CHARMING VILLAGES OF SOUTHERN ANHUI
Shexian and Yixian (Yi) counties in southern Anhui (near Huangshan and accessible from Hangzhou by bus and by planes that land at Tunxi airport) are the home of a number charming Ming- and Qing-era villages, the most famous of which are Hongcun and Xidi, which have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Travel expert Kate Thompson said: “When you think of the romantic image of China, these villages are it.” UNESCO reports: "Their street plan, their architecture and decoration, and the integration of houses with comprehensive water systems are rare surviving examples of an unspoiled way of life in harmony with nature."
According to the Shanghai Daily: "The traditional villages Hongcun and Xidi preserve to a remarkable extent the appearance of non-urban settlements that disappeared or were transformed during the last century...Since the two villages are close to each other, it's easy to tour both in one day. You can enjoy the natural beauty of one town in the morning mist, while savoring the romantic sunset at the other at day's end. But if you have enough time, I highly recommend that you live in the ancient villages for a while, strolling around, chatting with villagers, trying local delicacies and shopping for antiques...A Chinese writer once observed: "If you want to learn about the life of Chinese emperors, please go to Beijing; if you want to know about civilian life in the Ming and Qing dynasties, please go to Hongcun and Xidi."”
Hongcun and other nearby towns were home to wealthy salt barons as far back as the 14th century. Mostly during the 16th and 17th centuries they built lavish white-walled mansions with delightful courtyards and richly-carved interiors. Shexian is famous for its decorated arches. In Tangmo check out the bonsai trees, pavilions and inscribed tablets in Tanganyuan gardens. Around the town are tea plantations, farms, rice fields and more normal style villages.
Zhaji (60 kilometers west of Jingxian County) was established during the Sui and Tang dynasties (581 AD-907), making one of the oldest town in the region. Less visited and harder to get to than Hongcun and Xidi, it boasts the largest number of existing ancient civil houses in China. There are more than 300 Hui-style ancient structures from the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, including glazed-tile-roofed cottages, ancestral halls, exquisite arch bridges, and well-preserved temples. Zhaji welcomes only about 15,000 visitors every year, including painters, photographers and other artists.
Mukeng Bamboo Forest (five kilometers from Hongcun) is a thick bamboo forest, with a hefty entrance fee, that covers an area of six square kilometers on the side of a mountain. The bamboo forest is where the famous flying bamboo fight scene in the Oscar-winning movie "Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon" was shot. One traveler wrote for CRI: “In the morning a meandering and bumpy road led us to a small hostel in a thick bamboo forest, whose claim to fame is that the Oscar-winning movie "Crouching Tiger, and Hidden Dragon" was filmed there. Obviously, the rain meant fewer guests for the hostel, but it made our trip all the better because the rainfall brings a misty fog that adds to the beauty of the mountain scenery. The clouds seemed to separate the hostel from the rest of the world, leaving only the lush bamboo, unique local architecture and a simple rural lifestyle to make up the picturesque landscape before my eyes.
“It's time for lunch. The dining table is spread with dishes made entirely of locally grown vegetables and locally raised animals. Fresh and delicious, the food tastes quite different from urban restaurant fare, which relies mostly on seasonings for flavor. When dining, a bottle of homemade waxberry wine is a must-you may get a bit drunk at the mere sight of its pink and crystal color.The rain seemed endless, but none of us minded, because once the sun came out and the fog lifted, we would all have to face the real world again.”
Xidi and Hongcun: UNESCO World Heritage Site
Ancient Villages in Southern Anhui — Xidi and Hongcun — were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000. According to UNESCO: The two traditional villages of Xidi and Hongcun preserve to a remarkable extent the appearance of non-urban settlements of a type that largely disappeared or was transformed during the last century. Their street plan, their architecture and decoration, and the integration of houses with comprehensive water systems are unique surviving examples.
“Xidi and Hongcun are two outstanding traditional villages, located in Yi County, Huangshan City in south Anhui Province, with commercial activities as their primary source of income, family and clan-based social organization, and well known for their regional culture. The overall layout, landscape, architectural form, decoration, and construction techniques all retain the original features of Anhui villages between the 14th and 20th centuries.
