Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Image and Identity in Chinese Historic Houses

How and to what extent the historic house (re-)constructs identity through image-making in China.

2021 - 2025
Chi Zhang
CSC (China Scholarship Council) - Leiden University Scholarship CSC (China Scholarship Council) - Leiden University Scholarship


Historic houses, or historic residences, are normally defined as old physical dwellings that people used to live in. This doctoral research focuses on image- and identity-shaping in historic houses in China. As heritagescapes where people’s personal lives are displayed, historic houses create personal images. This kind of personal image is a (re-)constructed figure that is pigeonholed and that deviates from past identities. This research will seek to understand this (re-)construction in historic-house heritage practices, with an emphasis on how the (re-)construction of personal image resonates with or is dissonant from the identity of former residents.  

Materials and methods

This research engages with the concept of heritagescape to understand historic houses within a larger physical environment and wider social context. Applying this concept allows us to examine the dwelling sites as landscapes where different components are rallied and interrelated by guiding principles of boundaries, cohesion, and visibility. In the case of historical houses, the building itself, the furnishings, former residents, engaged stakeholders, and recounted anecdotes, can all be regarded as components comprising particular landscapes of house sites, offering room for a variety of perspectives and interpretations. 

Moreover, this study of the relationship between heritage practice concerning historic houses and the (re-)construction of personal image is informed by an ethnographically-driven exploration of historic houses and personal image and identity, which employs a mixture of participant observation, semi-structured interviews, and oral history methods. This ethnographically-driven method will be combined with historiographic analysis and applied in a comparative study of image- and identity-shaping. By doing so, this research is expected to indicate what the cultural and social impacts of image- and identity-shaping are and why (re-)construction of personal image is important in the present. 

By examining the interaction between heritage practices and their different social actors, this doctoral research project will shed light on how national heritage discourse is fostering a specific history through image-shaping in historic houses, and how ‘unofficial’ communities can retain relations of 'cultural intimacy' to create a multi-faceted personal image from the perspective of local history. Preliminary field research indicates this interaction is complex and a need to consider heritage practices in forming collective memory, family history, and local history, and how these historical narratives are integrated into official historic narratives. 

The topic of historic houses is a relatively unexplored topic in critical heritage studies. So far, most academic research on historic houses concentrates on house museology, heritage sanctioning, and collective memory-making, showing how constructed narratives are exhibited to targeted audiences.

However, a pivotal feature of historic houses that has been overlooked is the way the personal or family image (re-)constructed by historic house narratives can be misleading and deviate from past identities. This doctoral research considers these (re-)constructed personal images, examining heritage practices concerning historic houses in a theoretical framework of critical heritage studies and with a focus on collective memory-making. 

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