Into Chinese Culture: American architect builds dreams under Great Wall-Xinhua

Into Chinese Culture: American architect builds dreams under Great Wall

Source: Xinhua

Editor: huaxia

2023-12-01 10:55:45

This photo taken on Nov. 8, 2023 shows the Brickyard Hotel designed by American architect Jim Spear in Beigou Village of Huairou District in Beijing, capital of China. (Photo by Wang Zilu/Xinhua)

by Xinhua writers Cheng Lu and Wang Jian

BEIJING, Dec. 1 (Xinhua) -- While scaling the Great Wall is a once-in-a-lifetime dream for many, Jim Spear has taken it a step further, spending the last 18 years as a villager residing beneath this ancient wonder.

"As a boy, I didn't know much about China, but I did know there was a Great Wall," said 68-year-old Spear, a self-taught architect from the United States. "Never did I dream back then that I would have the chance to visit the Great Wall, let alone live under it."

Spear and his wife, Tang Liang, call Mutianyu Village, situated at the foot of the Great Wall's Mutianyu section, their home.

In this serene village, around 80 km from downtown Beijing, they cherish various valuable possessions, such as a personally renovated home with a courtyard garden, a design studio, an enclosed scooter, and a dog.

The Great Wall, a symbol of China, consists of many interconnected walls, some dating back 2,000 years. The existing sections have a total length of over 21,000 km.

It was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, just a year after Spear made the most important decision in his life to move to China.


Spear's interest in China began during his college days when he took a class taught by a Chinese specialist. This fascination deepened when he met Tang, a Chinese girl, in 1980, and they got married two years later.

In 1986, he decided to drop out of his doctoral studies in Chinese politics at the University of California, Berkeley, and moved to China "to get to the heart of things."

"I realized that if I became a scholar of China, based overseas, I wouldn't be able to experience what was happening in China," Spear said.

He still vividly remembers the first time he stepped off the airplane, feeling an instant connection to the place he had longed for. "The country was wild, full of all different kinds of people," he said. "It was very, very vibrant."

According to Spear, it was fate that led him to establish deep roots beneath the Great Wall. In the 1990s, he and Tang discovered their future permanent home in Mutianyu after a chance encounter with Li Fengquan, a villager and vendor, who attempted to sell a T-shirt to him.

"I'm sorry. I'm not interested in buying a souvenir today, but I have to tell you I envy you living in such a beautiful place near the Great Wall," Spear told Li. "I'll help you," replied the Chinese peasant, who later became Spear's lifelong friend.

Within just a few days, Li helped the couple secure a long-term lease for a traditional village farmhouse and a nearby piece of land in Mutianyu.

For nearly 10 years, Spear and Tang spent their weekends at this idyllic location before deciding to make it their full-time home in 2005.

As an architect, Spear used his expertise to renovate his dream house from where multiple vantage points of the Great Wall are visible.

"In mist, fog, or clouds, it is always beautiful," he said. "When I see the Great Wall every single day, it reminds me of great people here, and when they're organized and when they have a purpose together, great things are accomplished."


Spear is more commonly known by his Chinese name Sa Yang among the locals. He explained that "Yang" means "ocean," symbolizing his broad-minded character,

Village life can be challenging to integrate into. Among the 500-plus Mutianyu villagers, Spear was considered a "double foreigner" -- both an American and an urbanite.

"My starting point is that I respect the people who live in the village around me," he said.

Shortly after embracing full-time village life, he was approached by village head Li Lianting, who explained that Mutianyu was rapidly losing residents and badly in need of local enterprises.

This motivated the American architect to explore ways to support those residing in rural areas.

After research, he leased and transformed an abandoned schoolhouse into a restaurant and art glass factory for a sustainable tourism business. He also renovated a former tile factory in Beigou, the village next to Mutianyu, turning it into a hotel named the Brickyard.

In recognition of his important contributions, Spear received the Great Wall Friendship Award from the Beijing government in 2014.

Incorporating exposed beams, locally sourced materials like glazed tiles, elegantly arranged antiques, and modern bathrooms and kitchens, Spear's designs reflect his natural talent for fusing traditional and modern elements.

According to Li Lianting, Spear has helped renovate over 20 households in Mutianyu, some now operating as hotels or restaurants, all while "adhering to the principle of preserving the original structures as much as possible."

Spear's approach to work is far from straightforward, as he has devoted considerable time to studying traditional Chinese architecture. He delved into the works of renowned architects like Liang Sicheng and even explored Fengshui, a traditional Chinese study of geomantic omens used to find auspicious locations for buildings.

"The Great Wall inspires me in many ways to this very day," said Spear when asked if his architectural works draw inspiration from the ancient wonder.

However, he emphasized that adopting the Great Wall style doesn't mean building simple walls resembling fortification. Instead, his approach involves creating designs and views "that echo the Great Wall, not copy it."

Talking about the future, Spear sees abundant possibilities in China, driven by significant domestic demand and a growing emphasis on preserving historic structures.

"Part of my heart is in the United States and always will be. But I love living here. I like China," he said. Enditem

(Xinhua correspondents Ma Xiaodong, Tian Chenxu, Wei Mengjia and intern Wang Zilu contributed to the story.)

American architect Jim Spear is seen at the yard of his home in Mutianyu Village of Huairou District in Beijing, capital of China, Nov. 9, 2023. (Photo by Wang Zilu/Xinhua)