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Bridges Burned

The collapse of the ancient Wan’an Bridge in a fire has caused an irrevocable loss to China’s age-old craft of bridge construction as some ask if it is worth rebuilding

By Wu Jin , Li Jing Updated Jan.1

The ruins of Wan’an Bridge in Pingnan County, Ningde City, Fujian Province, August 7, 2022. Fire destroyed the bridge the previous evening (Photo by VCG)

Wan’an Bridge pictured in October 2002 (Photo by VCG)

The bucolic scenery of Wan’an wooden arch corridor bridge in Pingnan County, Ningde city, Southeastern China’s Fujian Province, is a strong memory for Liu Jie, an architecture professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. He has visited there often since his first trip in 2000, and still remembers how the cool breeze passing through the wooden benches at dusk in the summer feels. Villagers chat on the bridge until the day’s heat abates. Beneath them, a boy feeds his cattle after the water retreats from the river shoal. First built more than 900 years ago at 98.2 meters long, Wan’an was the longest wooden arch bridge in China.  

On the night of August 6, 2022, a fire engulfed the bridge and reduced it to ruins in about 20 minutes. Firefighters managed to extinguish the blaze after 90 minutes. The cause of the fire is under investigation, the Publicity Office of Pingnan County announced the next morning, and so far, no more information has been announced. Footage from a security camera shows people tried to extinguish the flames with buckets of water before firefighters arrived. Five of the six spans were destroyed, leaving only part of the corridor and roof at the eastern end.  

In its 900-year history, the bridge was restored many times in the wake of floods and fires. The last was in 1932 when the bridge was transformed from a cantilever to an arched one. In 2009, “Traditional design and practices for building Chinese wooden arch bridges” was added to the UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Safeguarding. In 2012, 22 wooden arch bridges, including Wan’an, were included in China’s Tentative List for World Heritage. All 22 bridges are in Zhejiang and Fujian provinces in East China, but they have not yet been listed by UNESCO as a heritage site.  

“Since it epitomized China’s wooden arcade corridor bridges, the destruction of [Wan’an] will lead to a loss of powerful evidence of unique bridge-building craftsmanship,” Liu Jie told NewsChina. And for locals, the bridge, connecting the two sides of the Longjiang River, played a central role in preserving the idyllic landscape and traditional lifestyle, Liu said. 

Reconstruct or Not? 
Restoration is easy technically. But the collapse triggered a heated debate on whether a structure remains historically valuable if it is rebuilt after complete destruction, and how ancient wooden bridges, which have been overlooked in terms of cultural heritage, should be better protected.  

The earliest record of Wan’an Bridge was found in a chronicle compiled in the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). According to historical records, the bridge was first built in 1091 during China’s Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). An inscribed tablet wedged in the stone-made central pier reads the name Jiang Zhen, who funded its construction to honor the wishes of his dead parents and pray for the safety of his family and himself. Prominent families and other local people would donate funds to build bridges and roads as important transportation infrastructure and public space. According to feng shui, or geomancy, a bridge built upstream from a village should lock in water, preventing money from being swept away, while a bridge downstream prevents disaster. Since ancient times, Chinese people believed that donating money to build roads and bridges shows a kind heart and brings them good luck. Today, residents still raise money for new bridges, but not to restore old ones, Chinese media reported.  

The bridge earned the name Wan’an, which means “universal peace,” when a craftsman who was working on its restoration in 1932 allegedly fell off into the river below. He apparently survived to tell the tale. Before that, it was called Rainbow Bridge, although locals always referred to it as Long Bridge – the nearby town and village are both called Changqiao (Long Bridge).  

There are only 120 wooden arcade bridges in China now, and most are in the mountains and valleys across Zhejiang and Fujian provinces. The six oldest bridges, including Wan’an, can trace their origins to the early Song Dynasty (960-1279). Their styles are similar to the humpbacked Rainbow Bridge, depicted in the famous ancient scroll painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival attributed to artist Zhang Zeduan (1085-1145) of the Northern Song Dynasty. The original is a national treasure kept in the collection of Beijing’s Palace Museum, although copies were made during later dynasties.  

