Follow Us:


Project Profile


2005 Award of Distinction

Sideng Market Square and Theatre

Horizontal Navigation Bar w/Rollover Effect


Project Title: Sideng Market Square and Theatre

Location: Yunnan Province, China

Size12,750 square metres (market square); 646 square metres (theatre and adjacent wings); 76,500 square metres (historic village of Sideng)

CostUS$75,000 (market square, including periphery gates); US$115,000 (theatre and adjacent wings); US$425,000 (urban infrastructure in Sideng)

Responsible Party: Jacques P. Feiner, Huang Yinwu, Willy A. Schmid

Heritage Architect: Jacques P. Feiner, Huang Yinwu

Client: Mr. Wang Yizhi

Contractor: Premier Construction Co.

Date of Completion: October 2004


Sideng Market Square and Theatre are located in the village of Sideng in Shaxi Valley in eastern Jianchuan County of Yunnan Province. The village was once a vibrant hub along the historic Tea and Horse Caravan Trail, which developed in the seventh century AD. Socio-economic changes in China led to the decline of Sideng in the mid-twentieth century, however, after which the town’s ancient structures fell into disrepair. 

The restoration project, which included conservation of the market square and theatre, as well as an ancient temple and a historic tower, was part of a broader initiative in cultural heritage conservation and sustainable development in the county that aimed to develop cultural tourism and improve the lives of local residents. 

Building History

The emergence of the village and market at Sideng corresponded with the development of the Tea and Horse Caravan Trail during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). This network channelled tea, horses and other valuables among the diverse ethnic groups residing in the eastern Himalaya region.

Inscribed by the Chinese government as a significant heritage site, Sideng Market Square comprises specialty shops and traditional wooden storefronts, as well as the entrance of Xingjiao Temple and peripheral town gates, and the square features original paving and traditional street lighting.

Constructed in 1415, Xingjiao Temple was the first building to be built at the behest of Emperor Yongle of the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644). Following its completion, illustrations depicting personal sacrifice and moral virtue associated with the tenets of Buddhism were painted on the walls lining the principal hall of the temple.

The market square grew in prominence throughout the Qing Dynasty (1616 – 1911). Improvements included the addition of red sandstone paving, entrance gates and more shops, combined with the construction of courtyard houses and guest accommodations. In addition, a tower containing the Kuixing god of literature, art and culture was erected adjacent to Xiangjiao Temple.

Socio-political changes following the end of imperial rule in 1911 disrupted the continuity of this ancient trading town, and the turmoil of the 1930s and 1940s led to further changes, contributing to the decline of the old town. Over time, the temple grounds were converted into administrative offices, private businesses fell into disuse and the residential population decreased, with residents often abandoning or severely altering the village’s historic structures. Brick replaced wood panelling, roofs were altered and a new building was built in the square, eclipsing the historic temple. Changes were also made to the overall character of the village. Local officials widened roads, replacing the red sandstone pavers with concrete and granite. Later the market was shifted away from its age-old site to a busy avenue. This shift led to further changes in the character of the town, including the reorientation of commercial outlets and the loss of the significance of the old village centre.

Project History

By the late 1990s, the area surrounding Sideng Market Square was in a state of ruin, characterized by rundown housing and disinvestment. In 2001 the World Monuments Fund placed Sideng on its Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites, bringing significant attention to the ancient town. This step prompted the local government to list the site as a Historic Town in 2002. Following this, a revitalization project, organized under the Yunnan Provincial Bureau of Culture, gained the support of both Chinese and international heritage specialists. These included architects and planners with the Government of Jianchuan County and representatives of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH). The project, which was developed as a public-private partnership project between the People’s Government of Jianchuan County and ETH, began with an overall plan and identification of resources. This then evolved into an action plan focused on selected sites.

Project Scope and Framework

The operative philosophy of the rehabilitation project was that culture could serve as a catalyst for economic development and that the revitalization of the village of Sideng and its marketplace would have a positive benefit not only for Sideng but also for the greater Shaxi Valley. The project sought to address both the destruction of built and intangible heritage and the issue of widening social inequality.

The project scope encompassed six different modules: marketplace restoration, historic village preservation, sustainable valley development, sanitation, poverty alleviation and dissemination of conservation messages with a view to serving as a model for future work. The first phase of the project included the restoration of the market square, the Kuixing tower and Sideng Theatre. Actual construction took place after 2003, with the first phase of the project completed in 2004.

Conservation Methodology and Materials

The conservation team ensured that project planning and conservation work followed the highest international standards. Documents cited by the project team included the ICOMOS International Cultural Tourism Charter and the Hoi An Protocols. The team also followed the recommendations set out in Australia’s Burra Charter, the China Principles promulgated by ICOMOS China and relevant Chinese government legislation. The Nara Document on Authenticity served as a basis for determining the authentic character of the work. The project involved rigorous documentation and detailed archival research. As a rule, work was undertaken with minimum disturbance to original fabric.

The project aimed to restore the original appearance and function of the market square as it had been when Sideng served as an important staging post along the Tea and Horse Caravan Trail. Recently introduced elements that had disturbed the integrity of the market square façades and broke their visual unity were removed. Workers also repaired the façades to revive their original character. For the shop fronts, new wood panelling was substituted for the unsightly brick walls that had been hastily introduced in the 1960s to replace the then decaying wooden panels. The team also reconstructed the periphery gates and added new paving blocks matching the original red sandstone of the Qing dynasty period.

