1996 / 10月
Tsai Wen-ting /photos courtesy of Pu Hua-chih /tr. by Phil Newell
What do Zhuge Liang, Wang Wei, Du Fu, and the many thatchers in England have in common? They all lived in thatched roof houses at one time or another. And they weren't the only ones. Indeed, thatched cottages were the first dwellings for many of our ancestors when they first came to Taiwan.
It is a sunny, sweltering day in the Meihua community on the mountainside outside of Luotung Township (in Ilan County). With the aim of building a thatch cottage, a group of old farmers, various tools in hand, leads a gaggle of more than 30 university students and teachers of architecture into the mountains-looking for all the world like a military unit scaling a precipice.
Coming to the area of thatch grass, the slender reeds wave gently in the breeze. Yu Mei-chih, a 71-year-old, pulls out a scythe specially designed for cutting tall grass, and teaches the young city slickers to be sure to slice the grass starting on the windward side, so that it doesn't fly up and prick their eyes. With the air of an expert, Uncle Yu explains the advantages of thatch grass: It keeps out cold in winter, yet does not trap heat in summer. "Birds build their nests with twigs, and people build their nests with thatch. There's nothing that can match the advantages of thatch grass," says Wu Sung-ho, director of the Community Development Association, in praise of the reed.
On the mountain are found the common grass fern and Formosan sugar palm, which are excellent material for pillars. An elderly gentleman named Chung Chieh-chung-whom the others call "platoon leader"-explains how to tell these two similar-looking trees apart: "If there are marks of leaves on the trunk, then that's a common grass fern. If there is a lot of down on the outside, that's a Formosan sugar palm." The common grass fern and Formosan sugar palm are both light and easy to transport, and are also extremely resistant to moisture. Set in the earth, they can last as long as 40 years without rotting, so they are ideal for Ilan's damp climate. The "platoon leader" also reminds everyone to put the pillars in root-end down, because that is, after all, the way trees are. Chinese Culture University associate professor of architecture Li Chien-lang, who has studied traditional building for many years, says that underlying the rules of the elderly gentlemen is a worldview of "duplicating nature's ways."
After materials have been collected from the mountains, the pillars and beams are put into place, drawing an outline in three dimensions of the thatched cottage. The old gents, having their first experience as "professors," give of their knowledge freely and exhaustively. Their "students" work with them side by side, bending over to scythe the grass, going up the mountain to chop Formosan sugar palm, and experiencing with their own sweat and muscles the relationship between nature and architecture. In so doing they also understand how our forebears-lacking tile or brick-gathered materials, and, through daily experience, ended up choosing thatch grass from the countless types of plant life to build their roofs. "This wasn't some discovery by a scientist, but was the drop-by-drop accumulation of wisdom among the common people," avers author Huang Chun-ming, who strongly promoted this "thatched cottage study camp."
So, hey, why mobilize all that labor to build a thatched cottage? This all goes back to the story of "the foolish monkeys who moved all the rocks."
It begins more than 170 years ago. The people who first came to what is now the Meihua community were relative latecomers to Taiwan, and when they got here all they could get was pathetic land covered in boulders and wild grass. They believed that beneath this sea of stone they would find soil suitable for planting, so they began, day after day, to take away the rocks. People ridiculed them, and called them "foolish monkeys" for taking on the task. Yet, by taking rocks washed down by the rivers and building walls with them, and then roofing these structures with thatch grass, these people built thatched cottages to shield themselves from the elements in a land others thought incapable of supporting life. They dispelled their image in others' eyes as "foolish monkeys." "In the old days, our community was known as 'Maopuwei' [lit: thatch field community]. Fifty years ago or so, most people in the village still used thatch grass for the roofs of their houses," says an old farmer.
For the current residents of "Maopuwei," the new thatched cottages are "houses of memories." With the reconstruction of thatched cottages, bits of the past lived by elderly residents-including their wisdom and confidence derived from daily experience-have returned as well. In fact, records of houses made with thatch are not limited to the history of Maopuwei; virtually all of those who first came empty-handed to Taiwan had grass huts as their first "homes."
