The Gao Family Mansion

With a history stretching back over 400 years, the Gao Family Mansion is the ideal place to experience what ancient life would have been like in the rapidly expanding metropolis of Xi’an. Its entrance is an unassuming gate on the side of Beiyuanmen Street in the city’s bustling Muslim Quarter and it offers a slice of tranquillity amongst the lively chaos of this popular dining area. This venerable mansion was originally established during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and served as the former residence of a scholar-official named Gao Yuesong. During his illustrious career, Gao Yuesong achieved the second highest mark in the imperial examination and was awarded with this mansion by the reigning Chongzhen Emperor for his loyal service as an imperial official. His story might be worth mentioning next time you talk to your boss about Christmas bonuses!

Gao Yuesong’s mansion was often a hive of activity, as he regularly hosted events with prominent writers, thinkers, scholars, and performers. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to enjoy his luxurious home for long, as he tragically died at the age of 31. His family, however, continued to live in the mansion for seven generations and many of his descendants went on to have successful careers as officials within the imperial government.

The mansion itself sprawls over an area of over 2,500 square metres (26,910 sq. ft.) and is made up of 86 rooms, 56 of which are currently open to the public. The entire complex is separated into two courts, the north court and the south court, which in turn each contain four small courtyards. Wandering through this labyrinthine complex, visitors will be met with rooms lavishly decorated with period furnishings and walls beautifully bedecked with traditional Chinese paintings. Alongside being a popular tourist attraction, the Gao Family Mansion serves as the offices for four different organisations, including the Xi’an Chinese Painting Academy.

Nowadays, the Gao Family Mansion acts as a beacon of ancient culture in the city of Xi’an. Every day, performances of traditional Chinese opera and Shadow Puppetry take place on its main stage. Shadow Puppetry is a type of performance that uses simple colourful figures made from leather or paper to act out its stories and is believed to have originated in Shaanxi province during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). In-keeping with this local flavour, both the opera and shadow puppet shows at the mansion utilise the local dialect of Shaanxi province and the stories they tell revolve around popular folk legends. These lively performances are complemented by classes on the traditional Chinese art of papercutting and peaceful tea ceremonies at the courtyard teahouse.

The 8 Immortals Temple

With their ability to bestow life and overcome the forces of evil, the 8 Immortals have captured the imagination and admiration of people throughout China for centuries. Think of them like the original Chinese superheroes! They have been a focal feature of Chinese mythology since the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) and have been particularly influential when it comes to the indigenous Chinese religion of Taoism, although their identities weren’t strictly fixed until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Each of them carries a special magical item, which are regarded as holy articles in Taoism.

The 8 Immortals are traditionally known as: Han Zhongli, who clasps a fan that can bring the dead back to life; Zhang Guolao, whose sacred item is an unusual drum made out of a bamboo tube; Han Xiangzi, who is often depicted playing his flute; Li Tieguai, who heals people using the special medicine in his magical gourd; Cao Guojiu, who is rarely seen without his imperial jade tablet; Lü Dongbin, who wields a powerful sword; Lan Caihe, who carries a basket of flowers; and He Xiangu, who delicately holds a single lotus flower. They are predominantly male, although He Xiangu is the only woman among them and Lan Caihe’s gender is often left ambiguous.

Outside of the 8 Immortals Temple in Xi’an, a stunning mural recounts a famous legend known as “The Eight Immortals Cross the Sea”. According to this fabulous legend, the 8 immortals were on their way to attend a conference that was being held by a goddess known as the Queen Mother of the West, who is renowned in Chinese mythology for her magical peaches that can bestow immortality. Their journey, however, was unexpectedly brought to a halt when they encountered an ocean in their path. The typical mode of transport for an immortal in this instance would be to ride on a cloud, but the 8 immortals couldn’t resist the chance to show off their powers!

Rather than simply conjure up their celestial clouds, Lü Dongbin suggested that they should each use their unique skills to get across. In some depictions, the immortals are shown literally skidding across the waves sat atop their sacred items, but the mural outside of the temple recounts the version of the story in which they transformed their sacred items into various different fantastical animals, which they then rode. This enthralling tale gave rise to the Chinese proverb: “The Eight Immortals cross the sea, each one reveals their divine powers”, which is used to describe when everyone uses their unique skills and expertise in order to achieve a common goal. In some instances, however, people use this proverb to refer to a situation where each person is striving to outshine their peers and assert their superiority. Even when it comes to divine deities, it’s still all a matter of perspective!

