Dragon and Phoenix Arch in Fenghuang

Fenghuang (near Tongren in Guizhou Province and 150 kilometers southwest of Zhangjiajie and 53 kilometers south of Jishou City) is a tourist town famous for its stilt houses along the Tuo River. It is home to the Miao and Tujia ethnic minorities. The capital of Xiangxi Tujia and Miao Autonomous Prefecture, Fenghuang is famous for beautiful mountains and rivers and charming architectures. In the east and north of Fenghuang, there are two well- preserved watchtowers. Among the other places of interest are the Qing-era Heavenly King Temple, at the foot of Mt. Huanan, and the town’s eight famous scenes, including the Fishing Light in the Dragon Pool and the Moon over the Xiqiao Bridge. The town has a fairly livley nightlife scene with bars and restaurants along the Tuo River.

Fenghuang, also known as Phoenix Town, was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. Covering an area of 1.8 kilometers, the old town contains 20 imperial-era streets, dozens of imperial-era lanes and passages and over 200 imperial-era residences. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Fenghuang City is located in the southwest of Hunan Province. It borders Luxi County in the east, Mayang County in the South, Songtao County of Tongren city in Guizhou province in the west and Jishou City and Huayuan County in the north, serving as the strategic gateway connecting Hunan and Guizhou provinces. [Source: State Administration of Cultural Heritage, People’s Republic of China]

Ancient Fenghuang Town is situated at the foot of mountains and beside waters. Its construction has proved a very practical and scientific exploration in terms of the town site selection as well as layout design and city planning. Following the undulation of the mountainous landscape, the town walls encircle the ridges and span over the ranges while rivers wind along the corridors before flowing out through the town. It is thus by absorbing the artistic philosophy of traditional Chinese garden design and making best of the limited space of the mountain area that the town achieves well-structured layout. Such distinctive building clusters are unique feature of Ancient Fenghuang Town, which has given a full display to the intelligence, talents and enthusiasm of the architects, represented a unique artistic achievement and can be called a creative and genius masterpiece....In Ancient Fenghuang Town, ethnic languages, custom, arts as well as those distinctive architectural remains of Ming and Qing styles all carries large amount of historical information of the witch culture in ancient State of Chu...

Web Sites: Travel China Guide (click attractions) Travel China Guide Getting There: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

History of Fenghuang

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: In the 5th year of Xianqing under the reign of Emperor Gaozong in the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 660), Tian Zongxian the prefecture governor of Qianzhou sent his grandson Tian Yangming on a punitive expedition eastward to suppress the local ethnic groups. Tian Yangming initiated the Xidong (Xi Cave) Five Stockade Villages System ("Wuzhai") here and Tian Kechang, Tian Yangming's son was appointed by the imperial government as "Five-Cave Prefect" (called Wuzhai Prefect later) in Tuojiang Town where the ancient town now lies. [Source: State Administration of Cultural Heritage, People’s Republic of China]

In the 2nd year of Chuigong period under the reign of Empress Wu Zetian in the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 686), Weiyang County was established with Fenghuangshan (today's Huangsiqiao Ancient Town) as the county site. After the chaotic Five Dynasties period, Weiyang County was abandoned and in the 3rd year of the reign of Emperor Jiatai in the Song Dynasty (A.D.1203) the Wuzhai Office was changed into Wuzhai Legionary and Civil Prefect Office. In the 33rd year of the reign of Emperor Jiajin in the Ming Dynasty (A.D.1554), Mayang Deputy Officer was shifted to command Wuzhai Prefect Office. Since Xisuo (today's Jishou County) and Ganziping Prefect Office was directly under its jurisdiction, it was named Zhengan Town.