Grasping at straws
Of all human dwellings, grass huts probably have the oldest history, the widest distribution, and-cumulatively over time-the largest number of residents. At sites of artifacts from communities more than 7000 years old found at Banpo Village (Henan Province) and Hemudu (Zhejiang Province) in mainland China, it can be inferred from remnants of posts and beams that there must have been thatched homes at that time. Grass huts offer people numerous advantages-they are convenient, flexible, simple, and can be made entirely from materials readily at hand. Li Juei-tsung, an associate professor of architecture and environmental design at the Chung-Hua Polytechnic Institute, suggests, "Thatched houses are the single greatest expression of the culture of ordinary people, and they are one of the great creative products of man and nature. It's too bad they have been ignored in architectural history."
Thatched cottages are defined by their grass roofs, with different varieties being used in different environments. For example, in northern Taiwan, people utilized rice stalks. In the south, long grass-like sugar cane leaves were employed. Aborigines usually used a coarse grass called Themeda triandra, while people on the coast used wild sugar cane. The "thatched roof hut," now seen as nothing but a temporary worksite shelter or a pig sty, was once the most elevated form of grass dwelling. As the various groups in Taiwan intermingled, they learned from each other, so that, for instance, the people of Maopuwei learned thatch-weaving techniques from the indigenous Atayal people, while the Atayal began using more rot-resistant thatch grass in place of Themeda triandra.
Given the high demand in that era, grasses went from being wild plants to being deliberately cultivated crops. According to a 1917 survey by the Governor-General's Office of the Japanese occupation era, 2500 hectares of farmland across the island were devoted to thatch grass cultivation, in which Ilan was the leader. After every autumn harvest, there was always a group of specialized roofers-thatchers-roaming from house to house crying, "Thatch repairs!"
Grass huts of the rich and famous
In that pioneering era, thatch and coarse grasses were not just something found growing wild in a field somewhere, and thatched cottages were not mere worksheds. From a small number of pictures from the Japanese occupation era, one can in fact see some quite splendid thatched homes. For example, the Lin family of Wufeng, one of the most important official families of the Qing dynasty, kept a well-maintained and carefully woven structure (which they called fajicuo, meaning "the dwelling where fortune began") right up until about 1940.
The Lin's three-room thatched cottage was the original homestead and base for the family's rise, and they also called it facaicuo ("dwelling of prosperity"). Forty years ago, the structure collapsed, but the Lins have always wanted to rebuild this home, given its historic significance. The National Taiwan University Graduate Institute of Building and Planning, in charge of the rebuilding project, sent three teacher's assistants to Ilan to participate in the thatched-roof study camp.
These days one can only get an idea of what the original Lin thatched cottage looked like from old photos, but in northern Taiwan, on the road from Wanli to Shuanghsi, there is a thatched structure that one can still see today. In a three-sided traditional family compound, the roofs on the outer two wings of the compound have already been converted to tile, but the main hall-where there are altars to deities and deceased ancestors-is still covered in thatch. The owner says that he hopes the act of having to maintain the roof year-in and year-out will remind his descendants never to forget their roots.
The university students at the Maopuwei study camp came to learn how to preserve historic buildings. But others-Chen Wen-chin and Fang Yung-ching, from Hualien, and Chen Li-hua, from Miaoli-came because they want to build their own thatched cottages. Is it really possible to live in such a house?
The 80-year-old Mrs. Chien perhaps knows more about the advantages of living in a thatched cottage than anyone. The Chien home is the only remaining thatched residence in Maopuwei. Next to it they have built a modern three-story building, the tallest structure in the community. Still, by comparison, "the thatched cottage is cooler than the concrete building, which is like an oven," explains Mrs. Chien as she wraps up a zongzi rice dumpling. This is because the layers of grass in the thatched roof can stabilize the flow of air through them, and they don't readily trap or pass heat along. This is why they stay cool in summer, yet warm in winter, and are also very effective at blocking out sound.
For these reasons, some villages have put thatched roofs, made of rice stalks or thatch grass held in place by bamboo, over the flat roofs of new concrete houses. Says architecture scholar Li Chien-lang, "Although modern structures are convenient, they are not so comfortable for human living. Thus traditional materials will never be entirely eradicated by the passage of time, they will only be used differently."
