SOUTHERN AND EASTERN SHANXI: COURTYARD HOUSES, ANCIENT VILLAGE CLUSTERS AND MODEL COMMUNES

LINFEN AREA

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Linfen air pollution
Linfen (250 kilometers south-southwest of Taiyuan and 650 kilometers southwest of Beijing) lies in the heart of Shanxi's coal country. Declared “the world’s most polluted city” in 2007, it is located in an area with 400 mines and billions of tons of proven reserves that account for half of Shanxi's coal production. It is not surprising that it is one of the most polluted cities in China and the world. Black, sooty dust hangs in the air and is caked on buildings..

Wang Family's Grand Courtyard (60 kilometers north on Linfen) 12 kilometers east of Lingshi County 150 kilometers southeast of of Taiyuan) is the largest folk residence among all the well-known grand courtyards. Known in Chinese as "Wang Jia Da Yuan,", it was built and owned by Wang Family, one of the four grand families of Lingshi County during the Kangxi Emperor's Reign (1661-1722) to the Jiaqing Emperor's Reign (1796-1820) in the Qing Dynasty.

Regarded as a fine specimen of Qing architecture, It consists of five alleys, five fortresses and five ancestral halls. It has 231 small courtyards and 2,078 rooms, covering an area of 80,000 square meters (8 hectares). The layout of the yards shows the strict hierarchical system of ancient China. Rooms and yards with different scales were offered to people in accordance with their social status. Admission: 66 yuan (US$10.43) per person; Hours Open: 8:00am-7:00pm; Getting There: take a bus from Taiyuan Bus Station to Lingshi County.

Guangsheng Temple and Its Secret Stairway

Guangsheng Temple (near Linfen, seven kilometers northeast of Hongtong County, 200 kilometers south-southeast of of Taiyuan) is a Buddhist temple, located at the southern foot of Mt. Huoshan. The temple was built in 147 and was changed to its present name in the Tang Dynasty. It has three parts: the upper temple, the lower temple and the Shuishen Temple (Temple of Water God). The world-renowned drama murals from the Yuan dynasty are kept in

Tony Perrottet wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “Poring over Liang and Lin’s Illustrated History, I drew up a map of the couple’s greatest discoveries. While Shanxi is little visited by travelers, its rural villages seem to have fallen off the charts entirely. Nobody in Pingyao had even heard of the temples I spoke about, although they were included on detailed road charts. So I was forced to cajole wary drivers to take me to visit the most sacred, forgotten spots.

“Some, like the so-called Muta, China’s tallest wooden pagoda dating from 1056, were easy to locate: The highway south of Datong runs alongside it, so it still rises gracefully over semi-suburban farmland. Others, like the Guangsheng Temple, which Liang and Lin visited with the Fairbanks in 1934, involved a more concerted effort”...finally making there one evening. “The monks allowed the Fairbanks to sleep in the moonlit courtyard, while the Liangs set up their cots beneath ancient statues. Next morning, the Liangs marveled at the temple’s inventive structural flourishes created by a nameless ancient architect, and found a fascinating mural of a theatrical performance from A.D. 1326. They climbed a steep hill to the Upper Temple, where a pagoda was encrusted in colored glazed tiles. Behind the enormous Buddha’s head was a secret staircase, and when they reached the 13th story, they were rewarded with sweeping views of the countryside, as serene as a Ming watercolor.”

Guangsheng Temple “lies in the hills near Linfen, now one of the most toxic of Shanxi’s coal outposts. Much of the landscape is now completely disguised by industry: Mountains are stripped bare, highways are clogged with coal trucks. Back in 1934, Lin Huiyin had written, “When we arrived in Shanxi, the azure of the sky was nearly transparent, and the flowing clouds were mesmerizing.... The beauty of such scenery pierced my heart and even hurt a little.” Today, there are no hints of azure. A gritty mist hangs over everything, concealing all views beyond a few hundred yards. It’s a haunted landscape where you never hear birds or see insects. Here, the silent spring has already arrived.