In-keeping with the grandeur that surrounds these mythical figures, the 8 Immortals Temple is the largest Taoist temple in Xi’an and has a particularly special historical pedigree. In 1900, an international military coalition known as the Eight-Nation Alliance was formed by Japan, Russia, Britain, France, the United States, Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary as a response to the ongoing Boxer Rebellion, which had been responsible for the deaths of numerous foreign missionaries.

In that same year, the alliance’s armed forces invaded and occupied Beijing, forcing the ruling Emperor Guangxu and his mother Empress Dowager Cixi to flee to Xi’an. They sought refuge within the 8 Immortals Temple, which is now occasionally referred to as the 8 Immortals Palace because it briefly served as the residence of royalty. After Emperor Guangxu and Empress Dowager Cixi were able to safely return to Beijing, they donated substantial amounts of silver to fund the renovation of the temple and a board inscribed by Empress Dowager Cixi herself still hangs within one of its halls. While it is believed that the temple was originally built during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), most of its existing structure dates back to these renovations made during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).

Alongside the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower, the temple can roughly be divided into three sections. The first section is made up of five halls that are dedicated to a Taoist deity known as Wang Lingguan. The second section is formed of two halls, with the back hall featuring colourful painted statues of the 8 Immortals. The third and final section simply consists of the Main Hall, which is where the tablet inscribed by Empress Dowager Cixi is housed. Inside this hall, locals and visitors alike make offerings to Taoist deities, with particular emphasis on a high-ranking goddess known as Doumu or “the Mother of the Great Chariot”.  To the west of this hall lies a hall for the immortal Lü Dongbin and a hall for the deity Yaowang or the “King of Chinese Medicine”, while accommodation for the resident Taoist priests can be found to the east.

At the centre of the temple courtyard, visitors can cross over the Bridge of Meeting Immortals, which was built in memory of Wang Chongyang, the legendary founder of the Quanzhen sect of Taoism. This venerable master of Taoism is also intimately connected to the 8 immortals, as he was supposedly enlightened by none other than Lü Dongbin. It’s a small spiritual world after all!

While they are not represented by individual halls within the temple complex, the 8 Immortals Temple is also the place where locals in Xi’an come to pray to the hundreds of other Taoist immortals, who are each responsible for a different area of human life. In many ways, they have been said to resemble the patron saints of Catholicism. On the 14th day of the fourth month and the 9th day of the ninth month every year according to the Chinese lunar calendar, worshippers will converge on the temple for the 3-day-long temple fair and the Double Ninth Festival respectively. During both of these festivals, the temple will be fragrant with the sweet smell of incense as vibrant worshipping ceremonies take place throughout its many halls.

Gaochang Ruins

The Gaochang Ruins were once the site of an ancient oasis city built on the northern edge of the unforgiving Taklamakan Desert. They are located at the foot of the Flaming Mountains, about 46 kilometres (29 mi) southeast of Turpan, and have miraculously survived for over 2,000 years. They were incorporated into the Silk Road UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014 and, thanks to renovations and preservation projects, have since enjoyed a much deserved facelift! Though they may not be in as good a condition as the Jiaohe Ruins, which are about 40 kilometres (25 mi) to their west, they still maintain a certain inimitable charm.

The city was built during the 1st century BC and was ruled by the Cheshi (Jushi) Kingdom, until they surrendered control of the area to the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) around about 50 BC. It played a focal role as one of the main trade hubs and oasis towns along the Silk Road, making it a prized asset that the Han court was keen to protect. It became the capital of the Gaochang Kingdom (531-640) during the 6th century but returned to Chinese control in 640, when it was conquered by Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). However, this would prove to be short-lived as the Tang court was forced to withdraw its military forces from the area in 755. Like a property in Central London, Gaochang’s prime location meant it was incredibly valuable and hotly contested!

By 803, the Uyghur ethnic group had taken control of the city and it became part of the Kingdom of Qocho (856-1335). In 1209 this kingdom came under the suzerainty of Genghis Khan and eventually became part of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), but was seized by a rival Mongolian kingdom known as the Chatagai Khanate from 1275 to 1318. When the Yuan Dynasty eventually collapsed, the trade route that ran through Gaochang was disrupted and war broke out between the Mongolians and the Uyghurs. This warfare greatly damaged the city and this, coupled with the disruption of trade, led to the city being gradually abandoned.

