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Interview with Ronald G. Knapp by Built Heritage and Heritage Architecture


The Editorial Teams of Built Heritage and Heritage Architecture were invited to the Forum organized by Shanghai Jiao Tong University for the launching of the 7th International Symposium on China’s Covered Bridges that was later held in Qingyuan County in September 2019. During the Forum in Shanghai, Professors Ronald G. Knapp and Terry Miller presented their latest book, China’s Covered Bridges, a monumental work on the exceptional characteristics and history of this unique building construction typology. Built Heritage and Heritage Architecture used the opportunity of Professor Knapp’s visit to Shanghai to discuss with him about the book, as well as about his insights on the rise of heritage in China, its challenges and its opportunities. 

After a lifelong experience researching on China, Professor Ronald G. Knapp is a leading expert in the United States on the knowledge about Chinese architecture. Trained as a geographer and as historian at Stetson University and the University of Pittsburgh, Professor Knapp has promoted the knowledge on China’s vernacular architecture in the West through an impressive scholarly production, highlighted by his pioneering study China's Traditional Rural Architecture: A Cultural Geography of the Common House (1986), which was the first book in English to introduce Chinese vernacular architecture to Western readers. Ronald G. Knapp is SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus at State University of New York, New Paltz, where he taught in the Department of Geography from 1968-2001, was Chairman from 1995-2001, and was a member of the Asian Studies Program. His interest for in China is inexhaustible, and he enthusiastically contributes to the reinforcement of the cultural links between China and the United States.

Shanghai, September 26, 2019

[Plácido González]:

China is experiencing now a renaissance of the study of the past and its incorporation as an asset to define the future of Chinese society. You have been witness of the change towards the appreciation of heritage in this country: What are the greatest opportunities and the greatest challenges to heritage conservation in China?

[Ronald G. Knapp]:

Yes, my perspective is a long perspective. I went to Taiwan in 1965; lived in Singapore in 1971-72; I visited Hong Kong many times; every year I was in Taiwan; until I first came to the mainland of China in 1977. Most of what I saw in the late 1970s and early 80s in China was relatively unchanged villages: accumulations of buildings over a long period of time, with the truly traditional components from beginning of the 20th century, from the 19th century, and maybe earlier; plus the intrusions of new buildings in the 20th century, especially after 1949. My formative thoughts on these topics appeared in two early books I wrote: China’s Traditional Rural Architecture: A Cultural Geography of the Common House in 1986 and China’s Vernacular Architecture: House Form and Culture in 1989.


Fig. 1. Jackets of China’s Traditional Rural Architecture: A Cultural Geography of the Common House (1986) and China’s Vernacular Architecture: House Form and Culture (1989).

Referring to the broader issue, I edited a book called Chinese Landscapes: The Village as Place in 1992, which included insights from an array of international scholars from many disciplines. When that book was published, you could still go into a village and see that layering, which was a topic that interested me specifically at that time. By that time I already had experience on the work that was being done in Zhejiang Province on village relocation since the 1980s. Architects from the local Institute would draw very large maps showing the traditional buildings of the traditional village with its spatial layout; and adjacent to it, the very geometrical plan of a new village according to the planning principles of those days. The intent would be then to build the new village, move everybody from the old village into the new village, and then destroy the old village. Several of these maps are in my collection.


Fig. 2. Jacket of Chinese Landscapes: The Village as Place (1992).

During that process, it was quite clear to me that the Chinese specialists, mainly architects, that I came into contact during that time were really only interested in building preservation: this building; that building, that ancestral hall, this residence, this bridge. But there generally was nothing in many of their minds about the landscape, which was my interest as a geographer. As an example, there were a whole series of books in the late 70s; the first of which was called Zhejiang minju [Zhejiang’s folk dwellings], and which subsequently covered many other provinces in China. Most of the research for that work was done in the 50s and 60s, and they were published only after the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976; not even with the name of the persons who did the research, but the Institute that they belonged to, so it was a collective authorship.


Fig. 3. Jacket of Zhejiang Minju (1984).

If you look at those books, while the village might be described, the focus was always on individual buildings: the facades, the sections, the floor plans of the buildings, and a few photographs. Sometimes a little bit of information popped up, describing the village as a landscape, but very, very little in this sense. These are wonderful resources for what China was like in the 50s and 60s: they incorporated beautiful scale drawings done by Chinese architectural students at that time, even though the black and white photography was relatively poor because the cameras and the processing were not so good.