“Finally, the veil of pollution lifts as the road rises into the pine-covered hills. The Lower Temple of Guangsheng is still announced by a bubbling emerald spring, as it was in 1934, and although many of the features were vandalized by Japanese troops and Red Guards, the ancient mural of the theatrical performance remains. A monk, one of 20 who now live there, explained that the Upper Temple was more intact. (“The Red Guards were too lazy to climb there!”) I counted 436 steps up to the hill crest, where the lovely 13-story pagoda was still gleaming with colored glazed tiles. Another monk was meditating cross-legged, as a cassette recorder played Om Mani Padme Hum.

“I was determined to find the “secret” stairway. After making endless inquiries, I convinced a guard to wake the abbot from his afternoon nap and got a key. He led me into the pagoda and opened a grille to the second level, now followed by a couple of other curious monks. It was pitch black, so I used the light from my iPhone to peer behind an enormous grinning Buddha. Sure enough, there were worn stone steps leading up. Wilma described the staircase’s unique design: “We groped our way up in single file. At the top of the first flight, we were startled to find that there were no landings. When you bumped your head against a blank wall you knew you had come to the end of one flight of stairs. You had to turn around there and step over empty space onto the first step of the next flight.” I eagerly pressed ahead — but was soon blocked by another padlocked grille, whose key, the guard remembered, was kept by a government official in the faraway capital, no doubt in his desk drawer. Still, as I crouched in the darkness, I could glimpse that the ancient architect really had not put a landing, for reasons we will never know.”

Dingcun Village Ancient Building Cluster

Dingcun (28 kilometers south of Linfen, Coordinates: N35 50 E111 3) sits with Mountain Cong in the east and Fen River in the west. The Ancient Building Cluster in Dingcun Village is part of the Ancient Residences in Shanxi and Shaanxi Provinces were nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Dingcun and Mountain Ba, which was written in the county annals of the ancient Taiping, face each other across the river. In the village, well-preserved civilian residential houses built in picturesque disorder during Ming and Qing dynasties are peaceful and beautiful. It is rare to see such elaborate, skilfully decorated and well-preserved houses that were built in such a large scale with in the north of our country. The discovery and unearth of the site of Dingcun is of great significance to provide the very important real materials for the research into the mid-period culture of the old Stone Age of our country and at the same time fill in the gaps in this period of Chinese history.[Source: State Administration of Cultural Heritage, People’s Republic of China]

“The residential houses that were built during Ming and Qing dynasties in Dingcun are with-in the stockade village built in the years of Chongzhen in Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). There are 40 houses now. The earliest ones were built in 1593 and the latest ones in the period of the Republic of China. They have a history of more than 400 years. According to the record in Ding family Book, the first father might come into Dingcun in the early years of Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), and began to build houses, which were expanded year by year, then "Dingcun" got its name.

“The distribution of the houses stretches from the northeast to the southwest and can be divided into four parts-the north yard, the middle yard, the south yard and the northwest yard. The main part in the north yard is buildings in Ming Dynasty and the middle yard has buildings in early or mid-Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). In the south yard, a lot of buildings were built in Daoguang and Xiangfen periods in Qing Dynasty while the northwest yard has buildings built in Qianlong and Jiaqing periods. The private residential houses were built with a rational layout and imposing style. The houses are either independent on each other or link up. The styles of the buildings are different with one another. In addition to the 40 private residential houses, three temples built in different periods are preserved in Dingcun. One is Sanyi Temple built in the 22nd year of Zhizheng of Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368) and the other two belong to the buildings of Ming Dynasty and are well preserved.

“In 1961, the People's Government of Shanxi Province announced that Dingcun local inhabitants dwellings in Ming and Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) was the heritage site under provincial protection. In 1988 the state council announced that it was under the national protection. Dingcun ancient houses are in the same place with the world famous Dingcun Old Stone Age. They are constricting pleasingly with each other and fascinating. In 1985 Dingcun ancient houses museum was founded and was responsible for organizing the villagers in Dingcun to protect the ancient houses. With the caring and supporting of higher administrative department, on the 27th of December in 1989, the police office of Dingcun ancient houses museum was founded, aiming to strengthen the protection of Dingcun ruins, and ensure the safety of world ruins.

