This study identified two alternative but potentially simultaneous processes for rural development in China. One is the 'bottom-up' approach where individuals and groups of villagers work innovatively in developing new building construction opportunities, prompted by contemporary and indigenous design and construction methods. The alternative 'top-down' approach is associated with changes caused by external influences, such as directions given from funding sources, and encouragement for the use of specific knowledge and technologies; this is then filtered down through village administrative systems. Two ethnic villages were studied in Yunnan province, an area with a larger rural low-income population than other regions. Each village exhibited strong traditional cultures and each had undergone different tourist redevelopment over a period of more than ten years. The case studies revealed discrepancies between the academic categorization of dwellings in villages based on the representations of traditional culture created by materials and techniques, and the villagers' own perception of the social and cultural meanings of their houses and spaces in the village. The outcomes suggest that architects and designers could have different involvement in rural development through building platforms for discussion and decision-making, used with and amongst stakeholders, and which could link the two different directions of approach.