Although the city was left in bad shape, much of the additional destruction happened long after it was deserted. Initially Muslims from outlying areas destroyed many of the Buddhist frescos within the city that depicted human or animal forms, believing them to be blasphemous. Then, over a period of time, local farmers took wall paintings from the temples and soil from the walls of the earthen buildings, as they made good fertiliser. So remember, if you happen to sample any of the locally grown vegetables, you’re quite literally enjoying the taste of Gaochang!

It wasn’t until the late 19th century that the archaeological value of the region was discovered, and soon archaeologists from across the globe flocked to the area to marvel at the ruins. Many of the relics excavated in Gaochang are now scattered throughout museums in London, Berlin, St. Petersburg, and other far-flung cities, but many more still remain within the city’s dilapidated walls.

In its heyday, the city boasted an impressive population of approximately 30,000 people and was undoubtedly one of the livelier towns along the Silk Road. Its colossal earthen walls once towered in at over 11 metres (38 ft.) in height and it was separated into three parts: the outer city, the inner city, and the palace city. The inner city was protected by a secondary inner wall, which has since vanished, but large portions of the outer wall still remain. The palace city at Gaochang’s northernmost point was once arguably its most magnificent edifice, but now contains only the massive cornerstones of the ruined imperial palace.

On top of being a centre for trade, it was once an important religious site and, during the Tang Dynasty, it became one of the foremost Buddhist cities. In 630, while on his pilgrimage to India, the renowned monk Xuanzang even gave lectures there. At one time, the city was host to numerous monasteries, including a Confucian college and a Nestorian church, and over 3,000 monks made a home within its walls. Nowadays all that remains of this illustrious heritage are the ruins of two major temples in the southern part of the outer city. The temple in the southwest still has remnants of a gate, a courtyard, a sermon hall, a sutra[1] depository, and the monks’ living quarters, while the temple in the southeast only consists of a tower and a series of well-preserved murals.

Mummies recovered from the Astana Tombs, just 4 kilometres to the north of the ruins, were discovered to be of both Caucasian and Mongolian descent, which suggests that Gaochang may have been one of the oldest multi-ethnic and multi-religious cities in China. Murals in the nearby Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves also depict both Central Asian and Chinese monks. So who knows, you might recognise your great-great-great-great-great-grandfather in one of the frescos!

 

1. Sutra: One of the sermons of the historical Buddha.

 

 

 

Hoklo People

Like the Hakka, the Hoklo people are not one of China’s 55 ethnic minorities but are also just a subgroup of the Han ethnic majority. They are sometimes referred to as Hokkien, Hokuro, Min-nan, or Hokkien Lang people and, in the same vein, their language can be referred to as Hoklo, Hokkien, Fukien, Amoy, Minnan, Min, Fujianese, and Taiwanese.

However, unlike the Hakka, there is no strong cultural identity linking the subgroups of Hoklo people and they have seemingly failed to hold on to any significant cultural traits. Some people are not even aware of their Hoklo heritage and, to this day, there is no standard Chinese term for “Hoklo”. Since many of them intermarried or assimilated with Hakka people or Taiwanese aborigines, the term “Hoklo” became more of a linguistic heritage.

Their language is a branch of Min-nan or “Southern Min” Chinese, which is a dialect that is mutually unintelligible to Eastern Min, Standard Chinese, and Cantonese. They are believed to have originated from lands bordering the Yellow River in northern and central China, much like the Hakka, and settled primarily in southern Fujian province, although communities of Hoklo people can be found in Guangdong and Hainan.

zhangzhou

Nowadays most Hoklo people live in towns and cities, but a few still live in large earthen constructions known as Tulou. These fortress-like buildings were designed by the Hakka and are usually round or square in shape. They can be several stories high and were initially built to protect inhabitants from bandits and wild animals. Evidently the Hoklo knew a good thing when they saw it, because they took to these safe havens immediately!

However, by far the largest constituency of Hoklo people can be found in Taiwan, where they make up 70% of the population and are thus the ethnic majority. Hoklo Taiwanese is a term generally used to mean anyone whose ancestors emigrated from Fujian to Taiwan prior to 1949. In the north and south of Taiwan, there are two marginally different dialects of their language that point to their diverging origins. It is believed that the Hoklo people in the north originated from Quanzhou Prefecture and those in the south originated from Zhangzhou Prefecture. No matter how they got there, the Hoklo Taiwanese have developed their own unique culture that continues to thrive to this day!

