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The strategy of traditional Chinese settlement digitization: a landscape gene information chain theory-based perspective


Traditional Chinese settlements (TCSs) embody millennia of human and cultural history, with the core culture serving as their essence. However, any damage incurred by these TCSs can result in the loss of core culture. In the era of China’s digital transformation, there has recently been a significant push toward digital reforms within TCSs. Thus, this paper introduces a traditional settlement digitalization (TSD) framework with a specific focus on enhancing the preservation of TCS landscape gene through the perspective of landscape gene information chain theory. This research uses the Nanxun traditional settlement (TS), Huzhou, Zhejiang, China, the first TS listed as a World Cultural Heritage Site in China, as a case study, extracting and identifying the area landscape gene and digital visualization status. This article identifies the landscape gene information chain of the Nanxun TS and redesigns its digital visualization and application scheme under the TSD framework. This study reveals the notion of a digital landscape gene characterized by four key attributes: identical, interactive, immersive, and intelligent. The results of this study will help guide the sustainable protection, application and planning of the Nanxun TS and promote the study of other sections of landscape gene theory. This research not only contributes to the development of landscape gene information chain theory but also provides guidance for the digital transformation of other TCSs and cultural heritage sites.


Traditional Chinese settlements (TCSs) contain thousands of years of human and cultural history. As a part of historical and cultural heritage, these settlements hold immense historical, cultural, economic, and scientific value. The core culture is the soul of traditional settlements (TSs), which preserve the living characteristics, landscape features, and rich cultural heritage of generations of villagers [1,2,3]. However, any damage incurred by these TCSs can result in the loss of core culture, consequently impacting the sustainable conservation and revitalization of cultural heritage. The extreme vulnerability of the landscape culture heritage of TCSs has become an international consensus [4], and people have long debated how to preserve and develop TSs.

Since the 1990s, digital technology has been applied in the field of cultural landscape protection, and the digitization of cultural heritage has yielded fruitful outcomes [5]. With advancements in digital technologies, there has been a surge in their application across various aspects of TCSs, such as digital documentation and acquisition, protection and monitoring, landscape analysis, assessment, and visualization [6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13]. As a result, digital technology is becoming a hot topic in the field of TS research. According to previous reviews, digital technology application systems for TSs can be divided into digital preservation, digital records and acquisitions, digital management systems, and digital visualization and display [14,15,16]. This paper mainly focuses on TCS digital visualization.

As shown in the literature review above, most of the related research has focused on digital acquisition and storage. However, the digital conservation of the TCS cultural landscape gene, a living heritage trait that integrates elements of both tangible and intangible cultural landscapes and contains multiple attributes, has not been thoroughly explored. Specifically, a systematic understanding of how to preserve core culture when conducting TCS digitization is still lacking. Few studies have examined the interaction between TCS digitization and its core culture preservation, and research that explores the interaction between TCS protection and digitization from the perspective of cultural landscape gene preservation is even rarer. Therefore, exploring the digitization logic path of TCS core culture preservation has become an important issue in this context.

Considering this context, the digitization logic path for preserving the core culture of TCS has become an essential issue. Nanxun, a pivotal node of China's Grand Canal World Heritage Site and China's first TS listed as a World Cultural Heritage, serves as a prime example. Despite its authenticity and rich history, the urban history of the Nanxun TS has not been comprehensively documented [17], yet it has already gained international recognition as a tourist destination since the 1980s. Under the nationwide wave of digital transformation, Nanxun has initiated vigorous digital reforms, but dedicated studies on how digital technology can better serve the recognition and preservation of its cultural heritage attributes are lacking. Therefore, it is essential to protect Nanxun from a holistic perspective to balance possible changes and ensure its sustainable development in the future with digital technology.

Through this research, we aim to provide a comprehensive understanding of the landscape gene of the Nanxun TS and propose a digital visualization and application scheme that can enhance the preservation and promotion of its cultural heritage. By utilizing digital technology, we can create a more immersive and interactive experience for visitors while also ensuring the sustainable development of the Nanxun TS for future generations. This paper explores the TS digitalization framework of conservation landscape genes from the perspective of landscape gene information chain (LGIC) theory. The concept of a landscape digital gene (LDG) is proposed, and its “4I” characteristic is further described.

By focusing on LGIC theory and introducing the concepts of the TSD framework and LDG, we hope to pave the way for further studies on the conservation and digitalization of TSs and cultural heritage sites. This research will not only benefit the Nanxun TS but also serve as a guide for the preservation and promotion of other TSs worldwide.

Questions and aims

This study aims to establish a digitization strategy for TCSs grounded in LGIC theory. This paper explains the applicability of LGIC theory in the digitization process and establishes a comprehensive framework for a digitization strategy. Ultimately, we hope to promote the preservation of cultural heritage and sustainable development of the TCS. To achieve this aim, this study addresses the following questions:

  • Q1. When a traditional settlement is being digitized, will the TCS core culture gene be deleted or destroyed?