I used those books often as a guide in the search for buildings that really looked interesting. I remember a number of times I went in search of them in Anhui Province, and I found that the building was no longer there; so at least the effort of having drawn had been important to register its characteristics. But I also began to see quite clearly that much of that early documentation work had been done in the most accessible places: typically, the local leaders would rent a car and take the survey team to some village that was along a major highway, and they did not go over to the next hill. And usually when I went and couldn't find the building, I would talk with local people and they would say: ‘Just go over the mountain. They're even better over there’, so you go over the mountain, and yes, they're even better! But these were not drawn, so this showed me very clearly that while there was a lot of interesting buildings that architects focused on and had some historical information about, the scope was limited. You also need to consider that here was no way to do the intensive work that needed to be done. Over the years, there have been individual PhD students in China, who may have followed this approach, in other words, following a picture, a drawing and going someplace to see a village that's worthwhile, they would find cases to develop their PhD dissertations during six or eight months. There are lots of those books from PhD students at the end of the last century and the first decade of this century.

As my research and writing continued after retiring from teaching in 2001, I increasingly focused on writing for an educated but not academic audience with the intent of clarifying for Westerners the beauty, context, and depth of Chinese architectural culture.  Among more than a dozen books since 2000, two were translated into Chinese House Home Family: Living & Being Chinese 家 -- 中国人的居家文化 (2011) and Chinese Houses: The Architectural Heritage of a Nation 图说中国民居 (2018).


Fig. 4. Jackets of House Home Family: Living & Being Chinese 家 -- 中國人的居家文化 (2011) and Chinese Houses: The Architectural Heritage of a Nation 图说中国民居 (2018).

In addition, I built on early experiences and interests to carry out field and archival research in Southeast Asia concerning the buildings and communities created by Chinese settlers over many centuries. Two books resulted that connected Chinese settlers and their immigrant families to their home villages within China.


Fig. 5. Jackets of Chinese Houses of Southeast Asia (2010) and The Peranakan Chinese Home (2013).

A critically important source for me throughout my research was the documentary photography by the very famous photographer LI Yuxiang, whom I have known for the past 25 years. His work forced me to look at dwellings in new ways through his lens that captured details often overlooked by architects and heritage specialists. In the late 80s and the early 90s he published a series of thick, heavy books called Laofangzi, [Old Dwellings], published by the Jiangsu Fine Arts Press. He traveled widely all over China, province by province, taking black and white pictures of building parts; beautiful timber components, beautiful stone components, with visually very striking photographs. He typically invited a scholar to write an essay in Chinese for each of these volumes, and I was invited to translate a couple of them into English, so they appear in English translation in the back as well. I give him a lot of credit for putting a spotlight on old dwellings, but they were laofangzi, so again, the focus was on the buildings and not so much on the broader village.


Fig. 6. Jackets of the book series Laofangzi.

This is a preamble to tell you that most of this was individual initiative, with relatively little impact. A lot of Chinese, some foreign scholars and amateurs, were following their interests, but there was no direction from the top. Nevertheless, over time all this individual effort accumulated, and started to add to something bigger and significant. 
Xidi and Hongcun were the two first sites of vernacular architecture from China included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2000. I traveled with a friend from Hangzhou to Hongcun in 1987, and it was the first time I encountered somebody selling tickets to go into a Chinese village. I still have the ticket and a picture of the man sitting under a tree with a desk, and there were no other visitors coming. The village was still full of local people, doing their daily lives, but already in the late 80s there was this sense that Xidi and Hongcun were special places.


Fig. 7. Entrance ticket to Hongcun, Anhui Province, 1987.

I have gone back there quite a few times since then. One of the early visits was in the late 90s, and there were already several changes from which to extract lessons. Firstly, virtually everything that was being sold in the villages to tourists in the 90s was basically the same kind of stuff that you could find everywhere because the village handicraft industry guided towards tourists had not yet developed. Over time, you see that the right things are done, and in this case the local people learnt from experience, that tourists do not want to go to Hongcun and buy a souvenir from the Great Wall. So it took a while for the local handicrafts to be developed; subsequently it occurs that what you find now being sold today are things that are supposedly characteristic of the village.

