As the mist settles over the UNESCO World Heritage site of Zhangjiajie, Hunan province, the settlements nestled deep in the mountains awaken to the aroma of cooking in the early hours of the morning.
As one arrives at Shiyanping village in Yongding district of Zhangjiajie city, they can see the sight of vibrant blooming canola and a block of stilted houses constructed in the typical wooden building style of the Tujia ethnic group.
Here, oxen amble slowly across the farmland as hens cluck in the distance, and the farmers are hard at work preparing for spring plowing.
In Shiyanping village, traditional Tujia culture continues to thrive with its distinct stilted homes and other characteristics that have existed in the region for centuries. However, urbanization has posed a threat to both the original Tujia culture and the preservation of traditional homes in Shiyanping village.
"Previously, the majority of the villagers went out to work, leaving the wooden houses unoccupied and decaying. They all wanted to return and rebuild their brick houses once they had saved enough money," said Li Yanxiong, the former head of the town's cultural station.
Li recalled that, many years ago, people were unaware of the cultural value of the Tujia houses, and sought to convert their ancestral shelters into more attractive villas rather than keeping the traditional style.
"The cadres went door to door to persuade villagers to preserve the foundations of Tujia culture," Li said that after rounds of explanations, the villagers reached a consensus on the issue of protection.
In 2013, the ancient architecture complex in Shiyanping was recognized as one of the nation's major historical and cultural sites. The notion that "people should protect national cultural artifacts" is even incorporated into the first article of the village's rules and regulations.
"The village has 182 well-preserved Tujia buildings, mostly built in the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911)," said Li Ying, Party Chief of Shiyanping village. She said that professional teams have been organized under the principle of "repairing the old as the old" to preserve and restore historic homes and roads.
"In recent years, the village's unique building complex, as well as other Tujia cultural activities, have attracted a steady stream of tourists," Li said that the village received more than 100,000 visits and achieved an income of about 5 million yuan (about $727,600 dollars) from tourism in 2022.
Quan Xiping, a 59-year-old villager, was among the first in the village to establish a farm family resort. His annual revenue has topped 300,000 yuan as a result of rural tourism.
Meanwhile, Quan Ziheng, a young villager, returned to his hometown in 2015 to start an online specialty store, capitalizing on the rapid growth of rural tourism in the area. Last year, Quan's online store grossed more than 150,000 yuan annually. "My e-commerce industry is working more efficiently due to the improved infrastructure and the village's rising appeal," Quan said.
"On the premise of protection, Shiyanping village vigorously promotes the revitalization and use of old buildings, so that the people can benefit and the ancient villages are given a new lease on life," said Zhu Fadong, Party Secretary of the district.