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2005 Award of Excellence

Houkeng Timber-Arched Corridor Bridge

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Project Title: Houkeng Timber-Arched Corridor Bridge

Location: Near Zhukou Town, Qingyuan County, Zhejiang Province, China

Size36.2 metres (length of corridor); 28.5 metres (length of arch span); 5.45 metres (width)

Cost: US$34,998

Responsible Party: Que Weimin

Heritage Architect: Wu Qilin

Contractor: Liu Xiangyang

Date of Completion: January 2002


Context

Houkeng Timber-Arched Corridor Bridge is located in Qingyuan County, in southern Zhejiang Province in China. Qingyuan County has long been known for its numerous bridges. Approximately 10 percent of the county’s bridges are timber-arched corridor bridges. Of all the ancient bridges in Qingyuan County only 13 have survived, however, Houkeng Bridge is one of them. 

These timber-arched corridor bridges are unique in their architectural design, with timber arches supporting covered corridors surfaced with wooden planks. Arched bridges can be found in other countries, but the arches elsewhere typically lack covered corridors or are not made of timber. Corridor bridges can be found in Italy and the United Kingdom, but they are typically made of stone, not wood. Wood covered bridges are well known in the United States, but these are truss bridges, not arched bridges.

Building History

According to historical accounts, Houkeng Timber-Arched Corridor Bridge was built by a county magistrate, Cheng Weiyiin, in 1671 to replace an earlier bridge. The arched bridge has since stood for centuries as a passageway, a resting place and a space for public meetings and entertainment. Given the shortage of flat ground in the hilly area surrounding the bridge, in the past bridges were often the only sites that could fulfil these multiple functions.

County records indicate that prior to its restoration in 2002 the bridge had been the subject of several renovation efforts by local residents. These included repairs made by villagers in 1771 and by a county official, Wu Hengxian, in 1825. Inscriptions found engraved on a roof beam of the bridge corridor indicate that a third renovation was conducted between February 1884 and August 1885. The names of the carpenters and stonemasons are included in these inscriptions, along with the names of those who contributed funds for the repairs.

Before the development of modern roads, Houkeng Bridge was the only means of entering and exiting the county. The ancient bridge played an important role in Qingyuan County’s long history of mushroom trade, the main product produced in the area. With the victory of the Communist Red Army over Kuomintang forces in the 1934 Battle of Zhukou, which occurred near the bridge, the bridge assumed another name, Red Army Bridge. Qingyuan County has protected the bridge as a historic monument since 1982, based largely on this significant event during China’s civil war. In recent times, many traditional bridges in Qingyuan County, including timberarched corridor bridges, have either been moved or rebuilt in response to road development pressures. Houkeng Bridge survived because of its distance from arterial roads and its historic monument status. In the late twentieth century it fell into disrepair, however, as a result of poor maintenance.

Before the restoration, the bridge was in an extremely dilapidated condition but still in use. The wooden bridge had been damaged by various climatic factors, such as weathering, flash floods and typhoons. In addition, human factors, such as the presence of homeless people sleeping and cooking within the protective covering of the bridge, had also affected the ancient structure.

Some timber elements supporting the timber arch had been stolen and had mostly been replaced with incongruous iron pipes. Many of the planks covering the corridor and the tiles on the roof were either missing or decayed at the time the project commenced. The end sections of the corridor that connected the bridge and the road were also in poor condition.

Project History 

Beginning in 1987, the Management Office of Monuments in Qingyuan County, the entity responsible for the bridge, repeatedly attempted to secure restoration funding, but each of these efforts failed. In 2001 there was progress, however, when a professor from Nanjing University, Zhao Chen, inspected the bridge and urged the Cultural Monument Bureau of Zhejiang Province and the Government of Qingyuan County to fund a renovation project. Funding was granted by these two government sources, and was combined with donations from local residents to launch the restoration project.

Project Scope and Framework

The project had five key objectives. First, to restore the bridge to its original appearance in the most historically accurate way possible, bearing in mind the importance of reinstating the bridge’s original form and ambiance. Second, to retain the unique landscape of the bridge and the nearby village. Third, since Qingyuan County is known for its well-protected natural environment, the project aimed to protect the overall setting, considering the value of the site to be the combined work of people and nature. Fourth, the project sought to raise public awareness of the heritage value of the bridge and generate an appreciation of and pride in cultural heritage. Fifth, the conservation effort intended to reveal the bridge’s multiple layers of architectural, social and historical significance in order to support tourism and socio-economic development in the area and to initiate new livelihoods for local people.