Secondly, there was a physical and infrastructural change. Due to the amount of tourists that were coming by bus to Hongcun, the municipality had to build a new parking lot that was different from  place where I saw the man selling the tickets at the entrance of the village in 1987. This means that the accessibility to the place had greatly improved. This connects with the third issue, which is that the story that the guides would explain then was not the one I was told in the first time I visited, as it was story that was made up, mainly for the Chinese tourists travelling through the village and out. 
Fourth is that over time, many of the local villagers moved out of their homes and rented their structures to non-native villagers who paid them rent and who would sell things from the trading networks. So the local people made money by renting their facilities and live in a nicer house right nearby, so they left the old town where living conditions were not so good. What happens subsequently is that many of the old buildings have been turned into suite-like Airbnb room types with a bathroom, light, air condition, all the amenities, because the tourists demand the amenities, they don´t want to have the windows open and to have to burn a mosquito coil, they want hot water 24 hours, not only two hours in the morning and two in the evening. 

These things came little by little. But once Xidi and Hongcun gained their UNESCO status and started to make money for the investors, then others wanted to follow their path as they offered a good model. Of course, if you look at it in terms of the economic outcome for the villagers, there have been some sociological studies showing that not everybody benefitted. This is part of the nature of things, there were always some outsiders who were smarter moneywise and who took advantage of local people. But by and large, local people were able to leave the backward 18th and 19th century buildings and move to modern apartments, which they couldn’t do before the designation. 

All over China in the year 2000 there were many villages that tried to emulate that model. Some of them have been quite successful: each watertown in the outskirts of Shanghai (Zhujiajiao, Wuzhen, Tongli) has a brand that they have exploited very well. They are overwhelmed with tourists, with great parking lots, with a lot of money flowing into them. I still like to visit these places, but only very early in the morning or late in the evening. But on the other hand you also can find villages where a lot of money was invested in upgrades but are now dilapidated; some of them they are still difficult to access; others suffer from poor management; others have a lack of maintenance…you find these villages that had great hope…but the lesson is that not everybody can be a winner.

One of the efforts in China today is that since 2012, more than 4,000 villages have been identified as either beautiful villages or historic and cultural villages or eco-civilization villages. These 4,000 villages all over the country have been identified generally by scholars, and the effort is not to allow them to change too much until the money is available to change them, but eventually these will become hotspots of tourism too. Tongji no doubt is doing some of the design work for some of them; I know Tsinghua is doing design for many of them, in an effort to look at villages as landscapes, as cultural landscapes, historical landscapes. This is fairly new because the earlier focus was on just buildings; and now there is a growing tendency to look at the landscape.

[Plácido González]:

The narrative of success and failure illustrates the outcome of the ‘industrialization’ of heritage and tourism...

[Ronald G. Knapp]:

Yes, this is related to modernization; when I went from Hangzhou to Hongcun in the 1980s, that bus ride took more than 12 hours. Today it is less than 2 hours. Much of China is connected to high speed railway, to expressways, people own private cars, etc. Especially during the holidays, everybody is on the move in China, which brings the great problem of overtourism in many pleasant places to visit, where you literally can’t move. 

There are also the motivations: many tourists who go to see famous residences do not do it because of their intrinsic heritage value, but because these places have been featured in movies, so when you go to Shanxi Province, take Pingyao for example, these heritage places incorporate information about the TV series or the movie in exhibition rooms, so people would go there to see the movie stars that were there before, but not pay any attention to historic structures. So there is a reason to go, but people do not always go for the right reason!

[Plácido González]:

The attention to the landscape raises the question of the management of change. What is the role of management in heritage conservation?

[Ronald G. Knapp]:

I am involved in the New York state’s largest nature preserve, it’s about 8000 acres, quite natural and a magnet for 4-season tourism. We have a phrase: “Save the land for the people and from the people”: the job is to maintain the historical environmental integrity, so people can enjoy it, but at the same time you have to be very careful that the people don’t destroy it. We also use a principle that the US Forest Service has used in the past: ‘the limits of acceptable change’; which means that you anticipate that there will be change, so you must assess your resources, make decisions upfront about areas where you would allow more visitation and areas that will have less visitation. 

Unless you have a management plan paying attention to the limits of acceptable change, there is no doubt the asset will degrade. China increasingly has been paying attention to this. Take the Forbidden City as example, as of last year it limits the number of visitors per day. The first time I went to the Forbidden City in 1977 you could get into every one of the halls, get very close to all the assets, take pictures, you would actually walk in the stone steps. Subsequently they put bamboo covering the steps because after a number of years the steps started to wear away; people touched them and so they were disappearing. 