The painting depicts a bustling river scene in the Song capital, present-day Kaifeng, Henan Province, during a festival. The single-arch bridge soars across the river, with vendors selling their wares from stalls along both sides of the bustling span. Many thought the bridge had to come from the artist’s imagination, and could not possibly have been real.  

It is possible the bridge in the painting, if it existed, was the zenith of woodenbridge building in the Song Dynasty, and the last of its kind. Some Chinese bridge construction experts set out to find how the bridge could have been built, and if there were any early examples of other bridges that still displayed such craftmanship.  

In 1953, when the original painting was first publicly displayed, a young bridge architect called Tang Huancheng was stunned by the beauty of the Rainbow Bridge. The bridge is described in “The Reminiscence of the Eastern Capital,” an essay written in the Southern Song Dynasty as: “The bridge, constituting colossal wood planks with no pillars for support, arches like a rainbow.”  

Tang, who was involved in designing the iconic first Wuhan Yangtze River Bridge which was completed in 1957, endeavored to search for a prototype of the bridge he saw in the painting. In 1980, he and his colleagues found Meichong Bridge in Jingning, home to the She ethnic group in Southwestern Zhejiang Province. They later discovered nearly 200 wooden arch bridges in Zhejiang and Fujian provinces where the long-lost ancient art of woodcraft survived. Six of them, including Wan’an, were originally built during the Song Dynasty. Still more precious, Wan’an was the only bridge in Pingnan that could prove its history by inscriptions in the stonework.  

During a study he undertook in the past decade, Liu Yan, a deputy professor of the School of Architecture and City Planning at Kunming University of Science and Technology, Yunnan Province, compared the painting with field studies of wooden bridges. He found the bridge depicted in the Song painting would have been very expensive to build and would have needed government funding. Because of the hefty cost, such bridges fell out of favor following the fall of the Northern Song Dynasty. By contrast, the ancient bridges discovered in the mountainous Zhejiang and Fujian Provinces were built in simpler and more frugal ways. 

Weaving Communities 
Sitting astride the Longjiang River, the six-arch Wan’an Bridge was 98.2 meters long and 4.7 meters wide. The wooden beams were “interwoven” length and width-wise to shape the arch. Above the flat deck, 156 columns supported the roof of rafters and purlins, horizontal beams that give structural support. All the joints were traditional mortise and tenon without the use of a single nail. One piece – the tenon, fits into another – the mortise. Beams shaped in “X” scissor forks are interlocked to keep the structure stable.  

The process of building bridges like this has been described as “weaving beams.” The whole structure is not stable until the last joint dovetails. This makes construction dangerous. “It is amazing the craftsmen could complete it in the mountains without steel scaffolds for support,” Liu Yan said.  

Following the restoration in 1932, the bridge had 156 pillars and 38 open sections flanked by two rows of benches. It had a double pitched roof and at the bottom stood stone-made piers. Its arches spanned widths from 10.6 to 15.2 meters. On its northwestern corner protruded a pavilion with double eaves. However, only the central stone pier with the inscription formed part of the original bridge built during the Song. 

Nobody knows what it looked like before the restoration in 1932 as the bridge had already been restored several times. The last renovation started in 2014.  

The value of wooden arch bridges not only lies in craftsmanship, but they are still hugely important to the communities that surround them. In addition to shielding passersby from the rain and providing benches for rest, the bridges serve as community meeting places. Altars are installed for local rituals where incense and joss sticks are burned, and even firecrackers during festivals, which pose their own safety risks.  

As a result, some bridges have burned down because of incense sticks or firecrackers. In 2001, Wan’an Bridge was almost destroyed by a firecracker during Lunar New Year celebrations.  

A research paper in July 2020 by Ronald G. Knapp, distinguished professor emeritus, State University of New York, Terry E. Miller, professor emeritus, Kent State University and Liu Jie, based on their co-authored book China’s Covered Bridges, Architecture over Water, explores how covered bridges in China functioned differently from covered bridges in Europe and North America. It highlights Chinese bridges as community centers, especially as markets and places of places of worship.  

