Let Yushu Tibetans rebuild organically

By Victor Paul Borg
0 CommentsPrint E-mail China Daily, May 5, 2010
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One of the striking things that happened after the terrible earthquake in Qinghai is the high level of cooperation between local people and State forces. Monks rushed to the area from surrounding regions and acted as a vital second force in the rescue and relief efforts.

The manpower provided by the monks and local people was especially valuable given that Tibetans are adapted to strenuous work at high altitude. Despite health concerns, the government allowed the monks to take the lead in disposing of the dead according to Tibetan religious sensibilities. Only when the vultures were glutted did the monks decide to cremate the gathering piles of bodies.

Such smooth cooperation augurs well for the more difficult task of rebuilding. Local Tibetans need help to rebuild but its extent should be measured and considered in the light of community relations and ethnic cultural sensibilities. Care must be taken that the State's help - or assistance by non-Tibetan entities, governmental or nongovernmental - does not unwittingly end up creating incongruous villages that seem like an imposition on the landscape.

I am pointing this out because planners and other bureaucrats have a tendency to perceive remote Tibetan villages as scruffy and haphazard, and may see the rebuilding as an opportunity to straighten things up by designing the new villages in a grid pattern of streets.

During my travels, I have seen examples of such villages being rebuilt in regimental planners' design: rows of houses, all of them identical, and straight streets. These new villages are indeed neat and efficient from a planning perspective, and the identical houses are socially egalitarian, but these villages also feel soulless and characterless. The identical houses feel impersonal, lacking the personal features that add charm to homes and distinguish one from another.

I am talking about villages here. Towns are a different matter altogether. Grid-pattern street design understandably takes precedence in towns because of exigencies of efficiency in infrastructure and landuse. But in pastoral areas, such as the villages in Yushu where the earthquake caused the most damage, the seemingly haphazard scattering of farmhouses and twisty alleys and individually designed farmhouses has a certain appeal that is otherwise lost in grid-pattern regimental villages.

It would be a mistake to see the scattered clusters of farmhouses as haphazard. In fact, the site of each house, temple or stupa follows a logic that may not be apparent to us. The villages grow in organic chaos according to the lay of the land, as well as social and cultural and religious influences. It is such organic growth that infuses each village with a personal verve; a planner would never be able to create such organic chaos.

I think the starting point of any help should be an acknowledgement that despite poverty and the harsh terrain, these people did not need much money or manufactured building materials or even machinery to build their houses and temples in the first place. They source all the building materials in the land from around them, and they have been building large farmhouses and spectacular temples for thousands of years.

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