With a recorded history dating back 5000 years and having one of the largest land masses in the world, it is not surprising that China is well-endowed with varied scenic wonders and a great variety of cultural relics and antiquities that will delight and overawe discerning visitors on a discovery tour of mankind’s longest continuous civilisation. This is despite the fact that a large number of these man-created cultural and historical relics had already been destroyed in the course of time due to ravages of nature, human conflicts and past failures to maintain some of these as national treasures for the benefit of posterity. Fortunately for China and the world, the saving grace is the abundance of accumulated cultural properties that are safely buried beneath the ground awaiting discovery to see the light of day again. Although some of these artifacts have already been dug up, much more still remain unknown and undiscovered. In addition to these, a considerable amount of other valuable and rare cultural legacies can still be found in shipwrecks lying below the nation’s territorial waters. All these hidden reservoirs of buried treasures, if and when eventually excavated, will further boost China’s already rich national heritage and cultural standing among nations. Time is on China’s side.
As China becomes increasingly more prosperous since the 1980s, greater national financial resources have been allocated to the preservation and discovery of important historic and cultural relics, both on land and off shore. The resultant successes are evident for all to see. As time goes by, other lesser national monuments and historic relics spread across its vast landscape will also be carefully preserved and restored to their former glory and this will make the country even more alluring to both foreign and domestic tourists. Ever since this country became more tourism-oriented more than three decades ago, foreigners from all over the globe have been flocking there to savour the manifold attractions that this ancient , and seemingly mysterious, land has to offer. Within a relatively short time, China’s tourism and its amenities and facilities have grown tremendously to cater to differing tastes and preferences of their disparate visitors, both from within and overseas. China is now the third most visited country in the world, after France and United States, and is expected to top the list by around 2020.
Another remarkable achievement of China is that, after replacing Taiwan in the United Nations in 1971, it now has 38 World Heritage Sites (WHS) conferred on it by Unesco, a cultural agency of the United Nations. This coveted award covers both natural and man-created attractions which are of unique and universal value to all mankind. They must be preserved and maintained in accordance with the exacting criteria and strict conditions laid down by Unesco and subject to its periodic inspections to ensure their due compliance. Failure of a nation to do so will result in a particular WHS status being forfeited. To date, China‘s 38 WHS are behind only Spain’s 41 and Italy’s 44. However, China also has 30 other sites under consideration by Unesco, more than the number of applications already submitted by any other country. As the third largest country in the world and being an older civilisation than most other countries, my view is that it is only a matter of time before China will earn the accolade of becoming the nation with the highest number of WHS in the world.
In my post of May on the relatively remote Anhui 安 徽 Province in China, I praise this province for winning three WHS, one for scenic beauty and the other two for being well-preserved ancient folk villages surpassing numerous others there and elsewhere in China. They were the reason my family and I spent a delightfully captivating and eye-opening holiday there recently. In this article I will share with you four of these historic villages and unusual monuments, with the hope that you, too, will be inspired to visit these gems of Anhui. Two of these Ming and Qing villages, Xidi 西 递 and Hongcun 红 村, are WHS, the third is a superb collection of rich and famous people’s mansions and the remaining one is celebrated for its unique commemorative archways (pailou 牌楼), unmatched anywhere else in China.
The first sight of Xidi, with its more than 125 well-preserved folk dwellings, clan halls and ancestral shrines, was a feast on my eyes. It was as though I was immediately transported back to the old China of several hundred years ago. All the houses have the distinctive white walls and black roof tiles which enhance their charm and architectural appeal. These houses were built almost back to back to each other, separated by very narrow lanes that sunlight could hardly penetrate. Sewage drains with unpolluted mountain water still run through these back lanes to add to the village’s medieval ambiance. It is a thriving and busy village, with many older folks seated on low stools eating and gossiping, seemingly unperturbed by the throngs of camera-carrying tourists of various nationalities staring at them. Some houses were built as dwellings cum shops, and some of the villagers were still selling traditional hand-made foods, snacks, arts and crafts and souvenirs which are peculiar to this region. Xidi was originally a clan village, with everyone sharing the surname Wang. They still dominate the village today. We spent several hours traversing this stone-paved village, imbibing the ancient feel of the residences of both the humble and the more exalted among them. The mansions of the rich merchants and the retired mandarins are large and elaborately appointed, divided into several sections with open-air courtyards and gardens. They were adorned with exquisitely decorated stone carvings on the exteriors and intricate gold-leaf wood carvings on the doors, columns, beams and wood beds inside, with scenes from historical novels like the Three Kingdoms, Romance of the West Chamber, Journey to the West or with flowers and birds motifs. The rich and famous of old China certainly knew how to live well! The spacious Clan and ancestral halls were the most important landmarks in the village, and important events like weddings, New Year celebrations, funerals, ancestral veneration ceremonies took place here. Xidi truly deserves to be a WHS as it is one of the best preserved ancient villages in China.