 

Get more stories about Hoklo people on our travel: Explore the distinctive Tulou(Earthen Structure)

Victoria Peak

Of all the wonderful tourist attractions on offer in Hong Kong, Victoria Peak is undoubtedly the most iconic. With an elevation of 552 metres (1,811 ft.), it is the highest mountain on Hong Kong Island. Locals and tourists alike flock to the peak every day, making it the most visited attraction in the region. Yet it isn’t the peak itself that attracts so much adoration; it’s the panoramic views from the top. Dazzling skyscrapers and the sparkling Victoria Harbour stretch out beneath you, glittering in the midday sun. At night, a galaxy of multi-coloured lights transforms the urban jungle into a twinkling wonderland. Hong Kong is renowned for having one of the most beautiful cityscapes in the world, and Victoria Peak is the ideal place to appreciate it.

To reach the peak, most visitors take the Peak Tram, which has been in operation for over 100 years and currently ferries an average of 11,000 people to the top every day! Its lower terminus hosts the Peak Tram Historical Gallery, where visitors can learn all about the tram’s history, and its upper terminus ends in the magnificent Peak Tower. This is one of two large complexes atop the peak, the other being the Peak Galleria. Both of them boast viewing decks where visitors can soak in the celebrated scenery, although the Peak Tower’s Sky Terrace 428 charges a small entry fee and views of Victoria Harbour from the Peak Galleria are unfortunately obscured.

Most of the peak is dominated by public parks and luxury residential areas, although the summit is occupied by a radio telecommunications facility and is actually off-limits to the public. With properties regularly selling for over HK$1.8 billion (£170 million), it is the most expensive location to buy real estate in the world! Historically speaking, this area has been attracting interest since the 19th century, when European expatriates quickly discovered that its panoramic view of the city and its temperate climate made it the perfect escape from the oppressive humidity in the rest of Hong Kong.

The sixth Governor of Hong Kong, Sir Richard MacDonnell, famously built his summer residence on the peak in 1868. Tragically MacDonnell’s mansion was destroyed during the Second World War, but its verdant gardens remain and are now open to the public. The Governor evidently inspired a trend in the Hong Kong elite, because soon other houses, such as the Austin Arms and the Eyrie, began cropping up on its expanse. However, the tram service had yet to be developed, so these original residents would have to reach their homes by being carried up and down the steep slopes on sedan chairs. If you thought your job was bad, imagine what it would be like to work as a servant for the Peak’s rich and famous! It wasn’t until 1888 that the Peak Tram finally started operating.

From 1904 until 1947, the peak was designated an exclusive residential area reserved only for expatriates, which is why it’s visibly dominated by colonial architecture. The Peak Tower wasn’t built until 1972 and only contained a café and a restaurant at the time. In 1993, the tower underwent a major redevelopment, and nowadays is a colossal complex with its own Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium, and observation deck, along with numerous shops and restaurants. Similarly the Peak Tram, which was initially powered by coal-fired steam boilers, was updated into an electrically powered system in 1926.

Modernised though it may be, Victoria Peak still retains its quaint charm and provides a welcome escape from the bustling metropolis of Central. With its lush greenery, tranquil public parks, and breath-taking views, it represents a little slice of peace and quiet for the locals of Hong Kong. Whether it’s hiking, shopping, or simply people-watching, it has an inimitable attraction that draws people from all walks of life. In short, if you’re in Hong Kong, it’s sure to pique your interest!

 

Hong Kong

As one of the most densely populated places in the world, Hong Kong evidently holds a particular fascination for people from across the globe. Perhaps it’s the fact that, with over 1,000 skyscrapers and more buildings over 150 metres (500 ft.) than any other city, it has one of the tallest and most magical skylines in the world. In Hong Kong, more people live and work above the 14th floor than anywhere else on Earth, making it the world’s most vertical city. Unfortunately, it is also notorious internationally for having the most unaffordable housing, so don’t get your heart set on a Hong Kong apartment!

The skyline is considered so spectacular that it’s earned Hong Kong the nickname the “Pearl of the Orient”, but the region’s actual name has rather different connotations. The Chinese name for Hong Kong, known as “Xiānggǎng” (香港), literally translates to mean “Fragrant Harbour” or “Incense Harbour”. Some historians believe that this may refer to the sweet taste of the water in the estuaries of the Pearl River, while others argue that it derives from the incense that was made and stored in factories along the coast north of Kowloon. Regardless of its origin, the name clearly indicates the importance of maritime activities in Hong Kong’s history.

Officially the region is made up of three parts: Hong Kong Island, the Kowloon Peninsula, and the New Territories, together with 230 offshore islands. Before the mid-19th century, Hong Kong was an area of little significance, inhabited only by a small population of Tanka fishermen and Hakka charcoal burners. Compared to other regions in China, it lacked fertile soil and a stable fresh-water supply, and was rumoured to be a haunt of pirates.