If you go into museums in the West, to see Mona Lisa in the Louvre for example, you will find it is so overcrowded that you hardly can hold the camera to take the picture; making also impossible to appreciate the painting. But in China it’s a fuzhipin, they would put the copy on display. There are many places in Europe where they are putting a lot of emphasis on virtual museums as a consequence: if you have it online, you have a virtual experience, which may not be real, but which definitely preserves the original resource.

I think China is doing more and more of that kind of management, and they do not have to learn necessarily from the West, but from their own experience. Changes happen at a very fast pace here, but I don’t criticize too much; I think over time the Chinese get their act together without foreign intrusion. So in sum, there is an issue of management, of understanding the change of the place, and protecting the resource for the people and from the people.

[Plácido González]:

What is your opinion about the possibility of including a third factor, which is ‘protecting with the people’?

[Ronald G. Knapp]:

That is a good question: absolutely yes. I am involved in a number of planning exercises in the town that I live in. We always have significant public outreach with everything that we try to do. We have a project for planning a parking area for an historic area that involved 12 public hearings, and overwhelming public support. But a small group was against it, and they kept coming back after time with the same arguments, and the planning board was very patient listening to them for 12 times. Eventually the planning board kept on with the project, so the people who were unhappy are still unhappy. But we believe it was important to have public involvement, you listen to the people in order to improve the plans, and everyone can benefit from it. 

But this is a slow process. In China there is less seeking of public input with the result that a local government can hire a specialist, design the infrastructure, and build it in perhaps two years. In the US, a similar project might take 15 years, and millions of dollars with consultants, and sometimes the project doesn’t even get done. So I believe in the public, mainly because I am a patient person, but it cannot go on forever, there is always the need to move forward and somebody has to make decisions. Working with the people is important, but identifying the valid stakeholders is even more important, because some people just like to talk; listening to them sometimes means that you are losing time…but in sum I believe that ‘with the people’ is a very important part.

The notion of participation with the people also helps to question the predominant top-down approaches, which have consequences in heritage integrity and authenticity. All too often you see a landscape that even the average person knows is worth preserving, whereas sometimes there are architects, planners, and designers that do not really understand how the landscape that you see in rough form emerged, but they have an idea how they want to change it. So they come up with a design, many times with very nice designs, that may not be authentic; they may not reflect the integrity of the original landscape. 

For example, when you go back to the written materials about villages in the south of China in the 1970s or so, often they were written by people who came from Beijing or Shanghai. When these specialists went to the remote villages they did not ask the local carpenters ‘what do you call this?, what is the name of the process that you do?’. What they often did instead was to bring the terms they used in Beijing and Shanghai and used those terms to describe what happened in the local area. But the terms were not local terms, they were terms from someplace else. So the next generation comes and they use the terms that were imposed, not the terms that were accurate there. There are some scholars now in Fujian who have shed light on this problem; they visit places and interview local carpenters to recover the actual terms, started putting them in lists that show the local and the imposed terms together.

To give you another example of how heritage discourses become homogeneous, I recall Yueshan, called ‘moon mountain’ village, in Qingyuan county, Zhejiang. The village layout is a very significant design that came from fengshui; but when I first visited there, the guide made no mention to that. We went to a bridge and then other bridges; we went to an ancestral hall; but nobody said anything about how all those pieces worked together in a traditional landscape. I don't think it was not because nobody wanted to use the word ‘fengshui’, because that's acceptable, as even modern architects use the term. So what I want to stress is that when you are describing a particular village like Yueshan, you need to relate it to the landscape, which is the real important story of the village, not this bridge and that building, and this complex narrative needs to be spelled out.

[Plácido González]:

Recent categories and approaches to heritage conservation defined by UNESCO and ICOMOS, like the definition of Cultural Landscapes, or Historic Urban Landscapes, still find resistance to their appropriation by scholars in China. What are in your opinion the distinctive features of the definition of heritage in China, and how could we imagine possible ‘bridges’ between China and the West in this field?