  • Q2. In the process of traditional settlements being digitized, how do we preserve the TCS landscape genes?

  • Q3. What are the features of digital genes when traditional settlements are digitized?

  • Q4. What kind of framework should be followed when presenting traditional settlements in terms of digital visualization?

Literature review

The term “landscape gene” is derived from the concept of “gene” in biology. At the end of the twentieth century, inspired by genetics, Western scholars created the concept of cultural genes in the field of culture.

Through comparative analysis with biological genes, they explored the basic unit of cultural inheritance and its change rule and obtained fruitful results. American geographer C.0 Sauer first proposed the concept of a “cultural landscape” in his book Landscape Morphology in 1925 [18].

In his book, Sauer advocated the study of the characteristics of human geography in a particular region from the perspective of cultural genes.

British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins argued that the most fundamental factor in the transmission of culture is “meme” [19]. Kate Distin expanded and strengthened the memetics theory and first proposed the concept of “cultural DNA” [20]. Daniel Dennett further elaborated on the evolutionary process of memes, arguing that the transmission law of cultural genes is the same as that of biological evolution and includes both inheritance and variation [21]. Edward O Wilson attempted to link the form of a culture with the genetic structure of the population and created a series of concepts including “Meme” and “Culturgen” [22]. Lachlan argued that culture tends to select genes that it can incorporate [23].

In 2003, Chinese geographer PL Liu first proposed the concept of cultural landscape genes, which explains that landscape genes are the basic units of cultural ‘genetics’. Landscape gene theory refers to the “genetic gene” element in the field of biology and holds that a cultural landscape gene is the basic unit of a “genetic” cultural landscape. Different landscapes, such as those of individual organisms, have their own unique genetic and cultural characteristics [24]. They are unique genetic factors that distinguish cultural landscapes and have a decisive role in cultural landscape formation, giving each its own identity [25]. PL Liu argued that the core factors of these highly identifiable landscapes can be regarded as a type of gene, and the combination of a series of strongly related landscape genes constitutes a genome [26]. In our search, we considered core culture to be the same as landscape gene. According to landscape gene theory, landscape genes are identified according to the principles of intrinsic uniqueness, external uniqueness, local uniqueness and overall advantage. According to these identification rules, Z Hu developed a set of indicators to identify the landscape gene characteristics of intangible culture from a semiotic perspective, such as cultural beliefs, image characteristics and expression forms [27]. PL Liu also classified landscape genes into dominant genes, recessive genes, major genes, mixed genes, variant genes and attachment genes by form and attribute. Landscape gene theory is widely applied to solve the issues of cultural heritage protection and the inheritance of TCSs, with a primary focus on identifying and extracting landscape genes [28], analyzing landscape gene variation mechanisms [29, 30], and mapping LGICs [31, 32].

Since the introduction of landscape gene theory, a series of methods have been developed to identify cultural factors in TSs. The LGIC was proposed by PL Liu’s team in 2005 when he was planning the traditional mountain dwellings in Qi Kou, Lin County, Shanxi Province.

The LGIC is used to explore the methods of excavating, refining, protecting and demonstrating the genetic information of cultural heritage sites. The three core elements of LGIC include landscape gene elements, landscape gene patches, and landscape gene corridors [33] (see Fig. 1).

Fig. 1
figure 1

The relationship among the core elements of LGIC

The landscape gene element is the most basic landscape gene factor, carrying local cultural memory and cultural genes, and is concretely embodied in the landscape gene patch. A landscape gene information corridor refers to a landscape route that is connected by landscape information patches in a certain combination manner. The landscape information net is composed of multiple intersecting landscape information corridors covering the entire tourist destination [14].

In recent years, the digitization of TCSs has gained increasing attention as a means to preserve their cultural heritage and promote sustainable development. Previous studies have explored various aspects of this topic, focusing on the application of landscape gene theory and digital technologies. However, the scope and depth of these studies have often been limited. For example, while Z. Lin demonstrated the use of 3D laser scanning, UAV photography, and 3D visualization to create digital representations of red tourism resources based on landscape gene theory, their study primarily focused on the technical aspects of digitization [34]. Their research did not adequately address how landscape gene theory was integrated into the digitization process, nor did it consider the broader implications for sustainable management of these sites.

Similarly, P. Du’s work on the digital conservation and revitalization of traditional village cultural landscapes provided a theoretical framework for conservation but lacked practical strategies for implementation [35]. The study did not sufficiently address the challenges of integrating digital technologies into the conservation process or consider the long-term sustainability of these efforts. Thus, a gap between its theoretical and practical integration with digital technologies for thoroughly exploring, scientifically preserving, and rationally utilizing TSs remains. In the process of digitization of TSs, the way in which the landscape gene is preserved has merely been discussed. To address these shortcomings and defects, this paper aims to develop a digitization strategy for TCSs based on LGIC theory.