However, in 1821, British merchants soon discovered that its natural harbour made a safe and sheltered base where they could anchor their opium-carrying vessels. These merchants swiftly realised the great commercial and strategic value that Hong Kong held. The area where they first landed became the Victoria urban district, and is now the centre for administrative and economic activities in Hong Kong. Victoria Peak and the stately colonial mansions that surround it are now popular tourist attractions.

After the First (1839-1842) and Second (1856-1860) Opium Wars, Britain forced China to sign a series of treaties that granted them control of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula. In addition, the New Territories and offshore islands were leased to Britain in 1898 for a period of 99 years. Thereafter, Chinese immigrants frequently flocked to Hong Kong in droves during times of crisis, because it was heavily protected by foreign powers. It was soon established as a place of shelter, and its population grew rapidly. Unfortunately, its status as a safe haven was not to last, as it was occupied by the Japanese for over three and a half years during the Second World War (1939-1945).

During the late 1970s, with the 1997 expiration date on the New Territories lease fast approaching, the Chinese government began to argue that the whole of Hong Kong should be returned to China, since the Hong Kong-British agreements counted as unequal treaties that required resolution. From 1982 to 1984, the British government negotiated with the Chinese and eventually the Chinese-British joint declaration was signed. It stated that all Hong Kong territories, including Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula, would be returned to Chinese control.

On July 1st 1997, after 156 years under British colonial rule, Hong Kong was officially transferred to the People’s Republic of China and renamed the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. This new name indicated that, although Hong Kong now belonged to China, it was still allowed to maintain its capitalist economy and retain a large degree of political autonomy, excepting only in matters of foreign policy and defence. Nowadays, this is commonly referred to as the “one country, two systems” concept.

Its unusual history means that Hong Kong is frequently described as a place where “East meets West”. Whether its colonial architecture built according to feng shui[1] principles or dim sum restaurants sat elbow-to-elbow with fancy French bistros, Hong Kong represents a perfect fusion of Eastern and Western influences. Unlike other parts of China, English is listed as one of the official languages in Hong Kong, so a much larger portion of the population is fluent in both English and Cantonese[2]. Coupled with the incredible public transport system, this makes getting around Hong Kong a breeze for first-time visitors!

Geographically speaking, Hong Kong benefits from a humid, subtropical climate, and most of its terrain is hilly or mountainous. Average temperatures range from a sweltering 29 °C (84 °F) in summer to an unbelievably mild 16 °C (60 °F) in winter. Be forewarned, this warm weather comes with a price! From June to October, the area is buffeted by an average of five to six typhoons every year and strong torrential downpours dominate the rainy season.

While the region is famed for its urban development, Hong Kong’s mountainous terrain and subtropical climate mean it’s also a haven for nature lovers! Lush plant-life thrives in the region and there are plenty of public parks to simply get lost in. These slices of greenery are the perfect place to practice tai chi, take a gentle hike or a leisurely bike ride, indulge in a spot of kite-flying, or enjoy a few water sports.

That being said, Hong Kong is best known for the myriad of cultural activities that take place there every year. The Hong Kong Heritage Museum, the Hong Kong Museum of Art, and the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra host numerous annual events that never fail to dazzle the crowds. And, if you’re in the mood for a bit of frivolous fun, there’s always Hong Kong Disneyland!

 

[1] Feng Shui: This theory is based on the premise that the specific placement of certain buildings or objects will bring good luck.

[2] Cantonese was once considered to be a dialect of Chinese, but is now widely regarded as a language in its own right.

The Yin Mountains

Forming part of the eastern border along the Gobi Desert, the Yin Mountains stretch for over 1,000 kilometres (631 mi) from Inner Mongolia to northern Hebei province. At points they rise to a mighty 2,180 metres (7,152 ft.) in height, while at others they drop to a modest 1,500 metres (4,921 ft.). Their northern slope is comparatively gentle, but the southern slope is steep and forms a sharp natural barrier against the plain below it. Yet it’s not the mountain range’s height that makes it so special. The range is home to over ten thousand cliff paintings known as petroglyphs, where the rock’s surface has been incised, carved, or abraded to form a primitive work of art. Since prehistoric times, these mountains and their surroundings have served as the muse for countless individuals.