“Deeply influenced by the traditional culture of pre-modern Anhui Province, these two villages, Xidi and Hongcun, were built by successful officials or merchants returning home from official appointments and business, and gradually developed into models of conventional Chinese village construction... The unique and exquisite style of Anhui buildings is conveyed in plain and elegant colors, their gables decorated with delicate and elegant carvings, their interiors filled with tasteful furnishings. The rigid patriarchal system together with gentle and sincere folk customs reflects the cultural ideas of scholar-bureaucrats in feudal society who paid special respect to Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism. These surviving villages bear scientific, cultural and aesthetic values with their 600-plus-year history. They are rich sources for the study of regional histories and cultures.
The villages of Xidi and Hongcun are special because: 1) they are “graphic illustrations of a type of human settlement created during a feudal period and based on a prosperous trading economy. 2) In their buildings and their street patterns, the two villages of southern Anhui reflect the socio-economic structure of a long-lived settled period of Chinese history. 3) The traditional non-urban settlements of China, which have to a very large extent disappeared during the past century, are exceptionally well preserved in the villages of Xidi and Hongcun.
“Xidi and Hongcun preserve an abundant tangible and intangible cultural heritage. The current 730 hectare area (Xidi property area and buffer zone: 400 hectares, Hongcun property area and buffer zone: 330 hectares), contains an integrated ecological landscape and unique collection of village alleyways, buildings, waterways dating from the 14th century; the area also serves as a record of “Xidi and Hongcun” art, cuisine, medicine, painting and other elements of intangible cultural heritage, preserving and passing on the site’s spirit and culture.
“Xidi and Hongcun experienced a thousand years of continuous transformation and development, all the while authentically preserving their character as traditional Chinese villages with commercial economies and clan-based social structures. The villages faithfully preserve elements that are typical of traditional pre-modern villages, including the surrounding environment, manmade waterways, the villages’ layout, architectural style, decorative arts, construction methods and materials, traditional technology and the overall appearance of the villages; additionally, the site preserves regional art, customs, cuisine, and other forms of cultural and traditional ways of life. Xidi and Hongcun are, without a doubt, ideal sites for contemporary society to seek its history, and to research traditional village culture.”
Hongcun (20 kilometers south of Huangshan, three hours from Hangzhou by bus and minibus) is a lovely town with flagstone streets and Ming-and Qing-era houses, some of which are 600 years old and made white stone and of fragrant cedar wood. Situated in Yixian County at the foot of the southwestern slope of Huangshan Mountain, it become a popular tourist destination after it was featured in the film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
With morning mist, stone bridges, white walls, water lily ponds and hills, it has been described as a village out of a traditional Chinese ink painting. According to UNESCO: Hongcun is located at the foot of a hill next to a stream which forms two pools, the Moon Pond in the centre of the village and the other to the south. Characterised by rhythmic space variation and tranquil alleyways; and with water originating from a picturesque garden, the whole reflects the pursuit of coexistence, unity and the harmony of man and nature.”
Located in Northeast of Yixian County, Hongcun Village was established in the Southern Song Dynasty (1131-1162) but virtually nothing remains that far back. The village was established by a big family whose surname was Wang. The Wang family set up 13 buildings when they moved to the site and later the small village developed into a bigger town based on a fengshui master's design. The layout of the village looks like an ox and is called an"Ox-shaped Village." Leigang Mountain is the ox head; the verdant dark green trees its horn; the folk houses the body; the lakes are the stomach and four ancient bridges near the village are the legs. Most locals in the village are surnamed Wang. Among other things Hongcun has been described as "the live module of researching the ancient water conservancy history of China."
Travel Information: Best time to visit: spring to autumn; Admission: 104 yuan Getting There: Take a train from Shanghai to Hangzhou, transfer to a bus from Hangzhou to Tunxi, which takes about two hours. Then take another one-hour minibus ride to Yixian where Hongcun and Xidi villages. From Yixian you can various forms of local transport. By Car: Take the A8 (Shanghai-Hangzhou Expressway) toward Anhui-Hangzhou Expressway. Exit at Tunxi and drive 55 kilometers to Yixian. It takes about five hours. By Plane: Take Eastern Airlines or Shanghai Airlines to Tunxi Airport. It takes about an hour. Then take a transit bus to Yixian. UNESCO World Heritage Site:: UNESCO
Sights in Hongcun
Among the main attractions are Mon Pond, a beautiful lake ringed y willow trees, and Qingping's cedar house, imposing ancestral halls and the town's famous water system which runs along each house so that residents can draw their washing and cooking water from it. Mythical creatures, animals and plants are carved into the brackets and lattice and arches of the houses. In addition to the halls, pavilions and temples, there 160 ancient residences built during the Ming and Qing dynasties and widely regarded as among the best historic houses in all of China. . Some have fantastic stone carvings. Some are occupied by shops, cafes and galleries.There are a couple hostels and guest houses where you can spend the night.