Reedy and able
The younger generation these days are certainly capable of appreciating the virtues of thatched cottages. Mrs. Chien's daughter-in-law, for example, notes that "You won't be scared half to death in a thatched cottage during an earthquake." Moreover, because thatched roofs are slanted, given the way water rapidly rolls off grass, they quickly drain off rain. To top it off (so to speak), they are easily repaired; this makes them a lot better than flat concrete roofs that are less than perfectly built-once those start leaking they drip from morning to night.
One of those who participated in the study camp, Tunghai University architecture student Hung Hung-ho, admired the thatched cottage with an expert eye. "Modern buildings are designed to attract your attention, but the thatched cottage blends right into the natural environment, and doesn't look at all out of place." Looking forward to applying what he has learned to his career, Hung notes that anyway both modern buildings and thatched cottages have to cope with the same elements-sun and rain-and that, after seeing a few more natural structures like the thatched cottage, he hopes to combine the modern and the down-to-earth local style in his own future work.
This points to what may be the most significant thing about thatched cottages. They are made from local materials, have been tested by experience, they are built to suit the local climate and resources, and they are economical and environmentally friendly, doing absolutely no harm to human beings. "Our ancestors were really wise to use the materials produced by this environment to conquer this environment. That's what I call 'doing the natural thing,'!" Wu Sung-ho of the Community Development Association declares approvingly.
Of course, if thatched cottages had no disadvantages, it is unlikely that people would have so quickly abandoned them. Do you remember the story of the Three Little Pigs? The first one, a lazy one who lived in a thatched cottage, had his house blown down by the wolf. Also, thatched roofs are ideal for insects and rats to make their homes in. And they don't stand up very well to typhoons. Otherwise the Tang dynasty poet Du Fu would never have sighed, "The autumn winds have ruined my thatched cottage."
Most frightening for those who live in thatched cottages is fire. Once in Maopuwei there was a blaze, and the whole village was mobilized to fight it, because if the fire got out of control the entire village would have had their roofs burned off. Maopuwei elders can all remember the time there was a fire during a water shortage, so that in the end they had to resort to using human waste (stored in a pit for use as fertilizer) to extinguish the flames. Finally, in these days when labor is costly and few people have the proper skills, it has become a terrible headache for homeowners to try to find someone to repair their thatched roof every two or three years.
So, are thatched cottages good places to live? China's Du Fu wouldn't have been able to answer this question-he was too busy chasing reeds blown off his roof. The many thatchers of Britain, however, would give a definite thumbs up. As recently as half a century ago, there were still 25,000 thatchers-specialists in grass roof repair-in Britain. Even today, there are still more than 500. This should tell you that there are still very many thatched cottages in the UK, some of which have been continuously maintained and used for up to five centuries.
Li Juei-tsung, who has been to England to study thatched cottages, points out that British people see the maintenance of a thatched cottage not only as the preservation of the building itself, but as part of the larger preservation of the beautiful environs of a rural village. Thus they have specialized schools passing along techniques and doing research and development. There are also subsidies to help people who wish to maintain the thatched cottages in which they reside.
"Thatched cottages were not actually that convenient. But, upgraded and improved, they can be suitable for modern people. This isn't a matter of 'living in the past,' but is making thatched cottages viable for today, so that they meet modern standards," says Huang Chun-ming. He says that the point of the thatched cottage study camp was to affirm the harmony between architecture and man; it was not to turn back the clock so that everyone would build and live in thatched cottages. Of course, if today someone were to favor a thatched cottage, and be willing to spend the money and effort required to maintain it, that would be a good thing. At least there would be some examples of thatched cottage architecture "co-existing" next to the tile buildings, western-style houses, and skyscrapers here in Taiwan. People could thus experience different architectural periods in a natural way in daily life.
In England, a completely new thatched roof made from wheat stalks can cost about NT$400,000 (about *10,000), while one made from reeds can cost up to NT$1 million (about *25,000)! No wonder that most of the people who live in well-kept thatched cottages are doctors, lawyers, or others with high incomes. These homes are surrounded with lush flowering trees, there are adornments on the edges of the roofs, and there may even be squirrels or owls woven out of grass as decoration. Of course, inside they have the full complement of modern appliances. "The houses may look primitive, but the people inside are very modern," says Li Juei-tsung.