In the 39th year of Emperor Kangxi's reign in the Qing Dynasty (A.D.1700) the garrison commander of Yuanzhou was shifted to Zhengan, which was then one of the four towns of the Hu-Guang Prefecture. Then in the 42nd year of Emperor Kangxi's reign (A.D.1703), the replacement of native official by government-appointed ones was enforced and Fenghuang Office was established with its seat at the former site of Weiyang County. In the 46th year of Emperor Kangxi's reign (A.D.1707), the military and political dignitaries of Hu-guang prefecture concluded after an investigation that the Zhengan Town "neighbour Yunnan and Guizhou Province in the west, protrude into the reaches of Chengjiang River and Yuanshui River, connect Sichuan and Hubei Province in the north, and guard Guangxi Province in the south." "With its majestic landscape, it rules numerous towns and villages". Since it was a strategic gateway for Southwest China, the West Hunan Governor of the Chengyuan Jingdao was shifted from Yuanzhou to Zhengan and made it one of the four prefectures of Hunan province. Ever since then the high ranking officials of this prefecture had all stationed in this town. In the 48th year of Emperor Kangxi's reign (A.D.1709), Fenghuang office was also been moved to Zhengan. In the 54th year of Emperor Kangxi's reign, the town was expanded and stone wall city sprang up. A large scale of construction was mounted inside. As a result, as a series of government offices such as of Circuit Intendant's office, Town office, Middle Battalion office, Concurrent Administrator office, etc. The Temple of Literature was built and expended along with the school buildings, academy yards and assembly halls successively, which was to be followed by the shops, stores, and stalls as well as the ancestral temples and other religious buildings.”

In August 2007, a bridge under construction in Fenhuang collapsed, killing 47 people, most of them construction workers who were removing scaffolding from the 268-meter-long, 42-meter-high bridge, which spans the Tuo River An estimated 123 workers were at the site at the time of the accident. Eight-six were rescued. The bridge had four decorative stone arch and was scheduled to open a month later. It was built without steel reinforcement rods because builders wanted to use traditional stone-and-concrete methods. Authorities prevented journalists from investigating the accident, raising suspicions that officials might have allowed shoddy construction materials to be used. One witness told AP, “I was riding a bike with my husband and we just passed underneath the bridge and were about 50 meters away when it collapsed. There was a huge amount of dust that came up and it didn't clear for about 10 minutes. On the rescue effort one nearby residents said, “There were arms and legs were broken, only linked with skin."

Tujia Minority

Tujia brocade

The Tujia are one of the largest ethnic groups in China. They live in Xiangxi Tujia-Miao Autonomous Prefecture in western Hunan and parts of southwestern Hubei and eastern Sichuan provinces. Most live in the Wuling Mountain Range south of the Yangtze. They are primarily an agricultural people who have lived in close association with the Han Chinese and Miao but have many unique folk customs such hand dancing which embraces more than 70 different gestures and is performed around New Year's Day.

The Tujia are also known as Bizika, Bizka, Tuding, Tujen and Tumin. Their original language is only spoken in a few areas. It is a Tibetan-Burman language similar to Yi. Most speak a Chinese dialect. The Tujia had no written language until the Communist government gave them one after 1949. Religious and spiritual beliefs are similar to those of Han Chinese except that shaman have a pronounced roll and the white tiger and the turtle are popular religious totems.

The Tujia inhabit an area that encompasses a vast mountainous region in central China that included parts of Hunan, Hubei, Guizhou and Sichuan Provinces. The Tujia people have nearly a dozen different autonomous administrative units of their own in the four provinces in which they live. The Tujia refer to themselves as the Bizika. They have intermixed with Han and been surrounded by them for many centuries and have largely been assimilated. Their clothing and customs are very much like those of the Hans. Only a small number of Tujia continue to use the Tujia language. [Source: Ethnic China ethnic-china.com *]

The Tujia language belongs to the Tibeto-Burmese language family and is closely linked to the Yi language, spoken hundreds of kilometers away. About 20,000-30,000 people living in remote areas such as Longshan and along banks of Youshui River speak Tujia. The large majority of Tujia speak the Han and Miao languages. Old Tujia ways survive only in remote area. [Source: People's Daily]