According to the Shanghai Daily: Today Hongcun has 140 well-preserved residences built in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties; around 300 families still live in the area. Almost every building is an outstanding representative of Huizhou-style architecture, including gray walls, dark tiles, horse-head gables and open interior courtyards. The style was favored by local merchants. The degree of preservation is extraordinary--maybe that's the reason Hongcun became a popular choice for artists and filmmakers. [Source: Shanghai Daily, July 25, 2009]
“When I stood on the stone bridge at the entrance to the village, I suddenly had an eerie feeling of deja vous. Then I realized where the feeling came from. In the opening scene of Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," the kung fu master heroine leaps a beautiful pond, which is just what I was seeing. Many fight scenes from the movie were shot in Hongcun. In 2002 the film won Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film and Best Cinematography.
“In addition to the striking architecture and mountain scenery, the complicated water system is a significant feature of Hongcun. A waterway built in 1424 flows through the entire town so that each household had easy access to water at its doorstep. The flowing streams also lower the temperature and assist firefighters. The waterway is connected to two large ponds and there was once a filtration system to collect floating garbage. Water for cooking could only be collected before 8:00am, and after that washing and bathing were allowed.
“Today all families in the village have tap water, so the stream is mostly used for washing. Our tour guide gave us a tip: if you get lost in the village, just follow the direction of the stream's flow and you'll find the entrance. Another must-see is the central pond called Yuezhao, representing the cow's belly. Shaped like a half-moon, the pond is surrounded by a cluster of typical Huizhou-style buildings reflected in the clear water. The pond has been reproduced three times on Chinese postal stamps.
“When appreciating the architecture, take special note of the wood-carving and sculpture, from detailed window and door frames to beams and pillars. Among the buildings open to visitors, Chengzhi Hall is famous as a "civil palace." It was built in 1855 as the residence of Qing Dynasty business tycoon Wang Dinggui. It has nine courtyards and seven lofts. Many outstanding craftsmen were hired to decorate the complex.”
Tourism in Hongcun
More than 530,000 tourist visited Hongcun in 2006. About 1,400 people live in the town. They complain of being props and getting little of the tourism money. Most of the hefty admission fee goes to the management company that runs the site. CRI reports: Our first day in Hongcun Village, one of China's most beautiful ancient villages, was 'luckily bothered' by unyielding rainfall for the whole day. This was because the white walls and black tiles, the typical elements of the Hui or Anhui-style architecture, turned into a clearer Chinese ink painting after being washed by the misty rain. [Source: CRI July 30, 2009]
“Hongcun boasts well-preserved Hui-style buildings and beautiful surrounding green hills with clear streams winding through...Hongcun now has almost 150 Hui-style courtyard homes, family temples and schools that date back to the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1616-1911) dynasties, making some of them 400 to 500 years old. Walking through the cobbled lanes of the village which remain the same as they have been kept for centuries, you can easily be brought back to the ancient times, and feel so at ease as the locals.
“Even when not in the peak tourism season, Hongcun still attracts flocks of visitors,” many of them “painters who are in love with poetry-inspiring local beauty. Even on this rainy morning, we can see students sitting by the bank of the south lake in the village, sketching the bridge, lotus, and black-white buildings on the other side.
“Since 2000 when the village was added to UNESCO'S World Cultural Heritage, tourists flocked to the village to enjoy the Hui culture every year. Previously I thought the influence of the outside world would have affected the life style of local people. But I found I was wrong when we returned to the village in the evening and saw very few lights. It seems that most villagers still observe the living rule of 'work as the sun rises, rest as the sun sets'.”