The research approach involved exploring the framework of TSD and its correlation with LGIC, emphasizing the features of LDG. Furthermore, this study employed the logical framework of gene identification, extraction and landscape gene analysis to identify the LGIC of Nanxun.

As a case study, the Nanxun TS, Huzhou, Zhejiang, China, was investigated. This settlement was selected since it involves high symbolic cultural value and has various forms of TSD. These features made it a relevant case study for interpreting the analysis results and implementing LDG in the future.

Our research sought to compare and evaluate the current Nanxun digital visualization with its core culture (landscape gene). Additionally, a specific renewed digitalization scheme with a TSD framework under LGIC was designed.

Framework of TSD: decoding and coding

As McLuhan argued, “medium is the message”; in other words, the form of a message (print, visual, musical, etc.) determines the ways in which that message will be perceived [26]. As a means of media different from traditional media, digital technology has reconstructed and reproduced cultural heritage in a new way. The transfer of media carriers affects the communication content itself and leads to cultural genes being inherited digitally.

The media transfer of cultural heritage has been a significant concern of cultural institutions and enterprises worldwide since the popularization of digital technology. The cultural landscape, similar to organisms in nature with genes, often has a deep genetic or transmission mechanism [36].

However, according to the gene classification criteria and classification results of landscape gene theory, there is no explanation of genes as media transfer in terms of gene attributes, expression forms, cultural connotations, and spatial analysis scales. The digitization of cultural heritage is not the copying and simple presentation of traditional culture but the reinterpretation of culture [37]. In our research, the digitization of TCSs is also a process of the media transfer of landscape genes. Digital transformation is carried out through the process of the “decoding—translation—coding” framework. (see Fig. 2).

Fig. 2
figure 2

Framework of TSD

In the process of TSD, a new perspective on gene attributes should be used to identify them: landscape digital gene. (LDG). The content of LDG is mainly used to describe a gene attribute as the media transformation of TCSs to highlight the particularity of the understanding of the vulnerability of these settlements.

Decoding is the first step of TSD. The essence of the digitization of TSs is to serve the protection and development of the TCS, which is the path of modernization transformation of the “cultural gene bank”. As the key to unlocking cultural code, the landscape gene principle guides the identification and extraction of cultural genes. In the process of digitization, LDG can also be used for decoding.

TSD decoding includes two decoding strategies: the identification of landscape genes and the formation of digital genes. Since TSD is a media transfer of landscape genes, decoding is a process of converting landscape genes from a coded form into a standard form. During the process of decoding, LDG is formed, and its 4I features, together with its digital medium attribute, can improve the quality of the received data process.

TSD translation is an act of converting LDG into data that can be processed. In a very broad sense, the goal is to translate specific knowledge from one social field into another [38]. Every method that is used to achieve valid data is a translation tool. The applied technologies in TSD include artificial intelligence, big data, deep learning, VR, etc.

Through coding, LDG is transformed. After the effective methods of technology are processed, proper LDG visualization is achieved. Like “media”, “code” plays an important role in communication. In the TSD context, coding is significant since it enables users to cooperate and understand more effectively. Based on the current technology, we can examine codes in terms of the functions they serve in the process of human cognition and perception.

Examples of the LDG transformation codes that are employed include holographic projection, virtual immersion field exhibition hall, somatosensory interaction, etc.

Landscape gene information chain with the TSD framework

The TSD framework can be interpreted as a means to determine the inherent characteristics and values of landscape genes under LGIC. The TSD process is focused on not only the physical form of the landscape but also its cultural, historical, and social dimensions. In our search, the correlation between the TSD framework and LGIC is shown in Fig. 3.

Fig. 3
figure 3

LGIC with TSD framework

During the process of digitizing landscapes, the initial step involves decoding landscape gene elements, and this process of decoding is simultaneously a process of generating digital genes. Strict adherence to the 4I principles of digital genes is pivotal for ensuring that the core culture of the landscape is both preserved and effectively expressed during digital transformation, thus guaranteeing that the central cultural aspects of the landscape remain unharmed.

After the landscape gene element is decoded, a series of digital technologies are applied in combination to process the standard-form landscape gene on the landscape gene patch. The objective of the translation process is to ensure that landscape gene elements are effectively interpreted and utilized via digital technologies. After translation, the coding process ensures that the proper LDG visualization is constructed.

During the whole process, various digitalize landscape gene patches are connected to landscape gene corridors. These continuous digital landscape gene corridors then further interconnect to construct a more extensive digital landscape gene network.

The features of LDG

LDG is proposed because the TSD is a carrier in the transfer process of media. Digital media refer mainly to media that produce and transmit information digitally [39]. The LDG should process and present the digital information of the TCS with the following features: identical, interactive, immersive, and intelligent.