Comparing the Ancient Building Cluster in Dingcun Village with the Qiao Family Mansion, Wang Family Mansion and houses of Shanxi businessmen in the middle of “their building styles are quite different from the overall arrangement, decorative characteristics, and other aspects. The business houses in the middle of Shanxi are on a grand scale, in an imposing manner, and puffed up with self-importance, which shows its owners show off their wealth and look down upon the poor.

Siheyuan (Courtyard Houses) in Dingcun Village

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Among the 40 private residential houses existing now, many of them are Siheyuan. Private houses of Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) arranged the gate at the southeast corner. These buildings are usually lower with over hanging gable roof and gentle tiles. The materials are bulky and the eaves and lintels are drawn with colours. The woodcarvings are fewer but simple and unsophisticated. The distribution of the whole buildings is in order and the courtyards are not only spacious and comfortable but artistic and pleasing to the eye. Buildings built in the early or mid periods of the Qin Dynasty (221-207 B.C.) adopted the shape of ‘ ', the middle hall separates the front and back yards and the gate is designed on the axis. The yard is long and narrow and the small yard is deeper. [Source: State Administration of Cultural Heritage, People’s Republic of China]

Compared with the buildings in Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), they are taller and the materials are used more carefully. The roofs are usually steep, many of which are flush gable roofs. The constructing of the middle hall is stressed and it can be used to go through from the front yard to the back yard. The north hall adopts the style of attic with two or three stories. The layouts of the private houses in the late Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) tend to be complex. The gate is designed more freely according to the local conditions. The materials standard is clearly higher than before. The north hall has two spacious attics, with the porch post up to the eaves. The downstairs and upstairs are all decorated with beautiful lattice. The woodcarvings in this period become fewer. The wing-rooms of the private houses in Dingcun have three sections divided into two rooms. Against the gable heated kang is built. All the wing-rooms are buildings like attic-the upstairs are used as a storeroom and the upstairs are used for living. There is a square mouth between the gable and the front wall corner and a hanging ladder is used by to go up or down the stairs. The hall is larger and the roof beam links up the main ridge, the short pillar and the fork to make it a triangle stable structure. The bottom of the short pillar is connected with the middle part of the main ridge. It is different from the structure of both in Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) when there are Heta in between and in Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) when there is camel back to sustain.

One kind of the hall is high up to the roof and gives people a feeling of tall and splendour; the other kind is like an attic with the front threshold a dividing line and a layer of board divides the hall into two parts, the upper part is a storeroom. The entire roof is covered with tube-shaped tiles and the mouth of the eaves is designed for water dropping. And there is "Feizi" to sustain. The main ridge is designed on the roof and on both sides of the roof is hanging ridges. The halls in the private residential houses of Dingcun, which were built both in Ming & Qing dynasties, are never used for people to live. The main purpose is to provide places for worship or be used as a storeroom. When there are weddings and funerals, they are places to receive guests. It is absolute different from other places where people have the customs of living in the north house. It is one of the unique local features.

Art and Decorative Features of the Siheyuan (Courtyard Houses) in Dingcun Village

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: As far as the art of the building is concerned, the characteristics of the private residential houses in Dingcun are evident with flower-decorated eaves, the Queti, the brackets and the ridge beam in the hall, which are striven for perfection painstakingly. The coloured drawings on the buildings of Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) use gray, white, blue and yellow as the basic colours to draw patterns like twining lotus, chrysanthemum, flowers, birds and the veined back of tortoise. [Source: State Administration of Cultural Heritage, People’s Republic of China]

“The carvings of the brackets are such simple pictures as "sea horse and floating clouds (haimaliuyun)", "the water buffalo (which dreads the heat of summer) panting at the sight of the moon (mistaking it for the sun)","the magpie playing with the plum". The way of carving which is bold, unconstrained, primitive and crude is vivid, simple and skilful. During the early and mid-periods of Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), all the decorations on the buildings are expressed by wood carvings which reached the detached level and the products are exquisitely carved and show forth among the ridge beams. The craftsmen create these new products such as "happiness, official salary and granting titles and territories to the nobles", "lute-playing, chess, calligraphy, and the painting", "fishermen, woodmen, farmers and scholars", "Three yang begins prosperity-the new year ushers in a renewal and a change of fortune", "the snipe and the clam grapple" and so on to reflect the ideas of the ancient Chinese Confucianism and lucky implications.