[Ronald G. Knapp]:

I know that actually there are scholars in China who accept this. My sense is that there is a significant acceptance of the idea of cultural landscapes today in China. Certainly, it is different from the past, now: I would say, as far as the U.S. is concerned, that there are some places that pay attention to it, and some places do not pay attention to it. But I think if you take these 4000 plus villages which have been selected in the Beautiful Villages program in China; they have not been chosen because they are visually beautiful, because not all villages are beautiful, but because they have historical and cultural meaning, so there is an acknowledgement of them as cultural landscapes. Maybe China was slow to acknowledge this, but you could also ask the question here: Why did it take UNESCO and ICOMOS so long before they began to see landscapes, why didn't this happen 25 years ago? They were slow too!

[Plácido González]:

Professor Han Feng of Tongji University has highlighted how the Chinese understanding of the landscape throughout history relies on the really close relationship between human beings and nature, and how you cannot have an appreciation of nature without human beings. She also points to a current situation in China, where imported notions of landscape, like that of wilderness that comes from the US in the 19th century, are challenging the traditional understanding of landscapes in the country.

[Ronald G. Knapp]:

There are all kinds of American notions. Actually, when we were in Qingyuan recently, we met a township Party secretary, who had visited Yosemite national park in the United States last year, so they are actually planning on creating a national park, a national reserve that includes Qingyuan and some other counties. 

I have actually not been to Yosemite, but I agree that in Yosemite the focus is on the natural environment. However, in the East of the United States, where I live, the Hudson River school of painting, which while critical of the intrusion of modern railroads, mining, settlements in the wilderness during the 19th century, revealed a different understanding. In many of the paintings from this school you also see an appreciation of the agricultural fields, of pastoral activities, of the bridges and the buildings in the landscape, too. In sum, there is no way that the northeastern section of the United States can be depicted as a wilderness like in the west, without the acceptance of a certain degree of human intervention, just as Professor Han Feng believes it should be.

In New York State we have the Adirondack Park, which is huge, and which already contained lots of towns, lots of factories, infrastructures, when it was created. That is a part of the cultural landscape that is appreciated, an interaction that no one attempts to remove. We could also argue that this ‘other’ American notion of the cultural landscape could be adopted in China. What we do see is that China needs to keep their villages functioning. But the fact of the matter is that in really remote areas villages are being vacated; the people leave them completely, so the agricultural fields have reverted to the wilderness, basically.

[Plácido González]:

In the presentation of the book China’s Covered Bridges last week in Shanghai Jiao Tong University, you mentioned how bridges are not only physical infrastructures, but how they also incorporate many other dimensions: what are those dimensions, and how do they constitute a cultural heritage of China?

[Ronald G. Knapp]:

The book on China’s covered bridges emerged in a quite interesting way. First, of course, was more than fifteen years of fieldwork throughout China even as Terry Miller and I were completing field research for a book titled America’s Covered Bridges: Practical Crossings, Nostalgic Icons. At the end, I contacted Frank Yih, a Chinese American philanthropist, who actually funded the production of China’s Covered Bridges, which is a big book, almost 500 pages. The philanthropist wanted to buy 500 copies to be distributed in schools, and the rest would be sold in China, with a slightly different edition with a different cover which would be sold internationally. There will be a Chinese translation, which will be a more reduced version. 

Fig 9.jpg

Fig. 8. Jacket of America’s Covered Bridges: Practical Crossings, Nostalgic Icons (2014).


Fig. 9. Jacket of China’s Covered Bridges. Architecture Over Water (2019).

In this book, Terry Miller focuses on the bridge structures, in a comparative approach bringing together Europe, the United States, and China. I am more interested in the social, economic, historical elements of the bridges and this is reflected throughout the book. I must admit that this particular book is not definitive since, there is not yet sufficient material available to tell the whole story, but I think enough is told there for somebody else to come along, and maybe do a Ph.D. dissertation on one part of it, and that is quite my hope.

I also hope that the publication will show the American public the great richness that exists beyond their borders. Americans are very ethnocentric, but as far as America’s covered bridges are concerned, the situation is quite sad. The best bridges that we had in America came from the 19th century and now virtually all are all gone, and most of Americans don’t even know they even existed. There were great covered bridges and now what we have are the leftovers: some of them are nice but they are not really extraordinary. Americans generally have no sense that there are exceptional covered bridges in Europe and in China, and I believe that Chinese covered bridges are the most beautiful bridges in the world. There are more of them here than there anywhere else, and they serve a totally different function here than they do in elsewhere in the world. They are also the oldest, we have the first archaeological evidence from the 3rd century BCE, whereas the first American bridges date from the early 19th century. This book would be very useful to help Americans open their eyes to the fact that not only Americans have covered bridges.  

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