These petroglyphs can be separated into four main sets: the first and oldest set, which dates back to the Xia (c. 2100-1600 BC), Shang (c. 1600-1046 BC), and Zhou (c. 1045-256 BC) dynasties; the second set, which were carved by Xiongnu nomads and range from the Spring and Autumn Period (c. 771-476 BC) to the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD); the third set, which portrays distinctly Turkish characteristics and dates back to between the Jin Dynasty (265-420 AD) and the Tang Dynasty (618-907); and the final set, which were executed by Mongolian tribes sometime from the Song Dynasty (960-1279) to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).

Some of the oldest rock paintings were examined as early as the 5th century by the geologist Li Daoyuan of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–535). While his findings represent the earliest record of the paintings, they weren’t formally surveyed until 1976. From then on, experts, scholars, and tourists have been drawn to the mountain range, tempted by the opportunity to catch a glimpse of our prehistoric origins. The paintings provide an invaluable insight into the lifestyle, beliefs, and customs of the ancient nomads that once roamed these open plains.

The paintings themselves are scattered throughout the mountain range, with the largest concentration being located on Mount Hei. The early paintings are dominated by scenes of hunting and feature a wide range of animals, including goats, sheep, antelopes, elks, moose, deer, horses, camels, wild ox, wild boar, rabbits, foxes, wolves, tigers, leopards, and even ostriches! Many of these species have since disappeared from the region, but these paintings act as a testament to their presence.

On many of the cliff-faces, a certain pattern emerges regarding the distribution of the paintings. While scenes of hunting and wild animals are found mostly towards the base or mid-point of the cliff, those of deities, celestial bodies, or constellations tend to be engraved high on steep cliffs or on giant rocks near valleys. This demonstrates an early veneration for religious figures and implies that, as with many primitive peoples, the nomads of the Yin Mountains associated the life-giving properties of water with the gods.

These early paintings were predominantly chiselled or ground into the rock using basic metal or stone tools, meaning they are often uneven in depth and density. The rock paintings of later periods are characterised by thinner and more superficial lines, which were formed by literally scratching into the rock-face using much slimmer utensils. As time went on and the paintings became more sophisticated, so too did their themes. Scenes of hunting are replaced by tableaus of herding and grazing domestic animals; the faces of anthropomorphic animal gods are gradually superseded by the distinctly human features of Buddhist deities; and simple skirmishes between different tribes become spectacles of brutal warfare. As society continues to advance at a rapid pace, these paintings serve as a poignant reminder of mankind’s humble beginnings.

The Wang Family Compound

The Wang Family Compound may not be the most popular of the Shanxi Grand Compounds, but it’s actually four times the size of the renowned Qiao Family Compound and even rivals the Forbidden City in its magnitude! Like many of the Shanxi Grand Compounds, it is located in Lingshi County, approximately 35 kilometres (22 mi) from the ancient city of Pingyao. Stretching over an area of 150,000 square metres (1614587 sq. ft.), its vast complex consists of six castle-like courtyards, six lanes, and one street. In-keeping with its legendary size, its five main courtyards were designed to symbolically represent the five lucky animals according to traditional Chinese culture: the Dragon, the Phoenix, the Tortoise, the Qilin (Chinese Unicorn), and the Tiger. In short, you could say the Wang family were living in the belly of the beast!

Like many of the Jin merchant families from this region, the Wang family began as simple farmers and eventually graduated to becoming small time businessmen. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), they expanded their business gradually and hoped that, ultimately, their efforts would grant their successors the opportunity to gain official positions in the government. By the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), the family had reached the peak of their prosperity and over 100 members of the Wang family were high-ranking officials! Unfortunately all this good work would be undone towards the end of the dynasty, as future generations of the Wang family lacked their forebears’ ambition. After having lived in this grand mansion for 27 generations, the last members of the Wang family left in 1996 and it was opened to the public in 1997.

Nowadays, only two of the colossal courtyards and one of the ancestral halls are open to tourists, comprising a total of 123 smaller courtyards and over 1,100 rooms. The complex has been separated into three main areas: the Red Gate Castle; the Gao Jia Ya or East Courtyard; and the Chongning Bao. Built from 1739 to 1793, the Red Gate Castle covers a colossal 25,000 square metres (269,098 sq. ft.) and contains 29 courtyards. Its name is derived from its characteristic red gate, which is the only one in the compound, and its layout is designed to look like the Chinese character “王” (Wáng), which means “king”. It should come as no surprise that this character happens to be the Wang’s family name. Talk about making something in your image! It thus seems quite fitting that the Wang Museum, which details the history of the family, should be found in the Red Gate Castle.