Day Trip from Fenghuang

Tianlong Canyon is an hour and 15 minute drive from Fenghuang. One traveler wrote for CRI: “"Tianlong" means "sky dragon" in Chinese. Situated in western Fenghuang County in Hunan Province, a canyon named "Tianlong" lies like a real dragon with beautiful scenery and adventurous paths that attract visitors from across China. The narrowest part of the canyon is only two meters wide where visitors can see only a "line of sky." The cliffs along a river running through the canyon are 300 meters high. The cascades are the most popular hot spots for people to take photos. But to see all of them, you must first conquer the tough paths ahead. [Source: CRI September 8, 2009]

During a day-trip to Tianlong canyon, you can fully experience "walking in the air" on planks built along the cliffs with the river just below you. A one-way trip takes more than an hour, if you stop halfway to take pictures. But many visitors give up before they get to the end because they are exhausted. If you persist and reach the end of the canyon, you will be rewarded with a present from nature — a bottle of drinkable spring water. The spring water drips from a round stone that extends from the ceiling of a cave. The stone is called the "Thousand Threads" because of the continuously dripping water. It is said that the canyon was named "Tianlong" because an ancient Chinese warrior nicknamed "Tianlong" hid here after he failed to murder an emperor who imposed heavy burdens on his people.

Travel Information: 8:30am — Start out from the ancient town of Fenghuang; 10:00am — Arrive at the "Ancient Ghost" valley; 11am — Leave the "Ancient Ghost" valley for Gouliang Miao Village; 11:15:00am — Arrive at Gouliang Miao Village; 11:30am-12: 40pm — See a performance in the village; 12:40pm-1:30pm — Eat lunch; 2pm — Arrive at Tianlong Valley; 4:15pm — Leave Tianlong Valley for Fenghuang town; 5:30pm — Arrive at Fenghuang town.


Qianyang Ancient Town

Qianyang Ancient Town, Hunan (75 kilometers south of Fenghuang) is a charming old town much less well-know that of Fenghuang and therefore less spoiled. Surrounded by water on three sides, Qianyang was once a famous business town on the southern Silk Road, which was an important transportation channel before the Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.) linking China to south and west Asia. [Source: Xu Lin, China.org, April 12, 2012]

Qianyang Ancient Town was established in 202 B.C., making it 1,400 years older than Dayan Ancient Town of Yunnan and some 900 years older than Fenghuang Ancient Town. The town is a successful model planned and established based on its terrain following Feng Shui, the Chinese system of geomancy believed to use the laws of both Heaven and Earth to help one improve life. There are many alleys in the town, and each of them is connected in a T-shape, which looks like a perplexing maze. The design is a combination of traditional architecture with Chinese philosophy. Today, the town's original layout, alleys and the ancient architecture complexes of Ming and Qing dynasties are still well preserved, which is an exception in modern China.

Various temples, ancestral halls, opera halls, guild halls, academies, shops, hotels, residential houses and villas can be found in the town. The tall firewalls, the bended eave corners, the wood-frame windows decorated with carved patterns and the plain counters record the town's long history. Most buildings are of one or two stories, built using either wood or brick. For hundreds of years, local residents have created a unique folk culture, including local operas, music, dances and artwork such as woodcarving handicrafts and bamboo baskets. The Mulian Opera, an integration of folk stories, sideshows and acrobatics,and also known Chinese 'ghost opera', can be found in the town. Mulian Opera is China's oldest theatric genre, dating back to the Tang Dynasty.

Miao Ethnic Group

The Miao are a colorful and culturally- and historically-rich ethnic minority that lives primarily in southern China, Laos, Burma, northern Vietnam, and Thailand. Originally from China, the Miao are animists and ancestor worshipers and have traditionally lived in villages located at 3,000 to 6,000 feet.