Some 10 km away is the other WHS, Hongcun, which has more than 137 old folk residences and communal buildings. For reasons which I failed to fathom, it attracted less tourists than its rival Xidi. It is the more laid-back and less noisy of the two. Its houses and other significant buildings are more neatly laid out and there is a more refined appearance about it. Situated on an elevated altitude, the whole village resembles a pretty picture postcard, with its ancient arched bridges, lotus-filled ponds with gently flowing water, and surrounded by verdant greenery and low-lying hills at the rear. It strikes me as the ideal place for dreamy poets and scholars to contemplate the meaning of life and to be inspired to compose their best intellectual outpourings! With such a natural and idyllic backdrop, it is no wonder that several of the famed Chinese period films, such as “Crouching tiger, hidden dragon”, were shot on location here. Another interesting aspect of this village is that it is shaped like an ox. The residents liken the hills as its “head”, the two tallest trees on the hill top as its “horns”, the village dwellings as its “body”, the meandering stream that runs through the entire village as its “intestines”, the crescent-shaped ponds at its centre as its “stomach” and, finally, its four arched bridges as its “four feet”. My family and I were completely mesmerised by Hongcun, and we rounded up our memorable visit there by dinning in an 18th century inn that reminded me of the ones I had seen in many a Chinese period films. This village is undoubtedly the most pristinely serene of all the ancient villages that I had so far set foot on in Anhui and elsewhere in China.
The specially created Qian Kou 潜 口 Museum of Ming and Qing residences of well-known Anhui merchants, noted scholars and high-ranking mandarins are both unique in concept and a miniature display of representative architectural styles of houses found in this province. The twenty properties from several counties of Anhui were purchased by the local government from private owners with public funds. They were then physically removed and reassembled in their original structure and appearance at their elevated new home in Qian Kou village. These disparate properties span 15th to 19th centuries. Situated on a hillside and dotting all over the hill slopes, it was a wonderful sight to behold. They give one a good opportunity to compare Ming and Qing architectural styles and building art and the special distinguishing features about them. Just like their counterparts in Xidi and Hongcun, these houses were well built and differently adorned to reflect the differences in tastes and preferences of the house owners of these two dynasties. Those belonging to the rich merchants tended to be more opulent and loud, with more visible symbols of wealth and somewhat lacking in classical charm, while those of the scholars and mandarins projected classical simplicity and understated elegance. I hope this successful and innovative initiative of the Anhui government will inspire other provincial governments to set up similar projects in their own provinces to benefit those interested in the history and culture of different parts of this large country.
Tangyue 棠 樾 Village was the country estate of the illustrious Bao family spanning 15th to 19th centuries. Over these centuries, some of its outstanding family members had excelled in public services, scholarship, business and in upholding the Confucian concepts of filial piety, moral rectitude and female chastity. This village is unique in two ways. First, It has the only female ancestral hall in the country to honour one of the family’s female forebears for her exemplary virtue of female chastity. Secondly, the august Baos were conferred an unprecedented seven commemorative archways by the reigning Emperors for their exceptional achievements in the fields of human endeavour mentioned above over an extended period of 500 years.
These two attractions are sufficient magnets that draw numerous Chinese and foreign visitors to this otherwise quiet Anhui village. The female ancestral hall has interesting and moving wall paintings depicting the long years of widowhood of this virtuous lady who bore her fate with fortitude and self-sacrifice and painstakingly bringing up her children successfully to add lustre to the Bao family. Be that as it may, the main reason visitors flock to Tangyue Village is to gaze and marvel at the seven commemorative archways, spread neatly and majestically along a winding path. Measuring about 7 or 8 m high, these richly adorned stone archways have inscriptions reciting the life and achievements of the personage so honored and the year in which it was erected by royal command. These were conferred upon the Bao family members in recognition of their loyal and significant services to the state, high scholarly attainments, moral rectitude and integrity, filial piety, female chastity and for supporting charitable and other public causes generously. In practice, only the Emperor himself can sanction the erection of a commemorative archway, usually on the petition of the local government where the recipient of the honour resided. Once the petition is granted, the recipient would, at his own expense and in compliance with the format approved by the local authority, erect the archway. In exceptional cases, which applied to one of the seven Bao family archways, the Emperor would personally approve the allocation of public fund for this purpose. As a further royal favour and esteem for this family, the Emperor had commanded that Court officials of all ranks must dismount from their horses before proceeding to view these Tangyue archways. The Bao family’s record of attaining seven commemorative archways had never been equalled or surpassed by any other family in Chinese history.
Besides these four contrasting historic landmarks I have mentioned above, there are many other ancient villages and towns in Anhui province that will also be of interest to visitors, not forgetting the world-famous Huangshan (Yellow Mountain), one of China’s foremost tourist spots, which is only about one hour by road from these places covered in my article. I hope you will find time to visit them like my family and I did. It was a delightful experience which I will remember for many years to come.
Lam Pin Foo