Identical refers to the extraction and presentation of TSD consistent or highly correlated with landscape genes. The decoding of TSD gene extraction, the translation of digital technology processing, and the encoding of digital gene presentation all start from the landscape gene. Ignoring cultural genes in the process of TSD, lacking the protection consciousness of cultural heritage, and blind digitization will not only cause the loss of landscape genes but also lead to digital destruction.

Currently, cases of TSD (cultural heritage) are common, but most of them are novelly expressed and on the surface. The essential reason is the lack of identity between digital genes and landscape genes. If the LDG is regarded as a mutated gene resulting from media transfer to the local landscape, its identity with the core cultural gene needs to be maintained.


Digital media is interactive and an important way to convey information and experience in the communication and interaction between people and nature through human activities [40]. In their contemporary conception, interactive media situate computer-mediated communication and human–computer interaction.

Humans have developed through the era of oral communication, written communication and new media communication. In addition to oral communication, current communication methods such as printing, radio, film and television tend to involve one-way information transmission movements, and interactivity is gradually declining in mass communication. The advent of the digital media era has led to interaction returns. Interactivity not only expresses beauty but can also convey emotion and spread information. The interactivity of digital genes can provide a more natural and efficient experience for the audience. Digital interactions are believed to be a completely new experience for the human central nervous system that alters brain activity patterns and causes a stimulating effect.


In the literature, the term “immersion” is commonly used to describe an individual being enveloped by or absorbed in an experience, an interaction, or a mediated reality [41]. The application of virtual reality technology in digital media makes interactions more immersive. Digital technologies based on VR, AR and XR can build a three-dimensional space that enables people to have visual, auditory and tactile experiences; changes the perception of ancient villages by relying on a single channel of “vision”; and allows the audience to experience real-world immersion [42].

The more capable a media device is in each dimension, the more immersive the device is, and the more the device “delivers displays (in all sensory modalities) and tracking that preserves fidelity in relation to their equivalent real-world sensory modalities” [43]. Digital technology can realize the perception and cognition of cultural landscapes through the establishment of digital scenes. In the process of digital technology processing and digital gene presentation, technologies such as 3D modeling, VR, point clouds, and holographic projection are used to create a realistic 3D virtual world through digital image presentation. The immersion of digital genes can make recessive genes explicit and dominant genes explicit. Therefore, the cultural landscape can be perceived through the establishment of a digital scene.


The continuous maturity of AI technology has made digital media more intelligent. Multimodal input methods such as touch screen, speech recognition, deep learning and gesture recognition are increasingly used comprehensively [44,45,46]. With deep learning and computer learning, AI can not only efficiently generate design prototypes but also innovate based on existing data. For example, a deep learning model could be trained on a large dataset of images of cultural heritage buildings and then be able to accurately identify and classify new buildings it has not seen before. This could be useful for cataloging and organizing extensive collections of cultural heritage buildings, as well as for assisting in preservation procedures [47].

At present, AI technology is mainly used in data collection and acquisition. After data are collected, understanding how to utilize data is an important topic for the future digitalization of AI in TCS. LDG is an essential factor in defining the use of AI applications for digitizing and popularizing TCS.

TSD should be aimed at generating a culture-centered future. By analyzing the AI of a culture bearer, we conclude that TSD should be based on the need to preserve landscape genes rather than on a pragmatic aspect of technological development.

A case study of Nanxun

The Nanxun area is located northwest of Huzhou city, Zhejiang Province, China. This small town was founded in the Chunyou period of the Southern Song Dynasty (1252) and has a history of more than 700 years. The research team studied the core area of the Nanxun TS, which has a total area of 34.27 square kilometers (see Fig. 4).

Fig. 4
figure 4

Map of Nanxun TS (source from people and Government of Nanxun District)

Nanxun is a water town landscape that has strong connections to the silk market and industry; it experienced remarkable growth in the sixteenth century and reached its pinnacle during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the mid-eighteenth century, many mansions and gardens were built by salt merchants in different locations along the moats.

This area became a beautified landscape belt alongside the lake, with garden scenery uniting the natural and human landscapes. The Grand Canal was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2014; Nanxun, as an important node of the Grand Canal World Cultural Heritage, became the first TS in China to be included in the World Heritage list. This provided a new impetus for the opening and promotion of Nanxun development. Today, branded as the “Venice of the East”, Nanxun has become world-famous as a tourist destination.

With the development of new information and communication technologies, the pace of Nanxun TS construction has accelerated digital empowerment for the benefit of Nanxun governance in several aspects. In addition to visiting and investigating traditional buildings, folk spirits and commercial streets, our team also collected data on the digital status of the main traditional buildings of Nanxun.

Identification and Extraction of Nanxun Landscape Genes

Landscape gene identification indicator system

Influenced by factors such as geographical environment, ethnic beliefs, and social customs, Nanxun has developed distinct regional characteristics. These spatial and morphological configurations, along with symbolic patterns imbued with regional features, interact with the functions, culture, and institutional mechanisms that are inherited and continued, gradually becoming the dominant landscape genes shaping the development and evolution characteristics of Nanxun.