The Miao are known in Southeast Asia as the Hmong (pronounced mung). They are ethnically different and linguistically distinct from the Chinese and the other ethnic groups in China and Southeast Asia. Even though they have intermarried a great deal with the Chinese, they are shorter and their eyes and faces look different than those of Chinese. The Miao can be quite different from one another. The difference between Miao groups is often as pronounced as between Miaos and non-Miaos.

Hmong means "free men." Miao means :weeds” or ‘sprouts." The Chinese used to call them man, meaning “barbarians," The Laotians, Vietnamese and Thais call them the Meo, which means essentially the same thing as Miao. Hmong and Miao subgroups — Red Miao, White Miao (Striped Miao), Cowery Shell Miao, Flowery Miao, Black Miao, Green Miao (Blue Miao) — are in most cases named of the color of the woman's dress. There are two main groups in Southeast Asia: the White Hmong and Green Hmong.

The Miao are one of the largest minorities in China. They are widely distributed over Guizhou, Yunnan, Guangxi and Sichuan provinces, with a small number living on Hainan Island and in Guangdong Province and in southwest Hubei Province. Most of them live in tightly-knit communities, with a few living in areas inhabited by several other ethnic groups. The main Miao settlements are in the Southeastern Guizhou Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture, the Southern Guizhou Bouyei and Miao Autonomous Prefecture, the Southwestern Guizhou Bouyei and Miao Autonomous Prefecture, the Western Hunan Tujia and Miao Autonomous Prefecture, the Wenshan Zhuang and Miao Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan, and the Rongshui Miao Autonomous County in Guangxi Province. The Southeastern Guizhou Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture has the highest concentration of Miao. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~]

The Miao have very long history. Because they are scattered very widely, Miao in different places have quite different customs, and they go by many different names, After the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, these disparate groups were given the standardized name: "Miao".

Gouliang Miao Village

Gouliang Miao Village (southwest of Fenghuang) is touristy Miao village. The CRI traveler wrote: “ After Fenghuang County became a popular destination for tourists, the Gouliang Miao Village opened to the public. You can watch folk performances such dances and attend marriage ceremonies and festivals. Currently, 300 families consisting of about 1,000 people reside in the village. Many of them do not speak Mandarin. [Source: CRI September 8, 2009]

“Miao people welcome visitors by singing. They stand at the entrance of the village to sing, adding "yo wei" at the end to indicate that a song has ended. According to Miao custom, only those visitors who sing a song in return are allowed into the village. Otherwise, each visitor must drink three big bowls of wine instead. If you plant to visit a Miao village, there are three taboos. First, do not whistle in the village. In the religion of the Miao people, whistles are calls for the devil. Second, do not walk on the threshold of a Miao home. In Miao culture, thresholds symbolize the shoulders of those who live in the house. Trampling on the threshold means you are stepping on the shoulders of the family members. Third, do not walk into a home with an opened umbrella unless you intend to marry a son or a daughter of the family.

Near the Gouliang Miao Village, you will find a group of cascades in a small valley. The valley is named "Ancient Ghost" because of a local tale. It is said that once a couple of lovers eloped here and promised to commit suicide in a deep pool because their families wanted to break them up. The couple promised to jump together after counting to three. The young woman jumped, but her fiancé did not. People say that the young woman's ghost haunts the valley and continues to search for her fiancé who betrayed her.Nowadays, people come to the valley to take pictures and enjoy its beautiful scenery.”