Most visitor are day trippers. Not so many people spend the night. There are a couple hostels and guest houses where you can stay in a basic room and enjoy a home-cooked meal. Jushantang is a a hostel in Hongcun Village is famous for elegant decoration and delicious village cuisine. It cost 80 yuan per person including three meals; It has many tasty snacks, such as Daode cake. Outside the historic village there is a regular village with a choice of restaurants, hotels and shops. There is a bike rental with cheap mountain bikes,
Xidi (15 kilometers from Hongcun) is the other “ancient village” of southern Anhui Province named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While Hongcun is famous for wood structures and ornamentation, Xidi Village is famous for exquisite stone sculpture dating back several centuries. Xidi was originally built during the reign of Emperor Huangyou (1049-1054) of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) and rebuilt during the reign (1449-1457) of Emperor Jingtai of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
According to UNESCO: Xidi is surrounded by mountains and built along and between three streams running east-west, which converge at the Huiyuan Bridge to the south.” The village contains about 300 buildings in the Hui Style of the Ming and Qing dynasties (1644-1911). Brick and wood dominate, with exquisite stone archways, stone carvings, and stone-paved streets and courtyards. The most popular tourist attractions in Xidi Village include Lingyun Pavilion, Ruiyu Pavilion, Cishi House, Daifu House, and Qingyun House
There are 124 brick-wood buildings with a neat layout, elegant decoration and deep cultural connotation of Ming and Qing styles. Xidi has been called "The Most Beautiful Village in the World" and "The Ancient Treasures of the Vernacular Architecture." Governor Huwenguang Archway (also called Xidi Archway) is famous for its elegant modeling grave and the outstanding stone carving techniques. Some Hui-style and courtyard-style private houses are quiet lovely but you can’t go inside.
According to Shanghai Daily: “Dating back 900 years, Xidi today has 124 well-preserved residences and three ancestral temples built in the Ming and Qing dynasties. As with Hongcun, several hundred families live in the village. Unlike Hongcun, Xidi looks more like a big maze with more than 90 narrow lanes zigzagging through the whole town. It won't take long to get lost without a guide. Paved in bluestone, the lanes weave throughout the village, linking man and nature. [Source: Shanghai Daily, July 25, 2009]
Throughout the village there are gray walls and dark tiles, paned windows and stone benches, old wells and stone bridges, all with artistic touches. You can find delicate flowers, birds and beasts carved on the winter melon-shaped wooden beams and marble door frames. Even the bricks used for walls bear delicate carvings of pavilions, animals and human figures. Residents spare no effort in maintaining their beautiful courtyards and gardens with breathtaking landscapes. In the West Garden, residence of a Qing Dynasty official, our guide told us a Japanese tourist wanted to pay US$100,000 to buy the stone-carved window. But the owner wouldn't sell. I thought all the decorations in the garden should be national treasures.”
Travel Information: Best time to visit: spring and autumn. Eating and shopping are convenient. There There are some cheap and clean guest houses near the village; Admission: 80 yuan Getting There: bus or minibus from the Yi County bus station. The fare is only a few yuan.
Nanping (in southwest Yixian County near Huangshan) is a beautiful ancient village used as a location for many popular Chinese television shows and films, including two of the most internationally-acclaimed Chinese films of all time — Oscar-nominated "Ju Dou" (1990) by renowned director Zhang Yimou and the Oscar-winning film "Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon" (2000) by Ang Lee.
One traveler wrote in CRI: “We followed a narrow cobblestone path winding through expansive green fields on both sides as we entered Nanping village. The vintage trees that perch on the grasslands at the entrance to the village appeared even greener and fresher after a rainfall. We unconsciously slowed our pace and became absorbed in the village's ambience. We glimpsed residents washing things by a nearby stream, working in distant fields or chatting in narrow lanes as we passed through. The village contains 300 well-preserved ancient buildings with grey tiles and white walls, dating back to the Ming and Qing dynasties. [Source: CRI July 31, 2009]
“But our immediate sense of comfort gradually turned into unease as we walked along a mazelike network of 72 intertwining lanes and realized we could easily get lost. The lanes make for a grand view for visitors to the village, in addition to the ancestral halls, what Nanping is best known for. The buildings are a unique feature of ancient China's feudal society where the clan system dominated.In those old days, there were about 1,000 inhabitants in 300 households, most of which belonged to the Ye clan. Smaller portions of the population belonged to the Cheng and Li clans. The patriarchal system played a vital role in maintaining social order in feudal China, solidifying the masses and stabilizing clan development. A clan's ancestral hall such as Xuzhi Hall or Kuiguang Hall was the spiritual home of its members.” Getting There: from Tunxi Bus Station take a bus to Yixian County, then take another bus towards Xiwu County and get off outside Nanping Village and walk one kilometer.