Drawing on the classification method of TS landscape genes proposed by Liu and Hu [16], the cultural landscape of Nanxun was classified, summarized, and organized to construct a Nanxun landscape gene identification index system that includes two major systems, “tangible landscape gene” and “intangible landscape gene”, with 6 first-level indicators and 16 s-level indicators (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5
figure 5

Landscape gene identification indicator

Identification of the Nanxun Landscape Gene

Based on the principles of intrinsic uniqueness, external uniqueness, local uniqueness and overall advantage, a variety of landscape gene extraction methods, such as meaning extraction, structural extraction, and feature deconstruction, were comprehensively utilized to extract the Nanxun landscape gene.

According to the results of field research, the Nanxun landscape genes were divided into the tangible landscape gene and the intangible landscape gene. The former has three factors and eight identification indexes from the aspects of environmental factors, spatial layout and major buildings. The latter has three identification factors: spirit culture, folk customs and traditional crafts (Table 1).

Table 1 Landscape gene identification results of Nanxun

Construction of the Nanxun landscape gene information chain

The LGIC is composed of three core elements: landscape gene elements, landscape gene patches, and landscape gene corridors [48].

The above Nanxun Landscape Gene Identification and Extraction, process is composed of three parts:

First, we explored the core characteristics of landscape genes and extracted landscape gene elements from landscape core culture.

Second, the landscape gene patch was identified based on the extraction results of the landscape gene elements.

Finally, the landscape gene corridor that links various landscape gene patches within the spatial context of Nanxun was identified, and the characteristics of the Nanxun LGIC were analyzed.

These research data were obtained through three channels:

  1. 1.

    Online and offline data related to the Nanxun TS literature, including village records and detailed tourism planning texts, were collected. These data were primarily obtained from the People and Government of Nanxun District and Huzhou City Planning and Research Institute.

  2. 2.

    A UAV and a camera were used to survey and photograph Nanxun to obtain graphic and textual data.

  3. 3.

    Field investigations and interviews were conducted to obtain basic information about the research site.

Features of the Nanxun landscape gene information chain

Features of the landscape gene elements

The landscape gene element is the essential cultural hereditary element in tourism planning, embodying and preserving the cultural memory and inherent cultural genes of a location [42]. From the perspective of the environmental factors, architectural characteristics and spiritual culture of Nanxun, its landscape gene elements include the following (Figs. 6, 7):

  1. 1.

    Confucian culture. Nanxun has a profound Confucian culture, and Confucianism profoundly influences its education system. In the Nanxun TS, there are many private schools and other educational institutions that are guided by Confucianism and that pay attention to the cultivation of students’ moral character and accomplishment. The traditional elements of Confucian culture were incorporated into the architectural culture of Nanxun. For example, the overall Chongde Hall building consists of three parts—south, middle and north—and the central building is designed under traditional Confucian cultural ideology.

  2. 2.

    Xun merchant culture. Among the Xun merchants, “four elephants and eight cows” are the wealthy merchant families of the Nanxun business gang. These businesspeople use family workshops, which are small but highly efficient, as units to carry out production and management activities. The Xun merchants created a large amount of wealth through labor and accumulated the unique culture of the ancient town through investment. Meanwhile, they are brave to take risks and innovate and are constantly exploring new business opportunities and business models, such as a wide range of trade networks at home and abroad, including trade with Europe, Southeast Asia and other places.

  3. 3.

    Western culture. Nanxun housed a massive group of silk merchants who greatly influenced the economy and society of the area up to the 1930s, leaving evidence of their wealth, culture and refined customs in their mansions. The combination of Chinese and Western architecture best represents the Western culture of Nanxun. The buildings within the Nanxun TS, such as the Zhang Shiming’s Former Residence (Yide Hall) and Liu’s Family Compound (Chongde Hall), demonstrate the owners’ acceptance and pursuit of Western lifestyles in terms of their spatial layouts, façade designs, material utilization, and interior decorations.

  4. 4.

    Watertown culture. The Nanxun TS is located in the plain of a water town, with crisscross waterways, interlocking rivers and ports, narrow streets, and numerous bridges, and is still well preserved today. Water is the spiritual essence of Nanxun and the bloodline of its historical and cultural heritage. In the intangible cultural heritage of the Nanxun TS, some folk activities reflect the water culture. For example, the marriage custom of Water Village, in which a bride is carried to her husband’s home by boat instead of by horse and cart, is unique to Nanxun (Fig. 7).

Fig. 6
figure 6

Watertown culture and western culture (source: the authors)

Fig. 7
figure 7

Xun merchants culture and Confucian culture (source: the authors)

Features of the landscape gene patch

The landscape gene patch is the concrete embodiment of the landscape gene element. Based on the concept of landscape gene elements, the key landscape gene information patches in Nanxun can be summarized into four categories: environmental landscapes, public architecture, traditional residential landscapes, and cultural and artistic landscapes.