Miao People's Valley

Miao People's Valley (18 kilometers from Fenghuang) is reached by track into the mountains of Xiangxi Tujia and Miao Autonomous Prefecture. One traveler wrote in the Global Times: “According to local villagers, their ancestors settled here to stay away from the bandits using the mountains and the rivers as cover. They never thought that what used to protect them would hinder the development of the village now. But in recent years, travel buses began to transport packs of tourists to the village. Although it is one hour's bumpy ride from Phoenix town, they consider it worthwhile to experience the unspoiled Miao ethnic culture and breathtaking natural scenery. [Source: Global Times, September 4, 2009]

“We were struck speechless by the idyllic sight when we arrived at the village gateway. Squares of rice swayed simultaneously with the wind, the tips of the plants beginning to turn golden. Stone houses with gray roofs scattered in the open field. Hardly any people, dogs and hens roam about indolently while strings of red chili and corn hang on the walls to dry. However, we are not in the center of the village yet. You have to take a bamboo raft and flow down to a huge cave before taking another boat to the other side of the mountain. The cave belonged to the head of the Miao village in ancient times. There is a buffalo skull hung on the banner of the cave gate to show the dominance of the leader.The cave is dark and damp, the channel is narrow. Water drips from overhead and occasionally we encounter waterfalls pouring down from high up on the stone walls. When we emerge into the sunlight again, we see an open lake, like a gem embedded in the mountains. After around five minutes of rowing on the lake, we arrive at the small Miao village.

“Girls and boys dressed in Miao costumes wait at the entrance, singing a folk song to welcome us. It is a tradition for the Miao people to welcome their guests with a song and in return, the guests should also sing back. They offer us homemade rice wine before we step into their homes. Low in alcohol and rich in fruit flavor, the rice wine tastes sweet and sour. They also show us their unique stunt-playing tunes using tree leaves. Our guide says that in Miao villages, girls and boys are free to choose their own partners when they are 16 years old. And a boy would show his affection for his girl by playing tree leaves tunes to her. So the feat is actually part of the matchmaking ritual for young lovers of the Miao ethnic minority and most men know how to play.

“To outsiders like us, the skill is incomprehensible, just like the lyrics of the Miao ethnic songs and dances that they perform for tourists. A large number of young people in the village are working as performers under a local tourism company. Long Faqiu's son is one of them. Long Faqiu, a local villager, serves homemade Miao cuisines to tourists. Although he mainly works on his farmland, he is receiving more and more benefit from the emerging tourism in Miao People's Valley. His annual income has doubled from years before the village was opened to travelers.”

Dong Ethnic Group

The Dong are related to Thais and Lao and live primarily in the hills along the border of Hunan,Guizhou and Guangxi provinces. They have their own language, Kam, a Sino-Tibetan tongue, and had no written language until the Communist government gave them one after 1949. The Dong grow rice, wheat, maize and sweet potatoes for consumption and cultivate cotton, tobacco, soybeans and rapeseed as cash crops. They also sell timber and other forest products. Most Dong live among the green, rain-soaked mountains of Guizhou. One Dong saying goes: Not three feet of flat land, not three days without ran, not a family without three silver coins." [Source: Amy Tan, National Geographic, May 2008]

The Dong are one of the larger ethnic minorities in China. They are also known as the Gaem. They refer to themselves as "Kam." About 55 percent of them live in Guizhou Province. About 30 percent of all Dong live in the southern part of Hunan Province. About eight percent make their home in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. A few thousand can be found in Hubei Province. Those that live in Guizhou Province reside mainly along a fringe of flat lands that cross the province from north to south. [Source: Ethnic China ethnic-china.com *]

Dong Villages in Western Hunan

Dong Villages in southwest China in Guizhou Province, Hunan Province and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region were nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2013. Many of the Dong villages have drum towers, pavilions and bridges. The Tongdao Bridge in southern Hunan Province is regarded as one of the best Dong covered bridges. Dimen is a Dong village of 500 households that has a community, cultural and research center and is home to the Dimen Dong Eco-museum. The Dong here were described in a National Geographic article by Amy Tam.

Dong Villages Huan are located in:Tongdao Dong Autonomous County and Suining County: in Gaoxiu Village (N 26°09 26", E 109°42 11"); Pingtan Village (N 26°1.9, E 109°52); Yutou Village (N 26°08 19", E 109°42 22"); Shangbao Village (N26°22 23", E 110°07 46"); Hengling Village(N 26º04, E 109 º43 18");

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

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