Quanzhou Introduction
Plan for urban conservation
Neighborhoods and streets
Architectural vocabulary
Redevelopment planning projects

Introduction to Quanzhou

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Quanzhou (pronounced to English-speakers like "Chwen-Joe") is a prefectural-level city in Fujian Province on the southeast coast of China, facing Taiwan across the Strait.

Quanzhou is now only a medium-sized urban centre, but this port city was once one of China's principal windows on the world. Founded in the Tang Dynasty in the early 8th century AD, Quanzhou ascended in commercial importance following the destruction of the southern port of Guangzhou (Canton) in the ninth century.

The city was known then as "Zaytun," after the Chinese name for the tropical Paulownia, or Tung tree ("citong"), which is common throughout Southeast Asia, and grows at its northernmost latitude in Quanzhou.

The port reached its height of prosperity in the Mongol Yuan dynasty during the 13th century. At that time, the North African traveler Ibn Battuta compared it to the Egyptian port of Alexandria. Marco Polo described it as "one of the largest and most commodious ports of the world". It became a center of the Islamic, Hindu, and Manichean faiths in China, as well as the site of important Buddhist and Taoist temples.

Quanzhou was so cosmopolitan that its well-established communities of Persian and Arab merchants even maintained their own militias here. After these forces rebelled against the Mongols in the late thirteenth century, however, the city suffered a ferocious backlash against its foreign traders. Then in the fourteenth century, the anti-trade policies of the Ming dynasty sealed the great port's doom. By the nineteenth century, Quanzhou was eclipsed by its neighbours, Xiamen (also known as Amoy) and Fuzhou, both "treaty ports" that expanded greatly during the era of European colonialism.

As its commercial fortunes waned, Quanzhou's importance as a place of departure for many overseas Chinese families increased. The city is one of the three points of the so-called "Min Nan triangle," which defines the linguistic region from which Southeast Asia's Hokkien-speaking population originate. An estimated 40% or more of Taiwan's Han ethnic population trace their ancestry back to Quanzhou. The government and the residents of Quanzhou still enjoy many valuable connections to overseas Chinese communities, especially across the straits to Taiwan and throughout Southeast Asia. City officials claim that more than five million overseas Chinese look to Quanzhou or its surrounding region as their place of origin.

The city of Quanzhou today is situated within a six-county prefectural-level administrative district with a population of approximately six million. This includes a municipal core with a population of around one half million; within this is the city proper (also known as Licheng) which includes the Old City, a densely built 7-square-kilometer district with between 160,000 and 200,000 inhabitants. Confusion over population numbers is due largely to high rates of migration. Officials estimate that in 1993 the "floating population" of unregistered or "temporary" migrants from elsewhere added another 800,000 people to the six county region (an additional 13%) and 40-50,000 to the population of the old city. The migrants who comprise the floating population are drawn by the rapid expansion of the city's economy, driven in large part by commercial investment of overseas Chinese capital.

In 1995, Tao Tao, a planner and analyst of Quanzhou's development at Tsinghua University, described the city's situation thus:

"For more than a decade now, Quanhou's economy has been developing rapidly. In 1992 the municipality's GNP represented 18% of the entire GNP of Fujian Province. Within the Min Nan "Golden Triangle" formed by Quanzhou, Xiamen and Zhangzhou municipalities, Quanzhou's GNP represents 41.66% of the whole. From 1980 to 1992 Quanzhou's GNP increased 19.1% and per capita income increased 21.4%. Commerce has also developed rapidly, with total retail trade in 1992 amounting to 84 times the 1980 basis of RMB 810,000,000. Rapid economic growth has pushed the development of the real estate industry. With all the land designated by the city's 1988 master plan for new development already leased out, the real estate developers' antennae are feeling their way into the historic district."

Formal and Informal Redevelopment in Quanzhou

City officials have responded to the recent influx of capital with a major program of urban renewal, including widening of roads, provision of new major infrastructure, rebuilding of inner-city housing and the creation of new housing complexes to the east of the city in order to reduce overall crowding in the Old City. Financing for what amounts to a complete rebuilding of the city is derived largely from rent-in-kind charges from foreign investors based on imputed land values for their new projects. A Taiwanese investor, for example, may agree to cover the costs of sewer construction for one part of the city in exchange for development and long-term lease rights for certain properties in the city. However, the impact of this development on the historic fabric of the Old City has been enormous. Moreover, there seems to have been extensive overbuilding since the end of the real estate boom of the early 1990s, and some of the more ambitious redevelopment projects have been slow to realize returns on investment.

Now many municipal and civic leaders have doubts about the viability of the drastic "clean-slate" approach to redevelopment. For reasons of economy as well as preservation, alternatives are being explored.

Simultaneous to the formal process of urban spatial restructuring through the official allocation of urban land for foreign investment, we can also witness in Quanzhou the effects of informal, household-level investment. Many families throughout the old city are rebuilding their houses with either remittances from overseas relatives or from profits earned in the rapidly expanding commercial economy of the region. What once were one or two storey buildings along the city's main streets are now being torn down and replaced with four and five storey structures, responding to the growing market for commercial office space on the lower floors while providing long-time residents with expanding living space above. Along the city's residential back alleys, four and five story apartment buildings are being built with family-based private capital, responding to the incipient rental housing market, which is itself an outgrowth of the floating population phenomenon.

The residential building stock is therefore shifting from the traditional one-storey Min Nan courtyard house to what local residents refer to as "self-built" multi-storey houses - often very good quality, modern structures of masonry and concrete, built by small, independent contractors employed directly by the households. This kind of "densification" is actually a relatively longstanding and continuous practice, with its roots in the villas built by wealthier families before 1949. Nonetheless, it has greatly accelerated in the past few years.

The map below shows the distribution of concentrations of different types and quality of housing in the Old City of Quanzhou. It shows conditions circa 1992. Housing of "good quality" includes both recent self-built housing of durable structure (masonry or reinforced concrete) as well as vernacular housing of historic or aesthetic value. Housing of "poor quality" includes any self-built housing which was not considered by the surveyors to have either cultural value or structural integrity (mainly wood and earth construction, or masonry construction that is not earthquake resistant). "New planned apartments or villas" includes planned estates of multi-story walkup apartment buildings built mainly for state or work unit employees in the 1980s, plus the planned subdivision of villa plots laid out for returned Overseas Chinese in 1954. Finally, "Unplanned peripheral self-built" housing includes newer housing built on the margins of the Old City, often to greater heights and densities than allowed by the official city plan.

Housing in Quanzhou's Old City

It should be noted that the areas shown on the map only indicate a predominance of one or another of the housing types described above. In fact, any given neighborhood contains a mix of these types, with a tendency for poor and old housing everywhere to be replaced by larger and sturdier "unplanned" self-built houses. Also, in a number of areas shown in the Planned Redevelopment pages, much of the old housing considered historic and aesthetically valuable has been demolished by large-scale construction since this survey.

The text above was based on Planning for Urban Redevelopment in Quanzhou, Fujian, China: A Report from the 1994 Field Studio in International Development Planning of the UBC School of Community and Regional Planning, by Prof. Michael Leaf and students, March 1995. Additional material was included from "Problems in the Implementation of Quanzhou’s Old City Redevelopment Plan," a paper given at the International Conference on Renewal and Development in Housing Areas of Traditional Chinese and European Cities in Xi'an, China, by Tao Tao, July 6-18, 1995.

These web pages are mainly an exposition of Quanzhou's self-building tradition. At present the bulk of this material is displayed in Neighborhoods and streets and the Vocabulary of Vernacular Architecture.

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Last updated: 02/02/1999
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