Four Architects from Beijing

Village Hongcun
Village Hongcun

It was in the mid-1980s, the day two weeks before Chinese New Year. On a dirt road of a remote mountainous area in the backward Anhui Province, four architects from Beijing were jam-packed in a small trailer box drawn by a motorbike.

They got up before dawn and spent hours in a queue at the county’s bus station but ended up empty-handed without a ticket. There was only one bus each day running on that route; the seats were limited while the number of festival shoppers, peasant vendors as well as peasant labours wanting to return home for the new year in mountain villages was huge.

After much discussion and debate, the group decided to put their lives at risk by climbing into a motorbike’s trailer, a version of private taxies in the rural Anhui in those years.

A Dangerous Journey to A Mountain Village

The road was extremely rough and dusty, and the trailer box was not intended for transporting people but goods, like concrete, bricks, vegetables, sometimes chickens and pigs. They began to doubt if they would ever be able to arrive at their destination in one piece since they had to sit on the edges of the trailer and each bump in the road when the vehicle encountered a stone or a pit seemed to be powerful enough to throw all of them out of the container.

Yet it didn’t take long for them to realise how blessed they were. The bus they missed was found to have fallen into farmland.

The passengers were horrified, but the driver didn’t even bother to slow down his motorbike when passed the doomed vehicle. “It happens quite often, we’ve all got used to,” he replied when questioned by his guests. “That’s the price you pay for living in mountains,” he added.

“I just wonder why their rich ancestors wanted to build luxury homes in a deep mountain,” one architect marvelled.

“Since you guys have no relatives there, I just wonder why to take all the trouble visiting that village,” the bikie said.

Good question.

But when they finally arrived at the village, they all knew for sure why they came.

It was a place frozen in time, and the motorbike had virtually helped them travelling back to the 15th century.

A Fengshui Man’s Master Plan

The South Lake at the southern end of the 600-year old Chinese mountain village Hongcun
The South Lake at the southern end of the 600-year-old Chinese mountain village Hongcun
Hongcun village master plan
Hongcun village master plan

It all began 600 years ago during the early years of the Ming Dynasty. By then China had gradually recovered socially and economically from centuries of turbulence caused by wars, disintegration, foreign occupation and reunification endeavour, and construction projects were taking place everywhere, from Beijing’s Forbidden City to Yunnan’s Dali Town. The Wang clan running a merchant business in the capital city of Nanjing decided to spend some money on the redevelopment of the rundown village in their homeland.

The eras of the Song and Ming dynasties are the golden ages for Fengshui practice in China, with some best Fengshui masters in Chinese history active during that period. It wasn’t difficult for the Wang clan to find a great Fengshui man (named He Keda) to help draft the village’s development control plan, and the objectives of the plan include protecting the clan’s stores in the city from fire. Previously, their shops had been repeatedly brought down in flames.

To many, this particular request might seem a bit far-fetched, but Fengshui in essence is neither science nor common sense. Fengshui is a tool, as Fengshui practitioners believe, that is formulated to assist people in better managing the flow of the info-energies (qi or chi) which are within and surrounding all beings, and the info-energies are beyond three dimensions and transcend between the realms of physical and spiritual.

A Water Circulation System

The trench direct water from the river into the each household in the village
The trench direct water from the river into each household in the village

According to the local chronicles, the Fengshui man spent a decade surveying the land and water systems and concluded the key to vitalise the energies in the village and minimise the fire risk in the city was to expend spring water into a half-moon-shaped pond to contain the “yin fire”, a certain energy component that allegedly compromises Wang clan’s capacity to fight blazes.

As a “yin fire” needs a “yang fire” to balance out, later a lake to the south of the village was constructed based on the advice given by another Fengshui man.

On the river in the west, a dam was erected according to the master plan, redirecting the water eastwards into a stone channel that links every house, the pond and the lake. Thus on a tangible level, a complete water circulation system has been established that is able to supply fresh water to all households in the village and help stop the fire from spreading; while in the intangible sense, entire fire-related energies have been placed under the control.

In the old days when the climate in Anhui was not so dry, the water in the trench was full and clean, and each day in the early morning the housewives were able to fetch the water in the channel to be distilled as drinking water while did washes after a certain hour. The used water then flows back to the river through the pond and the lake, which ensures there will always be a clean and freshwater in the channel directly from the river.

The half-moon pond in the centre of the mountain village Hongcun
The half-moon pond in the centre of the mountain village Xidi

As the village is structured around the pond, the slab paving square by the watercourse also conveniently becomes the community centre of the village.

