Global Heritage Organization and American Express Partner to Protect Rural Heritage in China

Spanning thousands of years, China’s rich cultural history is as diverse as its varied landscapes and communities. Remote villages and towns embody the traditions of ages, where people safeguard their communal heritage by passing traditional skills and values from one generation to the next.

However, economic changes that have transformed the traditional cityscapes of Beijing and Shanghai have reverberated throughout rural China as well. Indeed, China has become the site of one of the world’s largest movements of internal migration as many rural youth leave their hometowns in search of employment. Without younger generations to learn traditional crafts, irreplaceable cultural expressions and skills sustained for generations are at risk of vanishing forever.

To protect China’s endangered cultural heritage, Global Heritage Fund and American Express have partnered in support of historic preservation beyond monuments® in three areas: Dali Village in Guizhou Province, Maijishan Grottoes in Gansu Province, and Pingyao Ancient City in Shanxi Province. This groundbreaking partnership supports capacity-building programs, connecting communities with opportunities to turn their heritage from relics of the past into modern economic assets.

Such is the case in remote Dali, a rustic village in Guizhou Province that has been home to the Dong people for over 1,000 years. The GHF-AMEX partnership is empowering the local community in Dali to sustainably manage and preserve their cultural and natural resources.

Renowned for their carpentry, the Dong people’s villages are characterized by pagoda-like drum towers and wooden bridges. Their villages perfectly integrate humanity and nature, reflecting the Dong principle of adapting their built environment to the natural world. As a classic example of a Dong ethnic village, Dali’s exceptional architecture embodies these traditional principles and crafts.

While Dong men practice traditional carpentry and construction skills, the Dong women are equally accomplished in crafts such as textile production. Throughout the village, many women still grow and process their own indigo at home, handing down traditional dye baths from generation to generation.

For centuries, women have turned their hand-loomed, indigo-dyed fabrics into unmistakable traditional costumes embellished with embroidery and hand-woven trims. Drawing on a body of knowledge accumulated over hundreds of years, mothers still hope to teach these ancestral textile techniques to their daughters today.

Until recently, Dali’s textile and architectural crafts faced a bleak future. Dwindling economic opportunities forced local youth to seek employment far from their homes and communities. With the younger generation migrating to China’s urban centers, Dali’s traditional crafts were on the verge of extinction.

Thanks to the GHF-AMEX partnership, investments in seed funding, baseline training, and merchandising support have now established a locally run women’s co-op for traditional Dong textile production. Implemented in collaboration with Beijing-based ATLAS Studio, the initiative included construction of a multi-purpose community space based on traditional Dong architecture. 

With space for a children’s reading room, communal storage, and textile exhibition, retail and creation, the center enables the Dong women to participate in textile production. Otherwise facing limited opportunities as homemakers, the craftswomen of Dali Village can now learn to provide customer services by running the local retail space, host textile making activities, and provide guided tours for visitors.

In addition to capacity-building and skills training, the center is also crucial for developing new economic opportunities that enable Dali’s younger generations to reside in their home village. Dali’s crafting traditions and strong social networks present a unique opportunity to develop local tourism and economic initiatives by promoting traditional crafts and local practices. In turn, these developments can provide employment for Dali’s youth while also connecting them with their ancestral and regional history.

Zhengxian Yang, leader of the co-op women, tells it best in her own words:

“I am excited to lead the women at the center. In the past, we barely made any income. There was no place for women to sell textiles or handicrafts. Now, when tourists come to our village, we can direct them to the community center.”

The Dali textile project has received international attention. Its inclusive approach to community-based heritage protection and craft revitalization been featured at the Venice Biennale 2018, Design Society (Shenzhen) 2018, Beijing Design Week 2016, and presented in Shanghai at two pop-up sales events in 2018 and 2019 for Chinese fashion house ZucZag.

At Global Heritage Fund, we know that cultural heritage must be about more than monuments. We are honored to join forces with American Express and our local partners in Dali Village to support the women and men protecting their endangered local traditions.


About Global Heritage Fund

Global Heritage Fund (GHF) empowers communities through historic preservation beyond monuments. Since 2002, GHF has helped local communities to save 28 sites in 19 countries with over 100 partner organizations. Using its Preservation by Design® methodology of community-based planning, conservation science, and strategic partnerships, GHF has invested over $30 million and secured $25 million in co-funding to ensure sustainable preservation and responsible development. Learn more at www.globalheritagefund.org.

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