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A Snapshot of China's Folk Heritage
When it comes to images of China, many Westerners may immediately think of the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, ancient temples and exquisite gardens.

But in the eyes of James Warfield, a 60-year-old professor of architecture at the University of Illinois, United States, his "greatest excitement in China was getting close to a Chinese village and being with its people."

In the past 14 years, he has traveled to many corners of China and taken a number of pictures of folk architecture and people. His photos are currently being exhibited at the Deke Erh Art Center in Shanghai until Sunday.

The photo exhibition, entitled "Inalterable Dreams -- People and Architecture of China's Folk Environment," serves as an eye-opener to the richness of China's diverse ethnic cultures and architecture.

"Folk environments of the common people often display profound characteristics which are eloquently reflected in construction and reveal the values of the people who created them," said Warfield.

"Such architecture is often overlooked in favor of grand monuments."

His pictures of lovely small villages and towns, bridges over murmuring rivers, working people and dreamy lighting all communicate graceful with romantic Oriental flavors.

The pictures on display are just a small part of Warfield's "inalterable dreams" of China, which he started to develop 15 years ago, when the University of Illinois and Shanghai-based Tongji University began collaborating.

The exhibition is held to celebrate 15 years (1987-2002) of the two universities' collaboration.

In 1988, Warfield and his wife Rochelle, who is also a professor of architecture, took a group of students from the University of Illinois to China, on an exchange program with Tongji University. That was Warfield's first trip to the Middle Kingdom.

Before arriving in China, Warfield, a professor and architect for more than 200 buildings, had conducted continuous field research among indigenous populations in many parts of the world.

In his own research, he focused on the study of form determinants in architectural design as demonstrated in worldwide examples of folk buildings.

On his first trip to China, Warfield was rather astonished by the lifestyle of rural Chinese people and their unique living environment. So he made extensive explorations of the country and took pictures of the people and architecture. This began Warfield's unfinished encounter with China.

Warfield's pictures and sketches attracted one after another group of students back home in the United States.

In the following years, the Warfields and their students toured many parts of the nation, including North China's Shanxi Province, Southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region, Yunnan and Guizhou provinces, South China's Guangdong Province and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, as well as East China's Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces.

The pictures have become important teaching materials and archives on human housing, architecture and township studies for both universities.

To people who have been living in a small village on an island or amidst the less accessible mountainous areas, a foreign visitor and photographer might seem intrusive to them.

Warfield always asks for permission from the Chinese before taking pictures of them, and if they wanted the pictures, he always mailed them accordingly to the given address.

Warfield still remembers an interesting episode at a small village on Shangchuan Island of Guangdong Province.

It was in 1988 that Warfield landed on the island in the South China Sea. Warfield met an old man and his grandchild, and took a picture of them.

The old man then wrote something with a tree twig in the sand. "I could not understand what he wrote," said Warfield. "But probably he wanted me to send him the picture."

So one year later in 1989 Warfield returned to the same village and gave the old man his picture. The old man was so happy and took Warfield to his home in the village. It was a great opportunity for Warfield to explore the folk environment, architecture and the lifestyle.

"Chinese people are very kind to me," said Warfield. "China is probably the world's easiest country for outside photographers."

For the past 14 years, Warfield has witnessed all the changes in China. "Young people keep moving into the cities and some old buildings have given way to urban construction," said Warfield. "These are unavoidable.

"As a photographer and researcher, I have the responsibility to record these moments in time."

(China Daily January 21, 2003)

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