In the pre-air conditioning age, during the hot summer days, the villagers would set up their dinner tables, couches and benches on the brick paving ground around the pool to catch the breezes and exchange some gossip after a hard working day in the field.

A Living Museum of the Traditional Chinese Residential Architecture

A patio in the centre of a family house
A patio in the centre of a family house

Hongcun’s neighbour Xidi, another ancient village formally developed during the early Ming Dynasty, has a similar overall layout and features, only its water channels are wider and its buildings more exquisite.

Most houses in Xidi are in the form of courtyard residences. Since the climate in southern China is generally more accommodating and winter is less cold and windy, the southern-style Chinese courtyard residences appear much more open to the natural elements with greater integration between the indoors and the outdoors, as compared to the northern ones typically seen in Beijing.

In the southern style, rooms are often built around a patio, with a lounge fully opening up to the landscaped paving area, which is not just the source for natural light and ventilation, but functions as the extended living room.

Such an arrangement is designed to introduce nature into the intimate living quarters and keep the natural elements relevant to people’s daily lives, even for those who are usually home-bound. It’s a safe place for small kids to play outdoors, an accessible field for the senile or aged to enjoy the sun and breeze, a piece of nature for young ladies who were not allowed to venture outside in the old days to linger around, and an extended lounge area for family’s get-together events.

A typical floor plan of the mountain village residence

A typical floor plan of Xidi residence: 1, room; 2, lounge; 3, dining; 4, courtyard/patio

This is the floor plan of a courtyard residence in village Xidi. It is a two-storey building with an upper level accessed through two staircases in both front and back courtyards. All the rooms on the ground level have a door directly to a patio, while the rooms on the upper floor are linked by verandas.

For big households in Xidi, they would typically involve several patios in the middle and a studio or a large courtyard to the side or back of the property.

Village centre of Xidi before the ancestral memorial hall

The village centre of Xidi before the ancestral memorial hall

A Scholarly Culture

Although the majority of the buildings in the villages are delicately built, the grandest architectures in Hongcun are the ancestral memorial hall and the school, which initially had six, all built during the Ming Dynasty but later amalgamated into one. While the memorial hall is situated near the centre of the village, the school has been located in a scenic spot with a view of the South Lake.

Hongcun village school was built in the late Ming Dynasty and reflected a simple, restrained and graceful architectural style in layout, decor pattern and colour arrangement of the Ming era.
The playground of the ancient village school in Hongcun
The playground of the ancient village school in Hongcun

Apart from village-sponsored schools, in the old days, some more affluent households would also set up a private school at home.

Home school studio
1, room; 2, courtyard/teaching area; 3, fish pond; 4, seating

During the classic era in China, teachers of private schools would live and dine in a studio quarter of the household and provided targeted tutoring to two or three, sometimes just one, students.

The picture shown on the right was the floor plan of a private school attached to the main living quarter of a prominent Wang family in Hongcun. The rooms were used as teacher’s bedding and sitting areas, while the open space partially covered by the awning was the classroom.

As was normally the case, the family school was often treated by the head of the household (usually a senior male) as a place for his intellectual recharge, where he drank tea, played chess and exchanged views and ideas with the teacher, a profession that was highly respected in the ancient times, as family’s future to a large extent rested in their hands.

A Full Moon Night on the Lake

The Beijing architects’ visit to the mountain villages was about to conclude, and the Party Secretary of Hongcun, where the group spent the night, arranged a dinner jointly hosted by himself and the village bookkeeper for his honourable guests. They were honorable, partly because they came from a government institute in Beijing (in the mid-1980s Chinese government was still very much respected by the general population), partly because they were architects (in the 1980s and early 1990s, architects were among the most esteemed professionals in China; it’s no longer the case now, as they become more or less the slaves to the rich and powerful property developers); and most importantly, they were the only visitors there. Since a Japanese magazine exposed their existence, Chinese architects and the government began to pay attention to the remote mountain villages, yet the poor transport conditions kept many from bothering to venture there.

The village had one restaurant, that was just in the front of a roughly-built new family house at the entrance to the village, and operated on demand by a non-native couple. The interior design of the restaurant was the most peculiar: a large brick stove was set next to the front door with two or three tables in the back of the room. The family hired no staff but took a village lad as an apprentice who spent most of his time minding the fire in the stove, the kitchen hand – the mistress of the family – travelled to her garden to cut some fresh vegetables and then chased after her hens in her endeavor to make a chicken dish, while her husband – the chef – got down the lake to catch fish. The problem was how to find some meat since it was half a month before the Chinese New Year, and the pigs were yet to be slaughtered, so the Party Secretary arranged for the bookkeeper to go hunting in the woods on the hills. The bookkeeper did and, with the help of a couple of young villagers, proudly brought back two hares just before dinner time.