From the perspective of environmental landscapes, the Di Tang Ancient Canal, as well as the Chang Lake Shen Channel and other bridges, such as Tongjin Bridge and Hongji Bridge, embodies the historical transportation role and distinctive water-town scenery of the old town.

Along the crisscross waterways, commercial areas, residential districts, and public gathering places are distributed, forming an exceptional combined system of water and land transportation and a distinct living pattern.

In terms of public architecture, the ancient buildings are examples of a typical fusion architectural style that integrates Eastern and Western elements. For example, in the former residence of Zhang Shiming, the architectural pattern is composed of the typical Jiangnan traditional architectural pattern and the French Renaissance Western European architectural complex. The residence has a red building made of magenta tiles, with Western architectural elements such as a fireplace and Corinthian iron columns. Colored glass was also used for decoration. It features an imported glazed pattern floor tiles and European chandeliers. A ballroom was set up as the master’s contact and communication with the West in terms of economy, culture and art at the end of the nineteenth century. Other examples include Liu’s Family Compound, Zhang Jingjiang’s former residence, and other structures that reflect the town’s social and economic history.

At the traditional residential level, the Hundred-Room Residence built along the river with a compact layout is the typical residential building of the Jiangnan water town style. This more than 400-m uninterrupted line of one- to two-story, whitewashed folk houses is still the most completely preserved water street in China.

From the perspective of cultural and artistic landscapes, it encompasses gardens such as the Little Lotus villa, which represents the high point of classical garden design. Another main landscape gene patch is the Jiaye Library, a prominent private library from modern China that holds an extensive collection of Confucian classics and ancient texts.

Landscape gene corridor

A landscape gene corridor is a route or area formed by connecting landscape gene patches in a certain combination, creating paths rich in cultural connotations and historical memories. According to the combined layout of Nanxun and its landscape gene patch, the characteristic types of landscape gene corridors include the following (see Table 2):

Table 2 Landscape gene information corridor of Nanxun

Waterway Corridors: Nanxun is built along the canal, with its water system serving as the primary channel for both transportation and daily life. Along the banks of the historic canal, a hundred rows of dwellings, bridges, and ancient wharfs are distributed, creating a distinct Jiangnan watertown landscape.

Cultural heritage Corridors: The stone-paved alleys within Nanxun connect various family compounds, ancestral halls and public spaces. For instance, the alleyway between Zhang Shiming’s Former Residence and Liu's Temple not only exemplifies the continuity of architectural artistry but also showcases the historical transitions and social standing of different families.

Architectural Cultural Corridor: Within Nanxun, there are a multitude of grand mansions that represent the affluent merchant class from the Ming and Qing Dynasties to the Republican era. These estates not only symbolize the accumulation of wealth during those times but also represent tangible evidence of the fusion between Eastern and Western cultures.

Commercial and Trade Corridor: Since the Southern Song Dynasty, Nanxun has become a significant center for silk production. The Jili Lake Silk Museum serves as a crucial window that showcases the illustrious history of this traditional industry. Simultaneously, traditional commercial districts such as the East Main business street bear witness to the bustling trading scenes of Nanxun’s past. Lined with numerous shops along the streets offering a diverse array of goods.

Application and value of the TSD framework

Current status of the Nanxun TSD

After the construction of the LGIC of Nanxun, the research team collected data on the digital form of major ancient characteristic buildings of the Nanxun TS. (Landscape gene patch). The existing digital visualization and application forms were sorted (Table 3).

Table 3 Current situation of Nanxun digital visualization and application

Through our investigation, we find the following problems with current digitization:

  1. 1.

    There is a single digital form, and the space utilization rate is not high. The digitization of Nanxun is mainly in the form of photos, videos and animations, of which photo presentation accounts for 80%. Among the characteristic ancient buildings in Nanxun, some spaces are either idle or closed year round. As an example, Jiaye Library houses one of the four major library collections in the southern Yangtze River, is representative of Nanxun library culture, and has a cultural gene that differs from that of other traditional ancient town villages, with a high degree of cultural local uniqueness and internal uniqueness. However, to protect ancient books, the first and second floors are closed year round, and tourists can only see the collection through a crack in the door. Moreover, the relevant text and picture introduction are also missing.

  2. 2.

    The correlation between digitization themes and landscape genes is low. The TSD not only is presented in digital form but also needs to consider the consistency of the translation of the landscape gene before coding. For example, the Liu family’s staircase (Chongde Hall) is located south of the Nanxun TS and covers an area of approximately 4750 square meters. The overall layout of this building is divided into three parts: south and north and east. It is characterized by the combination of Chinese and Western architecture, and the most distinctive feature is the integration of Chinese architecture into Western European Romanesque architecture. However, the theme of digital display in the building of the Liu family’s staircase is the literary inquisition of the Qing Dynasty “Zhuang’s History Case”, and the Liu family’s staircase as the place of the case where it happened is the reason for the exhibition hall. However, this is weakly correlated with the overall culture-related genes of Nanxun and the staircases of the Liu family.

