Students Participate in China Folk House Construction

Starting the first week of June, the China Folk House Retreat welcomed students onto its grounds to continue its mission of facilitating cross-cultural exchange between China and the United States.

The project is centered around rebuilding the China Folk House, a two-story tall wood structure originally located in a village in the Yunnan Province of China. The architecture of the Folk House is a fusion of Tibetan, Bai, Naxi and Han Chinese styles, all of which can be seen in the intricate designs carved onto the front gate.

The project was conceived in 2015, when the construction of a dam on the Mekong River threatened to flood the house, along with the rest of the hamlet. Sidwell East Asian history teacher John Flower spoke with Jianhua Zhang, the owner of the house, expressing his admiration of the home and his regret that they couldn’t just “take it down and bring it to America.”

Zhang agreed to do exactly that, and sold the house to Flower. After disassembling the house and shipping the parts to the U.S., students and volunteers began rebuilding the house in 2019. The house was relocated to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, a location that emulates Cizhong Village’s biodiversity and geography. Now, the Folk House serves as a cultural bridge between China and the United States.

Since the first student program, a significant amount of progress has been made — the general structure of the house is now finished, and after the next phase of construction to be completed next year, the kitchen and wash house will both have finished walls.

“The main structures are about 70-80% done at this point,” Flower said. “The Folk House itself only needs a few doors and windows installed, and the original kitchen building and bathhouse need to have a final lime render, like a plaster coating, put on, so they are almost done,” he added.

The project extends beyond the home itself, however.

Over the next few years, Flower plans to add a traditional courtyard and gardens to the house layout. The courtyard is gradually progressing, but more gardening and landscaping, as well as a full enclosure, are needed to complete it.

Flower also discussed a new project to construct a traditional outdoor pavilion, called the Jianchuan Pavilion, which could start as soon as next year. The hope is that craftsmen from China would visit the China Folk House to help with the project, reinforcing the program’s aspect of cultural exchange.

Though the various projects are steadily coming to fruition, the program is still recovering from pandemic-related setbacks. Restrictions on travel between China and the United States made it difficult for the team to spread awareness about the project and its goals in China.

Issues with the physical rebuilding of the house also emerged.

For example, due to the pandemic, a quota was placed  on the number of volunteers who could work on the project, and the cost of materials skyrocketed due to supply and shipping shortages.

Moreover, diplomatic relationships between China and the U.S. deteriorated, threatening cultural exchange programs that brought students to visit Cizhong Village.

Fortunately, with the help of Sidwell students, the team has overcome these challenges. This summer, China Folk House Retreat held its annual Camp Wholesome, a program that invites students to help rebuild the house and learn about Chinese culture.

“I learned a lot about construction and sustainability in construction and the importance of cultural exchange,” said junior Finn Peters, who volunteered for the first week of the program.

“I loved it. I thought it was really fun and a great way to learn about Chinese history and architecture outside of a classroom,” junior Sajan Shah, who also participated in Camp Wholesome, said.

Yang Wendou, the coordinator of Flower’s program in China, also spoke highly of the Folk House and its ability to promote cultural exchange.

“I’m an educator,” Yang said from Yunnan. “I won’t be able to say much about politics. But from my perspective, the more difficult U.S.-China relations get, the more we need to strengthen the exchanges between our people.”

The China Folk House Retreat serves many purposes. In addition to being a learning experience, volunteer opportunity and cultural exchange center, the house also represents rapport and collaboration between the United States and China.