Conservation Methodology and Materials

The conservation philosophy adopted by the conservation project’s sponsors was to “renovate and maintain the heritage structure in its original style”. This principle was clearly specified in the contract signed by the Cultural Bureau of Qingyuan County and the private restoration company selected to undertake the renovation.

The conservation team placed particular emphasis on reinstating the original form of the bridge. The team discarded inappropriate features added during previous renovations, returning the bridge to its authentic design. One of the tasks was the removal of the iron pipes that had been added in the centre of the timber arch during earlier repair efforts.

As a consequence of the bridge’s advanced state of decay, the conservation method required disassembling the structure, recording each component, repairing damaged components, then reassembling the parts in their original positions. The construction team followed a methodical sequence of steps for the reassembly. They began with the careful reassembly of the timber arches, followed by the installation and levelling of timbers over the timber arch. Next, the team restored the surface boards over the supporting timber members. This was followed by the replacement of the corridor framing structure of the bridge. The roof of the corridor came next. Finally, the planks on the sides of the corridor and the timber arch were replaced. All work was dependent upon careful measurements.

The roof of the corridor was a particular object of concern given its importance in helping to preserve the bridge from the effects of weather and to protect the wooden arches. Workers removed the roof tiles and the decorative roof ridges, and dismantled the intricately carved carpentry work of the roof structure, the beams, rafters and purlins. The work crew salvaged the original tiles and other elements for reuse. 

Timber deterioration was the primary challenge in the restoration work. All of the timber elements were inspected, and as much as possible of the original timber was salvaged. The conservation team divided the dismantled parts into the following categories: undamaged, partially damaged, decayed and unsalvageable. Undamaged parts were returned to their original positions. The elements with only partial decay were repaired, while decayed and unsalvageable members were replaced with new pieces. For example, the undamaged girders for the corridor and the surface boards over the timber arch remained in their original positions, the partially damaged posts were installed in their original positions after repair, while the decayed posts, surface boards over the supporting timbers and lost planks on the sides of the timber arch were replaced.

For any element that needed replacement, working drawings provided examples. Replacement timber parts of the roof, including purlins and rafters, were milled using hand tools and were then manually hoisted back into position. The principal material used was China Fir, a type of tree that grows in the hills of Qingyuan County.

Throughout the project, workers did not use a single nail, relying instead on mortise-and-tenon joints. These served to protect the timber ends and ensure durability. Other traditional techniques and materials also prevailed. Timbers were hoisted by means of human effort, rather than depending on mechanical contrivances, and scaffolds employed during the renovation were of bamboo, rather than iron pipes. Even the rope was hemp, not steel cable.

Important Issues

Following the restoration, the bridge resumed its function as a passageway, a resting place and a public gathering space. Restoration of the bridge thus enabled the revitalization of cultural traditions for Qingyuan County residents. The bridge has been successfully integrated into the contemporary life of the people of the village.

Project Sustainability and Viability

As the materials for the restoration were sourced locally, ongoing maintenance is economical and replicable by the local community. The continued maintenance of the bridge has also been ensured through the signing of a maintenance contract by the governments of Qingyuan County and the town of Zhukou. The town government also signed a maintenance contract with the head of Houkeng Village, who assumed direct responsibility for periodic maintenance. The county government also authorized a local heritage expert to make inspections of Houkeng Bridge on a regular basis. He had earlier played an instrumental role in the renovation project, being appointed to monitor every step of the work.

Project Impact

The project preserved an important heritage landmark in this rural village and transformed the community by strengthening the local sense of community pride and cultural identity. A study on the social impact of the renovation was conducted among local residents in January 2004. 

Almost all of the 588 local residents surveyed believed the timber-arched corridor bridge represented an important aspect of local history and that the bridge was important to their sense of cultural continuity. The restoration project also informed the community about conservation principles and techniques.

The impact of the project has also been felt within the conservation profession. At a 2004 symposium focused on the restoration of timber-arched corridor bridges in Zhejiang and Fujian Provinces, the Houkeng Bridge was identified as a model for other renovation projects focused on bridges in the area. The project was deemed to represent good conservation practice, providing a sound example for others to follow and reflect upon.

The project has also provided local opportunities to generate revenue from tourism. Today, the restored bridge has become a focal point for the increasing tourism in the county and surrounding areas.

Quote from the Project Team

“Houkeng Bridge is a historic and cultural architectural structure. The techniques used in the renovation project are traditional methods aimed to protect the historical condition and restore its original style.”