The Gao Jia Ya, which was constructed between 1796 and 1811, may not be as expansive as the Red Gate Castle, but it boasts some of the finest woodcuttings, stone-carvings, and brick sculptures in the compound. It is a somewhat labyrinthine structure, consisting of multifarious courtyards and connecting alleyways. Nowadays it is also used to exhibit a lavish collection of items that once belonged to the Wang family. Similarly, the Chongning Bao is now used primarily to display elegant paintings and woodcuttings by the celebrated artist Li Qun. On August 18th of every year, a Tourism Festival is held in the Wang Family Compound, where visitors have the opportunity to watch and take part in traditional folk activities. It’s the ideal time to embrace the ancient culture in which this grand work of architecture was conceived.

 

Find more stories about Wang Family Compounds and Jin Merchants on our tour: Explore Chinese Culture through the Ages

The Qiao Family Compound

The Qiao Family Compound is widely thought to be the most famous and popular Shanxi Grand Compound in the province of Shanxi, largely thanks to its starring role in Zhang Yimou’s moving drama Raise the Red Lantern. These magnificent courtyard houses were originally built during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties by prosperous families hailing from Shanxi province. Located in the village of Qiaojiabao approximately 30 kilometres (19 mi) from the historic city of Pingyao, the Qiao Family Compound was originally known as Zai Zhong Tang (在中堂) and was constructed in 1756 by a renowned merchant named Qiao Guifa, who made his fortune selling tea and tofu.

However, the Qiao family wouldn’t reach its zenith until the third generation, when Qiao Zhiyong became the head of the family. Qiao Zhiyong was an astute businessman and, during his lifetime, he built up an unparalleled mercantile empire in the province of Shanxi. When he was head of the family, the Qiao clan controlled over 200 shops located throughout the country, including a number of prototype banks, pawnshops, teahouses, and granaries. Of the three great expansions that the Qiao Family Compound underwent, it was Qiao Zhiyong who was responsible for the largest and most extravagant. He was considered such an intriguing figure in Shanxi province that, in 2006, a television series was made about his life, known as Qiao’s Grand Courtyard. In short, he got more than just his fifteen minutes of fame!

Yet it wasn’t just Qiao Zhiyong’s business acumen that enabled the compound to flourish. During the Qing Dynasty, a military coalition known as the Eight-Nation Alliance was set up in response to the violent Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) in China. Included in this alliance were the Empire of Japan, the Russian Empire, the British Empire, the French Third Republic, the United States, the German Empire, the Kingdom of Italy, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1900, the alliance sent troops to liberate their embassy in Beijing, which had been under siege. Once they had resolved the issue with the embassy, they decided to invade and occupy the city of Beijing. Talk about taking liberties!

 

In response, the governor-general of Shanxi province ordered that all foreigners in the region were to be killed on site. Seven Italian sisters, who were working in the country as missionaries, managed to escape the ensuing panic and eventually arrived at the Qiao Family Compound. They begged Qiao Zhiyong for protection and he allowed them to hide within the compound, which ended up saving their lives. In honour of his benevolence towards their people, the Italian embassy awarded him with an Italian flag, which he proudly displayed within the compound.

Many years later, during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), the Japanese army invaded Shanxi province and left destruction in their wake. However, the presence of this flag meant that Japanese troops chose to leave the Qiao Family Compound unharmed, since Italy was one of Japan’s political allies at the time. Having been spared a gruesome fate, the compound was occupied by the Qiao family right up until 1985, when it was converted into a museum.

After numerous renovations in its 160-year-long history, it now stretches over a staggering 8,724 square metres (93,904 sq. ft.) and is comprised of 6 large courtyards, 20 smaller courtyards, one ancestral temple, and 313 rooms. Its layout is designed to resemble the Chinese character “囍”, which means “happiness” and is meant to symbolically express the Qiao family’s hope for a bright future. Some of its courtyards are flanked at their entrance by fearsome stone guardian lions, while others have their eaves delicately painted with tableaus of Chinese folk legends or their gates engraved with beautiful patterns.

Each courtyard consists of a principle room, which was reserved for the host and is distinguished by its tiled roof. The side rooms, which were designated for the guests and servants, have brick roofs instead. These differences in style helped to break up the monotony of the architecture, whilst simultaneously indicating the hierarchy of the compound’s residents. A special corridor on each roof enabled guards to patrol the entire compound with ease. Not only that; the compound is entirely surrounded by 10-metre (33 ft.) high walls, which endow it with a fortress-like appearance from the outside. After all, a man’s home is his castle, and castles need round-the-clock protection!