  3. 3.

    The digital forms lack interaction, and the sense of experience is not strong. The current digitization of the Nanxun TS is mainly in the form of one-way output. Tourists have weak feelings and memories of the Nanxun cultural gene.

According to field research and tourist agency data, the main tourist routes in Nanxun are “Little Lotus villa → Jiaye Library → Zhang Shiming residence → Liu family's staircase → Hundred-Room Residence” and “Jili silk hall → Shi Garden → Ying Garden → Wen Garde → The Liu’s Temple → Tongjin Bridge → Zhang Jingjiang residence”. It takes approximately 2 h to complete the two routes. If the tourists do not carefully listen to the guide to explain the relevant content, they can walk through all the attractions in approximately one hour. There is no other extension project for all attractions, and the current digital display lacks immersive experience, resulting in a loss of tourists' interest and inability to meet the needs of most tourists. As even the local tourist agency commented,

“There are too few projects to visit here in Nanxun, many tourists come here for a short time to visit; if you do not ask a guide, the cultural story here will almost not leave a big impression”.

Nanxun TSD framework under LGIC

Nanxun has a history of more than 700 years, and tourists believe that the most attractive scenic areas are folk houses, traditional buildings and old streets. They are most attracted by crisscrossing waterways, combining Chinese and Western architectural style residential buildings. However, the most unsatisfactory feature of Nanxun is the lack of its characteristics [42]. On the basis of the problems existing in the current digital display, the team redesigned the Nanxun TSD with a “decoding-translation-coding” framework and digital gene “4I” features. The procedure is shown in Fig. 8.

Fig. 8
figure 8

Nanxun TSD framework under LGIC

Our team carried out the Nanxun TSD in terms of digital protection and utilization, prioritizing cultural identity. Each scheme of digital visualization takes the landscape gene information element (Confucian culture, Western culture, Watertown culture, Xun merchant culture) as a TSD theme. After decoding, the technology used for translation of the LDG is selected according to the form of the landscape gene patch. 3D modeling, point clouds, VR, UAV tilt photography, and 3D scan lasers are used to acquire and process the tangible culture gene (see Fig. 9).

Fig. 9
figure 9

NanxunTS bird’s eye views. a 3D modeling, b 3D laser scanning, c point cloud

In the collection and processing of intangible culture genes, 3D modeling, VR, and UAVs are used. For more complex folk customs, crafts or performing arts, it is necessary to refine and decompose their processes or key movements and use motion capture technology to form digital movement tracks. Most intangible cultures, such as folk crafts, are space–time elements, and digital photography and video are used to record the entire process and the environmental characteristics and instruments used. For example, Nanxun’s writing brush-making technology can be broken down into eight key steps: material selection, basin, knot, setting, block laying, inlay, pen selection and lettering to collect. At the same time, the connotation behind each step or action should be carefully sorted and collected, and finally, the databases of the Nanxun landscape gene, including textual data, visual representations, drawings, audio recordings, and images, should be formed.

The last step involves coding the database that has been processed. For example, as for the Western culture, architectural process displays and immersive virtual exhibitions were designed so that tourists would have immersive virtual experiences and intelligent voice tours. By utilizing digital technology, we created a more immersive and interactive experience for visitors while also ensuring the sustainable development of the Nanxun landscape gene during digitalization.

Data collection and processing

The data collected from the Nanxun TS can be divided into two categories: 2D and 3D. 2D data acquisition refers to digitization and computer archiving of text, images, and other media. The 2D database includes pictures, exhibits, and textbooks of the Nanxun TS collected with a camera (Canon EOS 5D, Canon 35 mm/F2.0). 3D data collection refers to the 3D point cloud obtained using 3D laser scanning (RIEGL VZ-400), unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) photography (DJI MATRICE 600 PRO), and oblique photographic, panoramic picture or video recordings of the Nanxun TS.

For the overall layout of the Nanxun TS, the plane structures of the Nanxun TS are mainly obtained through UAV tilt mapping, and high-precision coordinates and images are generated.

For the interior structure and details covered by the roof, a 3D laser scanner is used to accurately record and collect the position, shape, size and texture (see Fig. 10).

Fig. 10
figure 10

3D laser scanner of Liu family’s compound. a Room structure of Liu family’s compound, b interior details of Liu family’s compound

3D model reconstruction was the first and most important step of data processing. The 3D Max, C4D ZBrush, Touch Designer, and Unity engine techniques were used to generate a realistic and attractive virtual environment for the digital visualization platform. Additionally, a VR helmet and control handle, as well as Kinect (XBOX360), are used as hardware for the digital visualization platform, which enables an immersive experience for users to interact with the digital platform.