“Particularly, the No. 1 yard built in the 54th year of Qianlong has the "Ningwu Strategic Pass", "Yuefei's mother tattoos", "Zhou ren presents his sister-in-law" carved on the board of the middle yard to reflect the contents of loyalty and filial piety. "Riding a bamboo stick as a toy horse", "flying kite", " Tiger dancing", "big head child", "Si maguang breaks the vat to save the drowning little child" are carved on the board of the corridor to show the contents of the folk entertainment. These woodcarvings are the representatives among the woodcarvings in the private residential houses in Dingcun and no other woodcarvings on the private buildings can match them.

“The stone art in Dingcun's private houses is also important. All the plinths, hammering blocks at the door and the feet stamping stones are deliberately decorated to reach the agreement of the practical use and the beauty of the art with rich contents and unique styles. The stone art in Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) is small and short, the carving is elaborate; while in Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), it becomes bold and unstrained and big with the contents of "money and peach", "pine, bamboo, plum and orchid", " horse, deer", " monkey owns the money (monkey has the same pronunciation with many times)", "Spring arrives at the yard", "the cat springs on the picture of the butterfly", "the picture of nine deer", "five bats hold good fortune and long life (the pronunciation of bat is the same with happiness)".”

House of the Chancellor in Huangcheng

House of the Chancellor in Huangcheng (in Beiliu Town of Jincheng City, southeast Shanxi, 300 kilometers south of Taiyun) is the former home of Chen Tingjing, who was the prominent prime minister of Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) and the editor-in-chief of the dictionary Kangxi Zidian. It is divided into inner town and outer town, which has 16 courtyards with 640 rooms altogether, covering an area of 36,000 square meters. The inner town was built in the fifth year of Chongzhen Emperor (1632), which has eight courtyards, featuring Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) architecture. The outer town was finished in the 24th year of the Kanxi Emperor (1703). [Source: Lu Na, China.org, May 9, 2012]

House of the Huangcheng Chancellor is like a palace town. Featuring a group of castle-style buildings, it was designed in two architectural styles. The inner palace was designed in the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) by his uncle Chen Changyan in 1633. The outer complex was finished in Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) by Chen Tingjing himself in 1703. The palace has 19 gardens and yards, and nine castle gates. The entire property covers an area of nine hectares. Its wall is 1,700 meters long and 12 meters high.

Hours Open: 8:00am-5:30pm (winter); 8:00am-6:30pm (summer);- Admission: 110 yuan (US$16) ;- Getting There: The railway lines of Shi-Tai, Jing-Bao, Jing-Yuan,Tai-Jiao and Han-Chang all go through Shanxi Province and connect most large and medium-size cities in the country; There are airports in Taiyuan, Datong, Wutaishan and Changzhi; The national highways of 108, 109, 207, 208, 209, 307 and 309 run through the province and go to Gansu, Ningxia, Hebei, Beijing and Inner Mongolia.

Hukou Waterfall

Hukou Waterfall (on the Shanxi-Shaanxi border, 120 kilometers southeast of Yan’an, 400 kilometers southwest of Taiyun) is the most impressive waterfall on the Yellow River. Situated in the Qinjin Canyon on the middle reaches of the Yellow River, it is the second largest waterfall in China. Only Huangguoshu waterfall in Guizhou is bigger. The riverbed here is like an enormous teapot where the water is poured out. This is the waterfall is named Hukou Waterfall (Kettle Spout Falls)

When the mighty Yellow River flows through mountains and gorges to Hukou, the billowy water streams narrow suddenly, from over 300 meters to 50 meters in width, falling 30 meters into a deep riverbed like a herd of galloping horses, transforming the quiet river into a turbulent one. The thundering sound can be heard from quite a distance. The tremendous mass of water strikes the rocks, creating piles of foam and huge water poles. It is an amazing view with mist all around.

