American architect builds dreams under Great Wall

The factory turned hotel designed by Jim Spear in suburban Beijing welcomes guests in early November. [Photo/Xinhua]

Walking along the Great Wall is a once-in-a-lifetime dream for many, but Jim Spear has taken it one step further, spending the last 18 years living in a village beneath the ancient wonder.

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

One of the symbols of China, the Great Wall is actually a series of interconnected walls that extend for a total of 21,000 kilometers, some of which are 2,000 years old.

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

Today, along with his wife, Tang Liang, Spear calls Mutianyu village home.

In this quiet place, located at the foot of the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall about 80 km from Beijing, they live with their dog in a home with a courtyard garden they renovated themselves, which includes a design studio.

Spear’s interest in China began during college when he took a class taught by a Chinese specialist. His fascination deepened when he met his wife-to-be, Tang, in 1980, and married her two years later.

Spear, moved from the United States to Beijing 37 years ago, poses in Mutianyu village. [Photo/Xinhua]

In 1986, he decided to drop out of his doctoral studies in Chinese politics at the University of California, Berkeley, and move 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,” he says.

He still vividly remembers the moment he stepped off the airplane, and felt an instant connection to the place he had longed to visit. “The country was wild, full of all different kinds of people,” he says. “It was very vibrant.”

He says that it was fate that led him to settle beneath the Great Wall. In the 1990s, he and his wife discovered their future home in Mutianyu after a chance encounter with Li Fengquan, who tried to sell him a T-shirt.

“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 recalls telling Li.

“I’ll help you,” replied the person who would later become a lifelong friend.

Within a few days, Li had 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, which comes with multiple views of the Great Wall.

“In the mist, fog, or clouds, it is always beautiful,” Spear says. “Seeing the Great Wall every day reminds me of how great people here can be; when they’re organized and when they have a purpose together, great things can be accomplished.”

Spear is more commonly known locally by his Chinese name Sa Yang. He says that “Yang” means “ocean,” and symbolizes his broad-minded character.

Village life can be challenging and for the 500-plus Mutianyu residents, Spear was 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 says.

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

This motivated the architect to explore ways of supporting rural residents.

After looking into the matter, he leased an abandoned schoolhouse and turned it into a restaurant and glass art factory to make it sustainable. He also renovated an old tile factory in Beigou, the village next to Mutianyu, and turned it into the Brickyard hotel.

In recognition of his contributions, Spear was given the Great Wall Friendship Award by the Beijing government in 2014.

Incorporating exposed beams, locally sourced materials like glazed tiles, elegantly arranged antiques, modern bathrooms and kitchens, Spear’s design reflects a talent for fusing traditional and modern elements.

Li Lianting says that the architect has helped renovate around 20 households in Mutianyu, some of which now operate as hotels or restaurants, while doing his best to preserve the original structures as much as possible.

Spear’s approach to his work is far from straightforward, as he has devoted considerable time to studying traditional Chinese architecture. He has explored the work of well-known architects like Liang Sicheng and has even delved into feng shui, the Chinese study of geomantic omens used to determine the auspicious location and orientation of buildings and rooms.

“The Great Wall inspires me in many ways to this very day,” he says when asked if his architectural work draws inspiration from the imposing structure.

However, he emphasizes that adopting a Great Wall style doesn’t mean building fortifications, but rather that his approach involves designs that echo the wall, but don’t copy it.

Spear sees plenty of possibilities in China, driven by significant domestic demand and a growing emphasis on preserving historical structures.

“Part of my heart is in the US and always will be. But I love living here. I like China,” he says.

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