Nevertheless, in terms of techniques, materials, or overall outlook, Taiwan's conditions for maintaining thatched cottages lag behind those of Britain. Anyway, if the existence of thatched cottages is just to satisfy a tiny number of people who can afford to pay exorbitant costs, that would be a diminution of the function of these buildings, and gut them of their spiritual content.
"Recovering the past and then weighing in modern considerations is the only way that thatched cottages can survive," avers Li Juei-tsung. For example, in terms of materials and form, thatched cottages are environmentally friendly, while in terms of philosophy of life, they represent simplicity. Li Chien-lang suggests that we need not cut ourselves off from the good things of the past, but there is also no need to employ them "in a forced, unnatural way just for the sake of keeping them going." For example, if one transported raw materials a long way to a new place just to build a thatched cottage, that would violate the basic character of thatched cottages as being "made from local materials." If one wanted to go further, and install air conditioning and luxurious interiors in pursuit of a high material standard of living, the result would be preposterous. Li believes that thatched cottages should survive in a more natural way, and owners should keep an open mind and not make the cottages into something they shouldn't be.
There are similar concerns about the many thatched cottages now used in scenic areas, or the use of thatched cottages in "nativist" cultural activities as a means of expressing rural culture. These are, alas, detached from daily life, and they are little more than "entertainment." Such uses may provide moderns with "the consolation of sentimental nostalgia," says architecture scholar Lai Chih-chang, "but these are nothing but an element in short-lived cultural consumption. After they stop being trendy, they will quickly disappear."
From rush hours to rush houses
In Ilan County's Yutian Village-which used to be called Maopu, the same as the first part of the name of Maopuwei-the old people built a "Thatch Garden Pavilion" at the main crossroads where villagers come together. Old men from the village setting out for work first thing in the morning meet here. Under the noon-day sun passing truck drivers stop to eat their lunches. When the moon rises, people sit around eating snacks and sipping a glass or two of wine. Or perhaps boys and girls talk intimately of their love. Built just over a year ago, this thatched pavilion shifts its mood with each dawn and dusk, with each passage of the sun and moon.
In the Paimi community in Su'ao Township, a bamboo structure-suitable for performances or cookouts-has been built across from community cultural center. Every time there is a special event-Lantern Festival, Mid-Autumn Festival-people come here to do whatever the season traditionally calls for, from cooking up rice ball soup to guessing lantern riddles. The wafting fragrance of food adds ambience to thatched buildings.
The full-bearded Fang Yung-ching, who lives in Hualien, has many ideas of his own. He lived in Taipei for over 30 years, but-unable to tolerate the dirty urban environment-moved out five years ago, and moved to Hualien. In his new home, he has a bamboo structure that doubles as a garage and as a planter for his sponge gourds. It looks good, tastes good, and is cheap and easy to use. Now he plans to put up a thatched cottage in his courtyard, where he plants corn and convolvulus. The thatched cottage-which will be built up off the ground-will not only provide a place for his friends to gather and sip tea, the space underneath will become a roost for his free-range chickens. He got the inspiration for this plan from the thatched cottages of the aboriginal people. The cottage is an expression of his desire for the life of a gentleman farmer, and also promises to satisfy his interest in building a do-it-yourself house.
Don't imagine that Fang is some nostalgic dreamer: "Build a thatched cottage to live in? It's not good enough at keeping out the elements, and is not fire-resistant. As for recycling old things, I think we should not reject all old things outright, but that doesn't mean we have to 'take everything as a single unit'!" he declares. He explains, "What we need is to borrow the materials, the functions, and perhaps even the spirit, those are easy to adopt for use."
The dream of the thatched chamber
Seniors in the Maopuwei community built their first thatched cottage this year as part of Ilan County's "Celebrate the Year of Ilan" activities. They have since built two more simple thatched cottages, one at the foot of the mountains and the other across from the old brick kiln. And now Cottage Number 4 will be built in Wu Sung-ho's courtyard. This time they plan to build a structure that moderns will see as a classic. Eventually they hope to build such "classic" cottages in one resident's compound after another as small family-run inns.