Hukou Waterfall is 50 meters high. It was naturally formed from water in the middle reaches of the Yellow River flowing through the Jinxia Grand Canyon. The width of the waterfall changes with the season. It usually stretches 30 meters wide but can increase to 50 meters during the rainy season; Admission: 81 yuan (US$12.8) per person, Tel:0086-911-4838030

Taihang Mountain

Huangyadong National Forest Park (250 kilometers east-northeast of Linfen) is part of Taihang Mountain, which was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2017. The Huangya Cave Scenic and Historic area’s coordinates are 113° 23 37" E, 36° 46 53" N. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Huangyadong National Forest Park is located in Changzhi, Shanxi in the middle section of Taihang Mountains. The Huangyadong area is famous for the unique palaeontological relics — microbially induced sedimentary structures (MISSs), formed through the growth, destruction and decomposition of microbial mats. The MISSs in this area show the interaction between microbial communities and the environment, and are highly valuable for microbiological and palaeontological research. [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China]

“The special relics of geology, stratum, rock, structure, sedimentation, ancient extinct life fossil and hydrology, as well as the unique Zhangshiyan landform of Taihang Mountain have recorded the long geological history and profound changes (several movements of crustal rising, destructive activities, and fault block activities) of the Loess Plateau and step zone of Bohai Bay Basin in eastern Asia for over 2.5 billion years. It is a typical example of mountain range geological evolution in the hinterland of ancient continent (craton). [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China]

“Located at the intersection of the Inner Mongolia-Xinjiang region, the Loess Plateau region, the North China Plain region and the Tibet region, Taihang Mountain is endowed with complex biological components. It is an important geographical unit of global biodiversity and one of the central distribution areas of endemic birds in the world, as well as an important corridor for the survival of rare species in Northern China.

“Taihang Mountain, represented by the unique Zhangshiyan landform, has towering peaks, deep gorges, continuous waterfalls, peculiar caves. Together with the unique ecological landscape, astronomical phenomena in four seasons and beautiful colors, it has formed a special kind of long painting with mountains and rivers at the turning place of two major tablelands in China.

“Different parts of the nominated site are: 1) Hebei Section: 113°27 44.30"-115°57 18.02" E, 36°16 03.96"-40°21 07.54"N; 2) Shanxi Section: Huangya Cave Scenice and historic area 113° 23 37" E, 36° 46 53" N; 3) Henan Section: Wangwu Mountain Scenice and historic area 112° 17 40" E, 35° 8 50" N; 4) Yuntai Mountain Scenice and historic area 113° 21 23" E, 35° 25 58" N”

Taihang Mountain Geology and Ecosytem

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The special relics of geology, stratum, rock, structure, sedimentation, ancient extinct life fossil and hydrology, as well as the unique Zhangshiyan landform and Yuntai landform of Taihang Mountain have recorded the long geological history and profound changes (several movements of crustal rising, destructive activities, and fault block activities) of loess plateau and step zone of Bohai Bay Basin in eastern Asia for over 2.5 billion years. It is a typical example of mountain range geological evolution in the hinterland of ancient continent (craton). [Source: National Commission of the People's Republic of China]

“Taihang Mountain is a typical example of the mountain range form in eastern Asia. The section of Taihang Mountain in Hebei Province is located at the east of the major ridge of Taihang Mountain, being the section that best demonstrates the majestic appearance of the towering Taihang among Beijing Municipality, Hebei Province, Shanxi Province and Henan Province. Zhangshiyan landform is the geomorphologic landscape that develops widely in the central and southern sections of Taihang Mountain. Zhangshiyan landform is the geologic record of landform evolution and strong uplifting of the mountain system in Taihang Mountain region and even the entire North China since the Neogene period and has become an important example of the strong uplifting of Taihang Mountain in the Quaternary period. The complex topography and long evolution history of Taihang Mountain are also very rare among existing mountain world heritage sites and have extremely high aesthetic and scientific research value.