Nanxun digital visualization and application under LGIC

Based on the LGIC and the LDG feature, the selection of a suitable digital visualization medium is determined. Subsequently, considering the attributes of the chosen medium, a design for digitized landscape genes is developed and arranged to establish a specific approach for digital display (see Table 4).

Table 4 Nanxun Digital Visualization and Application under LGIC

VR display

The Jiaye Library and the history of the Xun merchant family are representative of Confucian culture. Considering that ancient books cannot be publicly displayed due to protection needs, the team used VR to display the history and representative collection of the Jaye Library. For the display of Xun merchants' family teachings and business stories, VR ethnography, which includes Confucianism achievements, historical stories, and cultural heritage, is used to supplement the existing photo display to give tourists a complete experience in a dynamic way.

3D scene tour

The Nanxun TS 3D scene tour system is a virtual exhibition hall without the restriction of physical space. The production of the 3D scene tour included virtual venue design, 3D model building, and virtual roaming production.

In the 3D scene tour, each landscape gene patch (tourist attraction site), a far more in-depth view of the physical appearance, the story of each site history and the owner’s achievements (VR animation) were set.

Somatosensory interaction game

When considering interactivity, we designed interactive games and VR experiences involving somatosensory interaction. For the perception of intangible cultural genes, the team used somatosensory interaction and interactive games as digital display carriers. The Kinect was used as an input media, and it can capture and track user gestures and actions in real time.

The related intangible culture and folk customs are set in the somatosensory interaction game platform. The process of preparing Jili silk is an example. The team used Kinect as a somatosensory input medium. By tracking human movements, the platform can realize human–computer interaction. Users can create their own Jili silk work and upload it to the screen.

Immersive virtual exhibition

For the Western culture and the water town culture, an immersive virtual exhibition hall is designed to show the construction process of the Nanxun TS combination of Chinese and Western architecture. At each architectural site, users can view 3D animations with a VR helmet. Additionally, an immersive virtual exhibition hall with point cloud technology is used for tourists to have a comprehensive experience with Nanxun's core culture.

In sum, digital multimedia includes a variety of forms, such as 3D models, VR models, and somatosensory interactive games. In this way, we can compare the apparent changes in the Nanxun TSD between two different schemes.

Conclusions and outlook

We proposed a framework to preserve landscape cultural genes in the process of TSD. Furthermore, our search explored the framework “decoding—translation—coding” to examine the Nanxun TSD and redesign the Nanxun TSD scheme.

This study focused on the TSD strategy from a LGIC theory perspective. According to landscape gene theory, there are different types of genes according to their form and attributes. We conclude that a new type of landscape gene should be identified: the LDG. Additionally, the LDG has 4I features: identical, interactive, immersive, and intelligent.

Based on landscape gene theory, we constructed a Nanxun LGIC through field research and data collection. However, the current Nanxun TSD scheme has a low correlation with its landscape gene elements. Currently, we are redesigning the Nanxun TSD scheme with various digital forms with a “decoding—translation—coding” framework. The technologies used are 3D modeling, point clouds, VR and somatosensory interaction. In the future, we plan to evaluate user perception data while optimizing our digital scheme efficiency.

Technologies are becoming increasingly complicated and increasingly interconnected. However, the display of the TCS, cultural heritage and museums still mostly involves the one-way transmission of photos and videos. At the level of science and technology application, digital preservation has a wealth of case studies, while digital transformation, especially in the field of visualization, is just beginning.

It is foreseeable that with the maturity and popularization of artificial intelligence, virtual reality and big data technologies, the visualization of digital applications of TCS (cultural heritage) will increase. This study proposes the framework of TSD, introduces the concept of LDG, and warns against the possibility of overvaluing technology and undervaluing culture in the future. This study aimed to improve the awareness of the need to pay attention to the protection of TCS landscape genes in the era of digital technology and to provide a theoretical basis for future TSD.

Availability of data and materials

Not applicable.



Traditional Chinese settlements


Traditional Settlements digitalize


Landscape digital gene


Landscape gene information chain

Nanxun TS:

Nanxun Traditional Settlement


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We are very grateful to the Nanxun District Culture and Tourism Bureau of Huzhou City, Zhejiang Province, China, for providing material support.


This study was supported by the Zhejiang Federation of Humanities and Social Sciences of China [Grant Number No. 2024N122], Ministry of Education of Humanities and Social Science Project of China [Grant Number No. 23YJAZH114],and the Huzhou Vocational and Technical College of China high-level talents project[Grant Number No.2024ZS06].

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All the experiments were designed and carried out by QS, ZQ, YL and WS. QS is the main writer of this paper. She proposed the main idea. The data were acquired by QS, ZQ and WS. YL revised this article and proposed suggestions for improvement. All the authors have read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Qier Sa.

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Sa, Q., Qu, Z., Liu, Y. et al. The strategy of traditional Chinese settlement digitization: a landscape gene information chain theory-based perspective. Herit Sci 12, 234 (2024).

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