Sights and Film Locations in Nanping
The CRI traveler wrote: “Xuzhi Hall, or Ye's Ancestral Hall, was the setting for the film "Ju Dou". Props from the film set still decorate the hall, including an overhead sign at the building's entrance which was altered to read "Yang's Dye-house." We pushed open the door, and a magnificent sight came into view-a colorful meter-long cloth hung in the patio in the traditional three-hall-and-two-courtyard style house that conjured up images of the classic tragedy. The building constituted a sharp contrast with the grey tones of other structures. It seemed as if it was the personification of the contrast in the emotions of the characters in "Ju Dou". [Source: CRI July 31, 2009]
“The 1990 film, starring famous actors Gong Li, Li Baotian and Li Wei, was about a tragic romance that occurred in the dye-house in the 1920s. A woman named Ju Dou played by Gong Li was forced to marry the brutal, impotent and impoverished owner of a dye mill in a rural village. As the third wife, she was repeatedly mistreated and cruelly disciplined by her husband, Jin-shan, for failing to bear him an heir. The heroine later had an affair with her husband's nephew and conceived a boy who eventually killed his biological father under the unbreakable feudal traditions. Luminous Gong Li became more famous after "Ju Dou", and still shots of the film hang on the walls of the hall, showing the unsophisticated look of the international star in her early days.
“Ancestral halls were places where big occasions such as clan meetings, celebrations and sacrificial offerings were held. Only men were allowed to enter the halls on a regular basis, while women could enter through a lower level only once during their lifetime-on their wedding day. After centuries of change, Xuzhi Hall now stands empty. The housekeeper locked the door when we left. As it suddenly startted to rain, some villagers could be seen quickly carrying items into their houses. Clothing hung outside was protected from the rain by the eaves of the roofs.
We then stopped at another ancestral hall of the Ye clan, one of the best preserved halls of the Ming Dynasty and the filming site for Ang Lee's movie "Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon." Over a large fan-shaped screen inside the hall, we saw where actresses Zhang Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh fought in the movie. Still photos show how the film was shot back then. Zhang Ziyi had tiny safety wire tied to her waist while she performed flying stunts over the bamboo forest with Chow Yun-fat. Some old men chatting inside the building casually told us about when the movie was made a decade ago. They said they were pleased that the film had attracted many tourists and brought the villagers many tangible benefits.
“The next stop, Bingling Pavilion, or Ice Slice Pavilion, was another beautiful old hall built about 200 years ago during the middle of the Qing Dynasty. Today it is a frequently visited inn in Nanping. Peering out of the ancestral hall, I suddenly realized the other visitors had already moved on and I was left alone, lost in Nanping's maze of lanes.
Ice Slice Pavilion in Nanping
Han Ying's Bing Ling Ge, or Ice Slice Pavilion is worth spending some time at and its owner Han Ying (in 2009) gives guided tours. The CRI traveler wrote: “The two parts of the house were built during the Ming and Qing dynasties, respectively. The house is one of the village's typically well-preserved Hui-style structures. It is shaped like a green quadrangle pond and has a huge earthen jar in the middle for fish and water plants. Besides the expressively crafted wooden sculptures on the doors, windows and rails, a giant, round, wooden decoration on the cloisters grabbed our attention. The ice slice-like mullion structures, incorporated with German-made window glass panes dating back to the Qing Dynasty, as well as scene-by-scene wooden relief carvings of West Lake in Hangzhou were quite impressive. It is said that the relief carvings show a son's filial piety to his mother who wanted to visit West Lake in Hangzhou but was unable to go on account of poor health. [Source: CRI August 5, 2009]
“As an explanation for the elaborate carvings, Hui merchants were not that commercially focused and showed great interest in poetry and literature. The house was passed down from Han's ancestors who made their fortune by running a bank in Wuhu, Anhui Province. They later built this magnificent house in Nanping, their hometown. Han's husband, Cheng Yahui, is the 27th generation of the Cheng family.”
The house was opened “as an inn in 2001 when tourism in Nanping village started to take off. Located close to the world cultural heritage sites of Hongcun and Xidi, Nanping also developed quickly over the past years but managed to maintain in its original form and remain less commercialized. Han built a new section with internet access in the backyard of her old building in 2005 to better accommodate the growing number of visitors. That gives the lodgers enough freedom to choose from the modern and the ancient. A night's stay in the ancient house costs 80 to 100 yuan (US$12-US$15). Han and her husband earn 20,000 yuan or 30,000 yuan annually from running their inn. Although the amount is not huge, Han says she is very content with her present life where "doing business is just a method rather than the goal"-the same as it was for the ancient Hui merchants.”
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
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