Two Ancient Chinese Villages in a Deep Mountain
Four Architects from Beijing
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 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 taxi 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 a 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 marveled.
“Since you guys have no relatives there, I just wonder why take all the trouble visiting that village,” the bikie said.
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
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 endeavor, and construction projects were taken place everywhere, from Beijing’s Forbidden City to Yunnan’s Dali Town. The Wang clan running a merchant business in the capital city 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 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 to protect clan’s stores in the city from fire. Previously, their shops had been repeated brought down in flames.
To many, this particular request might seem a bit far fetched, but fengshui by essenience is neither science nor common sense. Fengshui is a tool, as fengshui practitioners believe, that is formulated to assist people better manage 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
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 at the village and minimise the fire risk in the city was to expend a 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 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 fresh water in the channel directly from the river.
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 gossips after a hard working day in the field.
A Living Museum of the Traditional Chinese Residential Architecture
Hongcun’s neighbour Xidi, another ancient village formally developed during the early Ming Dynasty, has a similar overall layout and feature, only its water channels are wider and its buildings more exquisite.
Most houses in Xidi are in the form of a courtyard residence. Since the climate in the 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 a greater integration between the indoors and the outdoors, as comparing 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 arrangement is designed to introduce the 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 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 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 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
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 to the South Lake.
Hongcun village school, built in the late Ming Dynasty and reflecting a simple, restrained and graceful architectural style in layout, decor pattern and colour arrangement of the Ming era.
Apart from village-sponsored schools, in the old days, some more affluent households would also set up a private school at home.
During the classic era in China, teachers of the 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 extend 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 honorable 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 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 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 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, the pigs were yet to be slaughtered, so the Party Secretary arranged 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 the 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 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 on 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 a distance, white walls of the lakefront houses were clearly visible.
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 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 go backwards in the 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 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 marveled.
“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.