The dinner was great and unforgettable. Over the dinner table, the Party Secretary explained how the village’s physical isolation hindered its development and related to his guests his ambitious plan for the village’s future. It turns out his plan is anything but ambitious, considering what has actually happened to the village in the years and decades that followed. But at that time no villager had ever dreamed that their homes would one day be listed on the world’s heritage map and become one of the most visited and painted and photoed and filmed subjects in China, including being featured in the acclaimed movie “Hidden Dragon and Crouching Tiger”.

The hosts, as well as the chef, the kitchen hand and the apprentice, were the most hospitable, keeping urging the guests to drink more and eat even more until all the dishes on the table were nearly cleaned up.

After the dinner, the architects felt they definitely needed a walk, so the group strolled along the village road and soon they found they were standing before the South Lake.

To help digest the food, they kept walking until reached the other end of the watercourse. It was the night of the lunar December 16, and the moon in the sky was round and bright, and its reflection in the lake was also round and bright. The banks and a causeway, that was half-built based on the Party Secretary’s plan, looked like being covered with white sands, quietly gleaming. In the distance, the white walls of the lakefront houses were clearly visible.

South Lake to the south of the village

Since the village was rebuilt 600 years ago according to that Fengshui man’s master plan, very few alterations have been made. And since the settlements are built in a deep mountain area that is hard to get access to, the villagers had been able to, until the 80s live their lives in many ways as to how their ancestors lived in the ancient times, little affected by the shifting climate in politics and culture.

“Guess the people of the Ming Dynasty saw the same thing as we do now when they stood here on a full moon night,” one architect pondered.

“Chinese residential architecture seemingly goes backwards in recent centuries,” another noted.

“Maybe we are just lucky to have the nice villages survived the time,” the third one speculated.

“Or maybe there were many nice villages in the Ming time, just these two have survived the fire. Remember how many times the Forbidden City was burned?” the second one challenged.

“Why? Because of that pond and this lake?” the third one questioned.

“I still wonder why their merchant ancestors wanted to build their luxury homes in a remote mountain area far away from the cities where they were doing business,” the fourth architect marvelled.

“It’s a nice reflection, or it isn’t?” the first architect pondered, again, examining the moon from the water.

All three agreed it indeed was a nice reflection.

Note: In the articles Confucius Merchants, and Chinese Business Traditions the question raised by the fourth architect is explored.

(All photo images are from online, except drawings)

27 thought on “Two Ancient Chinese Villages in a Deep Mountain”
  1. Hi Awen,
    I’ve always been fascinated about China, especially about their history and culture. I was hoping that I could come and explore there soon. Thanks for sharing a detailed information and additional interesting facts. It’s good to know that such historic places in China were still preserved for tourists to experience.
    Great article.

    1. Hi Rocky, thanks for your kind review ^__^ Wish you will have an opportunity to visit China soon.

  2. I notice that till today, Chinese in particular, prefer the approach of incorporating both indoor and outdoor elements when it comes to the style of home.
    It fascinates me in discovering the life of villagers in the old days, preferring to sit around the pool rather than a restaurant or a cafe.
    I bet one of the activities, gossips apart, would be playing mahjong along the pool?

    1. The traditional residential building in the Mediterranean area is also having a great integration between indoors and outdoors. But it is not part of the British tradition since the climate there is generally cold and humid. Nor is it a German tradition.
      Yet the cultural tradition originated from the UK has become the mainstream culture of the world while Germany’s Modernist Architecture is taken as equivalent to modern architecture, hence the strict separation of indoor and outdoor becomes a fashion, particularly after the invention of lift and air conditioners.

  3. This turns me on, as I am a foreign cultural enthusiast. Out of them, Chinese architecture and culture is one of my top favs, along with Arabian, Persian and Malay culture. If I had the money, I’d decorate my room with all sorts of Chinese artwork, including other Asian callipgraphies such as Japanese, Classical Mongolian and Korean calligrpahies.