“You won’t forget the harmonious and nostalgic rural life around the bridge from the first moment you see it. That is probably where our hearts should rest,” Liu Jie told NewsChina.  

The material gathered for the UNESCO listing makes special mention of the role these bridges play in the community. “The cultural space created by traditional Chinese arch bridges has provided an environment for encouraging communication, understanding and respect among human beings,” it said. 

Zhen’an Bridge in Pucheng County, Fujian Province (Photo by VCG)

Thousands of people from the Miao ethnic group in Sansui County, Guizhou Province, perform a dragon dance on Jielong Bridge to celebrate the annual Bridge Sacrificial Festival on March 21, 2015 (Photo by IC)

Irrevocable Loss 
Floods and fires have been a constant threat to wooden bridges. According to local records, many bridges in southern Zhejiang and Fujian were destroyed. In 2006, Baixiang Bridge in Pingnan burned down, although it was restored in 2011 using traditional techniques. Five years later, Yuqing Bridge, a State-level cultural relic in Wuyishan, Fujian Province, collapsed due to a fire. In 2016, floods caused by Typhoon Meranti destroyed three wooden bridges in Quanzhou, Fujian Province. Altogether, the typhoon destroyed nine wooden bridges in Zhejiang and Fujian. Experts said that because the bridges have no metal fixings, they become buoyant so when the water level rises the wooden beams disconnect and may float away.  

Based on early Qing Dynasty (1644- 1911) documents, Liu Yan found that wooden arcade bridges should be refurbished or restored every 50 to 100 years. He told NewsChina that their demise seems to be predestined, even in modern times.  

Because most wooden arcade bridges were built along ancient routes among sparsely populated mountainous areas, it is hard to monitor their safety. When wooden structures catch fire, it takes a long time for fire trucks to arrive. Some bridges may only be reached by footpath.  

Therefore, preventive facilities, measures and systems plus public awareness of safety against fire risks will be more efficient than pinning hopes on firefighters to rescue them on time, Liu Jie told NewsChina.  

Pingnan has called for joint efforts to protect its bridges. On July 27, 2021, local courts and cultural and tourist bureaus signed an agreement focusing on bridge protection. According to the protocol, combustible items, cooking and overnight stays are prohibited on the bridges. With this renewed focus on safety, the Wan’an fire shocked everyone.  

According to an expert from Beijing Palace Museum Cultural Relics Protection Company, the way craftsmanship was passed down, either orally or through personal demonstration between masters and apprentices or within local clan groups, is part of the cultural heritage of bridge construction.  

Members of a clan with the surname Huang have been in charge of the restoration of Wan’an Bridge since 1932. “I’m heartbroken; something my ancestors built was lost in the fire,” Huang Chuncai, now in his 80s, told news outlet The Paper. His two sons, a grandson and 10 apprentices all specialize in wooden bridge construction now. His son Huang Minhui said it would take about eight months to rebuild Wan’an Bridge if his whole team worked together.  

However, the contentious point is whether cultural and historic value can be salvaged even if a bridge is restored to its original appearance using traditional techniques.  

During his field research, Liu Yan noted that many stones on restored bridges are coarse and the beams are pitted and cracked. He questions whether the replicas produced by modern tools and materials in a totally different environment with changed mindsets can truly embody the essence of original bridges. He pointed to the techniques that should be used to preserve the wood used to make bridge beams. Liu said the beams are supposed to be dried for three years before use in case they crack. Although the approach is tried and tested, it is not followed today. “Now the beams are used less than a month after the wood is cut. That’s why the wood cracks,” he added. 

“Restoration won’t revive the historic value of the destroyed structures, even if the replacement strictly follows the ageold techniques,” the anonymous Palace Museum architect said. “Unless a critical part of the architecture can be preserved, it will be of no use to preserve its historical values,” he added.

Part of the scroll painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival highlights the bustling scene on the Rainbow Bridge, which for many years historians thought could not have existed (Photo by VCG)