“The Taihang Mountains contain rare, almost intact natural secondary forests, alpine meadows and steep slopes. The region is a key habitat for many species endemic to China, such as Chinese leopard (Panthera pardus fontanierii), brown eared pheasant (Crossoptilon mantchuricum), green-backed flycatcher (Ficedula elisae) and grey-sided thrush (Turdus feae). The Zhangshiyan landform of Taihang Mountains also is the only habitat for rare endemic plants such as Taihangia rupestris var. Taihangia, Clematis lanuginose, Oresitrophe rupifraga and Corydalis fangshanensis. The waterfront cliffs of Taihang mountains provide unique breeding habitats for black stork (Ciconia nigra), golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) and Eurasian eagle-owl (Bubo bubo). The valleys provide key wintering area for endangered Scaly-sided Merganser (Mergus squamatus). Meanwhile, the region is an important corridor for most migrating raptors in East Asia. In a word, the Taihang Mountains constitute a unique geographic unit for biodiversity conservation.”

Dazhai: The Site of Cultural-Revolution-Era Commune

Dazhai (in Xiyang County, 200 kilometers east-southeast of of Taiyuan) is a village chiefly known as the site of a model commune set according to Mao Zedong's directive, "Learn from Dazhai in agriculture". Situated in hilly, difficult terrain, it was a holy site during the Cultural Revolution, when it was set up as the model for agricultural production throughout China during the 1960s and 1970s and Revolution, showcasing the exemplary resourcefulness and diligence of Chinese proletariat and peasants workers.

The Dazhai Commune was one of the most famous communes in China. Reportedly built up from the ruins of great flood by 500 peasants, it boasted record grain productions and it provided a model for other communes across China. Over the years Danzhai was visited three times by Zhou Enai, twice by Deng Xiaoping as well as by Queen Beatrice of Netherlands, Pol Pot from Cambodia and leaders from Africa, Albania and East Germany.

Numerous newspapers, magazines, books and films produced throughout China trumpeted how how the hard-working villagers transformed rocky mountains and barren plains into well-managed fields with bountiful crops. Water was supplied through engineering marvels such as reservoirs and aqueducts that crossed deep valleys. A number of songs about Dazhai were popular for a while. The best-known of these is Dazhai Yakexi about a Uyghur farmer expressing his joy after visiting Dazhai. The song was adapted to a dance in which a Uyghur male sang while six ladies accompanied him with traditional-style Uyghur dances.

Later it was revealed that Dazhai was a sham. The record grain reports were fiction, production figures were exaggerated and the commune was subsidized. According to one writer, "Nowdays to many people the whole thing about Dazhai looks like a joke." What is worse is it exacerbated environmental problems. Charles C. Mann wrote in National Geographic, “Dazhai is in a geological anomaly called the Loess Plateau. For eon upon eon winds have swept across the deserts to the west, blowing grit and sand into central China. The millennia of dust fall have covered the region with vast heaps of packed silt---loess, geologists call it’some of them hundreds of feet deep. China's Loess Plateau is about the size of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands combined. For centuries the silt piles have been washing away into the Yellow River---a natural process that has exacerbated, thanks to the Dazhai Way, into arguably the worst soil erosion problem in the world. [Source: Charles C. Mann, National Geographic, September 2008]

Zuoquan County (100 kilometers southwest of Taiyuan) is another Red Tourism site famous for its China Communist Party battlefield sites.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Nolls China Web site; CNTO; Perrochon photo site; Beifan.com; University of Washington; Ohio State University; UNESCO; Wikipedia; Julie Chao photo site

Text Sources: CNTO (China National Tourist Organization), China.org, UNESCO, reports submitted to UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, China Daily, Xinhua, Global Times, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2020


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