  4. OMG, this is one of the most wonderful, well-written, and informative article that I have read on the internet about China. This is just simply amazing. The most interesting thing about your article is the water circulating system, for some reason, it’s trigger my imagination. As you said, it took a decade just to surveying the area landscape to build the water system. Can you imagine how much works (both labor and intellectual work) were dedicate for this project? but the most fascinating fact (for me), is that it help people live, and build community around it. Not eye-inspiring or jaw-dropping wonder, just a simple and silent piece of work that help people carry on their live for generations. Such a beautiful work, and a great article.

    1. I wish I can have you to write a book review for me 🙂 Many thanks for wonderfully summarising the essential message of the post.

  5. It is Outstanding how the architecture still is standing. This also has a lot of great information. Those pools would definitely be a sight to see! Is there any way for us to go see these villages now? And is it still extremely hard to get to, or have they improved access to these villages so that people can admire the history.

    1. Hi David, nowadays it is pretty easy to reach the villages so they become one of the hottest tourist destinations in China. The roads are smoothly paved with coaches linking the villages and the world outside. I believe you can go there either by yourself or in a group tour.

  6. Wonderful article. Your writing style is smooth and I felt that I visited this ancient village.
    I wonder from where people got their food, when mountains are around? How about hospitals, if somebody feels unwell? What they did for living?
    I guess that they did not have theater or maybe they did?
    One thing that is great that they lived without stress.
    Your story tempts to visit this place, but China is so far away.
    Thank you for great blog, all the best, happy writing, Nemira.

    1. Nemira, they live in a broad valley on the mountain, grow rice and veggies, raise chickens and pigs, set up fish farms in pools, very much like the most of villages in China.
      They did have a village theatre. In the old days, there were numerous Chinese opera troupes making their living by performing from village to village and from town to town.
      When they got sick, there were always villagers either in the village or in the nearby villages who knew Chinese medicine, and many of the professional Chinese medicine doctors would also travel around from village to village and from town to town to make their living, like opera actors. In the 60s and 70s, simple clinics were established in nearly all Chinese villages by the government, with the doctors selected from local peasants and trained by professional doctors from city hospitals and worked on a part-time basis. Nowadays, of course, since these two villages are popular tourist destinations, they have full-time clinics there.

  7. What a fascinating article. China is a place that holds so much history, yet when most people go travelling to see ancient sites, they head to Europe. I have always wanted to go to China, but reading your article here has given me a whole new side of the country to explore. I’m looking forward to reading more about this huge country now!

    1. Hi Todd, to experience the best of Chinese (not necessarily to be the nicest or most advanced), travelling to small towns and rural areas is a good idea. Those big cities, like Shanghai and Beijing, are now very much developed according to Western models — I see little reason to travel so far just to see a second-hand Western city.

  8. Hello Awen,
    Your article is very fascinating. It is so full of detail and the pictures are beautiful. I especially like the dialog between the characters and the ideas they express. Your descriptions, and the drawings of the villages and the schools, really bring it to life. Best of luck in all your endeavors.

    1. Hi Rick, that’s very kind of you. The memories of the villages are still so vivid, wish one day I will revisit these places again.

  9. I am a firm beleiver that there is risk in finding or attaining something great. I goes to show truth in some of these Ancient Chinese Villages that you have showcased here. What gems they are from an architectural standpoint and the beauty and serenity that they give the viewer. I love the pictures and the information you have share here.

    1. Hi, Debra, there was a risk to reach those villages but no longer the case. They are now two of the most popular tourist destinations in China.

  10. Omg this is incredible I have to go there. I love traveling and never thought much of China to be honest but this website has completely changed my mind. This ancient village is so awesome. Thank you for sharing such great content and images. It is greatly appreciated. Look forward to reading more.

  11. Your article reminds me of my previous visit to China’s southwest region where are full of small towns and villages, many still quite backward, but some architectures there are beautiful. I wish one day I would go to visit villages in Anhui. The video from BBC is very nice.

    1. Hi Mark, it’s nice to hear your personal experience on your China visit. Most beautiful architectures were built during the Ming Dynasty. In the recent 300 to 400 years, China did go backwards in nearly all fronts until the late last century.

    1. Hi Julie, thanks for your kind comment. Yes, China before the 90s is very fascinating because it was so different from the rest of the world in many ways.

  12. Your post is simply breathtaking. I have never visited China and the glimpse that you provided from you text, pictures, and video gave me an experience that I may not have ever had. Thank you so much for sharing.

    1. Hi Dela, thanks for your nice review. China now has rapidly become just another “modern state”, at lease in physical sense, identical to many other countries in the world, which is pity.

You are welcome to share your thoughts here