 

Wandering through the compound’s many rooms and corridors is a banquet of delights, resplendent with some of the finest wood carvings, brick carvings, stone carvings, murals, and wall sculptures in northern China. Nowadays it houses over 2,000 cultural relics, including porcelain, silk embroidery, paintings, and divine furnishings that are sure to transport you back to the luxurious lifestyle of the Qiao family. These lavish decorations are sure to entice you, while the various exhibitions on the history of the Qiao family and the business customs of the Qing Dynasty will provide you with an invaluable insight into life in ancient China. Just don’t stay too long, or you may never want to leave!

 

Nanchang

As the capital of Jiangxi, Nanchang represents the cultural and economic heart of the province. Yet the city itself has something of a chequered past. Most of the time, it remained an urban centre of little significance but, at times, it found itself the stage for some of the most pivotal events in Chinese history. It was founded as early as 201 BC and was given the name Nanchang or “Southern Flourishing”, which was derived from a statement by Emperor Gaozu of the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) about the importance of expanding his influence in southern China. However, it wasn’t until the Tang Dynasty (618-907) that the city saw its first major developments.

In 653, the magnificent Tengwang or “Prince Teng” Pavilion was constructed and, although it would find itself destroyed and rebuilt several times, it soon came to be known as one of the Three Great Towers in southern China. This was in part due to a poem written by the illustrious Wang Bo in 675, known as “Preface to the Pavilion of Prince Teng”. This literary masterpiece extols the beauty of the pavilion and helped skyrocket the city into national fame. Wang’s work is living proof that the pen is truly mightier than the sword!

In 959, Nanchang experienced another spot of good fortune when it was made the southern capital of the Kingdom of Southern Tang (937–976). However, as the old saying goes, all good things come to an end! Towards the close of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), the city became a battleground between Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and a local warlord named Chen Youliang. Similarly, at the start of the 16th century, it was used as a power base from which Zhu Chenhao, the Prince of Ning, launched a rebellion against the Ming government.

The tragedy deepened when the city was further damaged during the brutal Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) and, in the late 19th century, its commercial importance began to decline as overland routes were gradually replaced by coastal steamship services. Yet this was all set to change on August 1st 1927. The city became the site of a series of revolts, led by pro-communist Kuomintang[1] officers and organised by the Chinese Communist Party, known as the Nanchang Uprising.

Although they only managed to hold the city for a few days, the soldiers involved provided a core of troops and a method of organisation which eventually inspired the founding of the People’s Liberation Army. For this reason, the Communist Party often regard Nanchang as “the place where the People’s Liberation Army was born”, and the city itself holds a coveted place in the history of Communist China. It is now a popular destination for Red Tourism, but the city has so much more to offer than that!

Situated along the right bank of the Gan River and just 40 kilometres (25 mi) south of Lake Poyang, the largest freshwater lake in China, it is an ideal base for those wishing to embrace the natural beauty of Jiangxi province or experience the migration of some half a million birds that flock to Lake Poyang every year. During winter, the lake is a focal bird-watching spot, as it becomes home to a substantial number of rare Siberian cranes.

If you’re more interested in the city’s ancient history, then the Tengwang Pavilion and the Bada Shanren Memorial Hall are must-see attractions. Although the most recent manifestation of the pavilion was built during 1989 after it was virtually destroyed in 1926, it follows the Song Dynasty (960-1279) style and was based off of Song paintings of the pavilion at the time. These same paintings also served as the inspiration for the corner-towers in the Forbidden City, which were designed to imitate the Tengwang Pavilion. Talk about one serious claim to fame!

From one famous work of art to another, the Bada Shanren Memorial Hall is dedicated to the celebrated painter Zhu Da, who adopted the pseudonym Bada Shanren during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) in order to hide the fact that he was a descendant of the Ming Dynasty prince Zhu Quan. The memorial hall itself is based on the design of the Qingyunpu Taoist Temple, which is where Zhu Da took refuge during the early years of the Qing Dynasty.

For over 300 years, his ink wash paintings have been regarded as some of the finest masterpieces of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Walking through the tranquil gardens of the complex and marvelling at his delicate brushwork, you’ll be sure to lose yourself in the beauty of Nanchang. That being said, if you’re after a little more excitement, you can always take a turn on the 160-metre (525 ft.) tall Ferris wheel known as the Star of Nanchang!

 

 

[1] Kuomintang: Also known as the Chinese Nationalist Party. They were the ruling party from 1928 until their defeat at the hands of the Communists in 1949. They retreated to Taiwan, where they still play an active political role.