Even as the building of Cottage Number 4 was getting underway, Maopuwei elders had already begun a series of other tasks to put a good face on their community: They restored the community's old stone wall. They cleared out the small irrigation ditches supplying the farm community. And in November, when the time is right for planting, they plan to put in 10,000 peach and plum trees alongside the houses and streets of the village; these will then be "adopted" by nature-lovers. When the first blossoms come out three years from now, the elders will invite the "adoptive parents" of these trees from outside of the community to come to see the dazzling display of a sea of pink and white flowers, and to inhale the fragrant floral aromas.
"This is not nostalgia. It's just, why do we want to abandon the innate charms of rural life? Why should rural communities have to be turned into urban ones?" wonders an exasperated Huang Chun-ming.
Look for a moment at the descriptions used in advertising for some of the apartment complexes going up in the big cities: "Verdant mountains, blue water." "Laid out like a farming village." They are trying to appeal to buyers by associating with nature. And many recreational areas either use small wooden buildings or else thatched cottages. All of these suggest that people instinctively have a need for and fondness for nature. Just as it is for those who abandon city life and move to the country, the idea of the thatched cottage is an expression of their existence within nature. And for the people of Maopuwei, rebuilding thatched cottages is part of their dream of saving the charm of their rural village.
In the urban area encroaching on the edge of Maopuwei, one can see skyscrapers with names reminiscent of the steamroller nature of urban culture: "An Imperial View." "New York Mansions." "The Vancouver Building." "Imperial Garden Sea." Such edifices could at any time take advantage of the space in the scenic Maopuwei district and move in. But that is not what the residents are hoping for.
More than just a house
Development of small thatched-roof inns may very well be the lifeline for the Maopuwei community. But Huang Chun- ming argues that the main significance to reconstructing the thatched cottage community is not economic, but in preserving the underlying values of a rural society. He sees the rural community as the prop for, the roots for, the urban.
Wu Sung-ho, who worked in Taipei for many years, can understand exactly what Huang means. In former times he was using up his life earning money. But after falling seriously ill, he returned to his old home to recuperate. "Young people always love to fly around trying to conquer the universe. But one day they will be tired, and want to return home. I hope to make Maopuwei into a natural paradise, so that when the children are worn out they can come here and will have a place to rest," he says, describing his own past and hopes for the future in a raspy voice.
In four days under an intense sun, the thatched cottage is completed through the cooperative efforts of young and old alike. Team leader Huang Chun-ming puts on the finishing touch by pasting up red door couplets, a Chinese tradition for new homes. The one on the right says "Our ancestors moved stones for a century." The one on the left reads, "Their descendants live in tranquillity for ten thousand generations." And the one placed horizontally over the door reads: "Full mobilization of foolish monkeys."
More than a century ago, the people of Maopuwei had a dream. They wanted to move away the rocks and clear the land, making a place to settle on this piece of earth. They are now long dead, but their dream is not. This group of foolish monkeys is still working to carry forth that dream of their ancestors.
Newlyweds stand before a thatched cottage, in a photo commemorating the beginning of their family life. The earliest immigrants to Taiwan had to rely on these little cottages to keep out the elements.
Old farmers act as professors to architecture students learning how to cut thatch grass.
Before them a field of thatch grass waves in the wind, while in the mountains there are Formosan palm, grass ferns, and Themeda triandra-common materials for thatched cottages. An elder from Maopuwei calls all this "innately natural."
Drawing pictures of thatch grass in detail teaches one the relationship between architecture and nature, something that cannot be learned in the classroom.
This is how you tie up roof thatch-it'll be your turn to try in a minute.
Blue sky and a thatched cottage-anyone would want to reside in this English country cottage, living the idealized rural life.
(photo by Li Juei-tsung)
There are vegetables sun-drying outside the cottage, as well as a bamboo grove for materials to maintain the structure. The roof has been fixed up many times over the years, and thatch put up at different times now shows different colors. (photo by Lai Chih-chang)
This thatched house was the "origin of prosperity" for the Lin family of Wufeng, who became an established official family in the Qing dynasty. (photo courtesy of Lai Chih-chang)
At this thatched pavilion built at a village crossroads, passing truck drivers stop to rest and chat.
If the lifestyle is there, then the "spirit" will naturally follow, and only then can thatched cottages really be preserved in their original form.
The completion of a thatched cottage marks the extension of the dream of the "foolish monkeys," as early Maopuwei settlers were dubbed; it is also part of the current dream of building a naturalistic paradise.