effectiveness as a pane of glass. People keep themselves warm in concrete dwellings by huddling around an electric coil heater, a charcoal brazier, or a wood-burning stove. Thus, money saved on construction materials is subsequently paid back in the form of increased heating expense and the everyday misery of being cold. Not only that, but 'modern' designs rarely give any thought to passive solar heating, whereas traditional Tibetan houses are situated with windows facing the sun.

In rural areas and remote towns, forests are closer and concrete more dear, therefore it should not be surprising that timber buildings are numerous. Derge, in the far west of the prefecture, is a bastion of traditional carpentry, where even nails are often made from wood. The Dege county seat does contain a commercial district of concrete and brick buildings, and institutional buildings such as hospitals and schools are also constructed in modern style. Yet there is also a sizable 'old town' of traditional houses, and they ring the city's perimeter. As the population grows, new traditional homes are constructed.. This pattern is repeated in the towns (or county seats) of Ganzi, Dawu, Tagong, Litang, Batang, and Bamei. Luhuo alone is almost entirely without traditional buildings--they were flattened by an earthquake in the 1970s.

Monastery architecture is probably the least resistant to change. I discovered in the course of my work to restore Baiya and Palpung monasteries, monks are resistant to even the slightest construction innovation, such as inserting a layer of sheet plastic in the roof to keep out rain. Where innovations have been introduced, they are often poorly implemented. In Ganzi County, Rongbatsa Township, a temple belonging to Gyalten Rinpoche was given a concrete roof, which they expected would be more waterproof than traditional clay. However, over the next 16 years the building settled, opening large cracks that they had no proper materials for sealing. The monks put clay into the cracks, but it quickly washed away, and rain poured into the building.

Before Semple and I began these interviews, I expected to find that the greatest threat to Tibetan architectural traditions is the logging ban. Instead we learned that Tibetans choose non-traditional buildings for the very sensible reasons of economics and safety. Therefore, to encourage preservation of indigenous Tibetan architecture, I believe the following might be helpful:

1. Develop methods of making traditional Tibetan buildings fire and earthquake resistant. Find a way to seal their roofs against rain.

2. Develop methods of making traditional Tibetan buildings "modern" by adding plumbing and electricity.

3. Develop ways of making traditional Tibetan buildings cheaper, by introducing labor-saving technology such as power tools and improving the region's transportation infrastructure.

4. Adapt traditional Tibetan architecture to the needs of urban dwellers by finding ways to accommodate more people on less land area.

5. Help Tibetan builders stay competitive with their Chinese counterparts by encouraging them to work harder and more efficiently.

6. Encourage Tibetans to take pride in their architectural culture, and eschew other types of housing.

7. Last but not least, develop sustainable forestry practices and encourage efficient use of timber.


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