Significant reconstruction of the South Gate and the entrance of Xingjiao Temple was necessary due to the poor condition of the originals. Repair of the South Gate relied on photographic documentation. The supporting walls of Xingjiao Temple remained in place, as well as other elements of the original design, but workers had to replace several discordant features that had been introduced in the 1980s. For example, layers of plaster covering the temple’s wall paintings. The team adopted a minimalist approach for elements that required remodelling, such as the entrance to Xingjiao Temple. The project also upgraded the infrastructure of the area to meet modern standards.

As a common element in ancient local construction and best understood by regional artisans, wood was frequently employed in new additions, such as the hanging and standing lanterns introduced by the team to illuminate the dark recesses and alleyways of the historic village. Notably, these lanterns were not new but reintroduced; historic texts and other sources referred to wooden lanterns being used within the village area in past centuries. The project designers also undertook necessary adaptations to improve the function of the historic buildings. A number of interventions reflected modern needs and attention to safety. For example, the conservation team strengthened walls of the theatre and its adjunct wings to ensure durability and avoid damage in case of earthquakes, to which the Shaxi Valley is prone. Reinforcement included the strengthening of the foundation with a concrete band and underpinning the supporting pockets of horizontal beams. Bearing walls were reinforced with the installation of metal tie rods, anchored on the exterior. The team also installed a dual-layer sandwich construction system to reinforce the theatre floor, anticipating increased numbers of visitors and a heavier load. To prevent lightning strikes, workers added a lightning rod to the theatre’s roof, concealing it carefully along the roof ridge. In addition, a fire hydrant was installed in front of the structure to improve the safety of the site.

While the theatre still incorporates an outdoor performance arena, sections of the upper floors were adapted to serve as a museum and exhibition spaces. The new museum established in the building explains the history of Chinese theatre and provides insights into the movement of actors and scenery on stage. The alterations to the building included the addition of a staircase to the second floor entrance of the theatre and museum, and the installation of a fire exit and a bridge-like passageway connecting the museum wings to the main body of the theatre.

The modern interventions respected the original structure and relied on traditional building materials; they are also visually recognizable as new. A triangular courtyard at the main entrance of the theatre and museum previously served as a makeshift kitchen, toilet and informal pig shed. To accommodate the revitalization of the market square, and to serve the newly installed museum, the courtyard was repaved, electricity and lighting were introduced and an ecological toilet was installed. Additional open spaces in the courtyard adjacent to the stairs now serve as office spaces for the museum administration and theatre management. The project placed considerable emphasis on utilizing traditional building techniques, including mud wall construction, mud plastering and the manufacture and application of lime plaster. While local labourers made up the majority of the work force, the conservation team relied on outside experts for the restoration of more specialized elements. These included the intricately painted stage of the theatre, the refurbishing of lime plaster and the reconstruction of the guardian kings at the entrance of Xingjiao Temple. With little written documentation, the project’s organizers had to rely on the memory of older local artisans and older specialists recruited from outside the town to assist in the project. The project team was also able to refer to many Qing dynasty-period buildings still in existence.

Locally available materials, including stone, earth, lime, wood, baked tiles and brick, were used wherever possible. These were subjected to on-site testing. The team also introduced some modern materials, particularly for the upgrading of urban infrastructure, including piping, cabling and wiring.

Modern materials were sometimes also used where they performed better than older ones. In selecting materials, the project team tried to avoid comprising quality for cost.

Important Issues

The involvement of the local community was a core element of the project. The community’s engagement in the project and the sharing of knowledge by artisans and everyday residents helped ensure the overall quality of the repairs and enhanced the authenticity of the results.

A critical concern for the project was the issue of development control. Although the historic structures within Sideng are registered at the government level and the legal requirements call for retaining the historic appearance and fabric of heritage structures, the reality is that many property owners are limited by their financial circumstances and there is limited capacity for maintaining heritage sites. Part of the project work therefore aimed to provide economic incentives for restoration and rehabilitation, to make such efforts more feasible and affordable for local residents. The project’s designers also pressed for a more comprehensive process of review and permits, to promote consistency in new design and in conservation practice.

Project Impact

With its principal focus on the market square of historic Sideng, the project nonetheless had impacts on the entire Shaxi Valley, instilling a new sense of pride and reasserting a feeling of cultural continuity well beyond the project area.

The project had a demonstrable impact on conservation awareness and practice. Through participating in the project, local citizens developed a basic understanding of the conservation process and its core ideal of disturbing as little of the original as possible. Additional capacity building among residents helped to raise wider awareness about conservation and its benefits. Over the course of implementation, artisans from the area gained an increasingly discerning eye, learning to discriminate between good and poor work and correct and incorrect approaches. The project also helped to sensitize administrators and higher officials. As policy changes are addressed at the national level, projects such as this help ensure that real work in conservation are carried out in ways that raise awareness and improve competency among community members.

Quote from the Project Team

"As a primary goal, the project advocates preserving the structural heritage of Sideng to salvage the framework of history and balancing the natural landscape of Shaxi Valley to protect the fragile ecosystem. It seeks to embrace the past as a source of pride and inspiration for the present with insight into the future."