Qilou

Chikan

Qilou, also known as Tong Lau, are a unique style of architecture that became hugely popular throughout many regions in southern China, such as Guangdong province, Fujian province, Macau, and Hong Kong, during the late 19th century. The style originated from the bustling city of Guangzhou, which was a commercial port used frequently for foreign trade. The foreign influence on this style of architecture is palpable, as it resembles a perfect intermingling of traditional Chinese and Western styles of architecture. Earlier Qilou tend to exhibit more Edwardian or Neoclassical characteristics, while the later Qilou, particularly those in Hong Kong, were heavily influenced by the Bauhaus movement. 

In terms of structure, the majority of Qilou are two to four storeys in height and have a balcony on the upper floors that extends into the street. The balconies of neighbouring Qilou join together in order to form a shaded corridor over the sidewalk itself. From the exterior, the upper floors are supported by a series of brick pillars and the windows are generally French in style. They were initially designed for both commercial and residential use, with the ground floor being used by small businesses and the upper floors typically occupied by the shopkeepers’ family. 

Guangdong Province and Fujian Province

Guangzhou

The history behind the early Qilou in the provinces of Guangdong and Fujian is far from glamorous. Following a series of invasions by foreign powers, such as the First and Second Opium Wars, certain parts of China were forced to open for trade, in particular the coastal areas of Guangdong province and Fujian province. In 1759, Guangzhou in Guangdong province became home to the first official foreign trading port, while the city of Xiamen in Fujian province established maritime trading with British Singapore in 1821 and the provincial capital of Fuzhou opened to foreign trade in 1842. That being said, it seems that every cloud has a silver lining!

The foreign trading paths opened in these areas allowed thousands of local Chinese people to emigrate overseas, which meant they could escape the impoverished regions where they lived. This provided them with access to untold business and employment opportunities, which led to several emigrants becoming extremely rich. These emigrants then invested in their hometowns by building lavish and luxurious Qilou for their families. 

Zhangzhou

The earliest Qilou were masterminded by these wealthy businessmen to serve as stylish shops, so you’ll find many of them in the old business sector of Guangzhou, Chaoshan, and Zhangzhou. While the Qilou in Guangzhou and Chaoshan of Guangdong province exhibit more Western features, the ones found in the city of Zhangzhou in Fujian province were built in a far more traditionally Chinese style, since Zhangzhou was not subjected to as much Western influence. The town of Chikan in Guangdong province is particularly famous for its beautifully preserved Qilou, most of which line the banks of the Tan River. 

Hong Kong

While early Qilou in Hong Kong generally resemble those found in the provinces of Fujian and Guangdong, the ones that were built after World War II are far simpler in design. They were primarily intended to deal with the post-war baby boom and sudden influx of immigrants from mainland China. The elaborate iron balconies that were typical of older Qilou were replaced by cheaper concrete ones and the roofs were often flat with an open terrace, which provided additional residential space. In a similar vein, delicate wooden French windows gave way to less aesthetically pleasing but infinitely more cost effective stainless steel windows.

The upper floors of these Qilou were partitioned off so that they could house more than one family or several tenants, which resulted in increasingly smaller living spaces. During the 1970s and 1980s, air conditioning units and clothes racks were added in order to accommodate the needs of a modernising society. It was during this period that the emblematic neon shop signs of Hong Kong were also added to these Qilou.  

Nowadays, the largest concentration of Qilou can be found on Wing Lee Street, which is known as the last remaining Qilou street in Hong Kong. There are 12 Qilou that line this street and they all date back to the 1950s. The street’s greatest claim to fame is that it was used as a set for the Chinese film Time, the Thief, which won the Crystal Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival in 2010. Don’t worry; although this street may be a superstar, the crowds along it are far from unbearable!

the Blue House

There are a number of individual Qilou in Hong Kong that have also skyrocketed to fame, thanks predominantly to investment from various businesses. The Lui Seng Chun, for example, is a Qilou that was converted into a popular traditional Chinese medicine clinic in 2008 and became the Hong Kong Baptist University School of Chinese Medicine. It is now home to a delightful herbal tea shop on its ground floor, as well as a small exhibition that contains photographs of the old Lui Seng Chun.

Similarly, a four-storey Qilou housing cluster known as the Blue House, which was built during the 1920s, has recently been renovated. You may be surprised to hear that its distinctive blue colour was not a deliberate aesthetic choice by its designer, but was simply the only colour of paint that the decorators had left! In the 1950s and 1960s, it served as the kung-fu studio for Lam Sai-wing, a student of the nationally renowned Cantonese folk hero and kung-fu master Wong Fei-hung. 

Macau

The majority of remaining Qilou in Macau can be found on Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro near the Largo do Senado. They are generally considered to be better preserved than the ones in Hong Kong, as they were regularly restored rather than being demolished to make way for newer buildings. Since Macau was a Portuguese colony, these Qilou unsurprisingly exhibit a number of features that are typical of Portuguese colonial architecture. Nowadays, these Qilou are no longer occupied and have instead been entirely repurposed for commercial use. 

Hainan Province

While many of the Qilou on the island of Hainan have fallen to ruin, the ones located in the cities of Haikou and Wenchang have been beautifully preserved as a result of renovation campaigns supported by the local government. In Haikou, the most famous area to visit Qilou is along the historic Bo’ai Road at the heart of the city, which is often referred to locally as “Qilou Old Street”. Much of the road has been converted into a pedestrianised zone, meaning visitors can admire the Qilou at their leisure without the fear of the tumultuous inner city traffic! At night, the stunning facades of these buildings are illuminated by a series of lights, which adds to the vibrant atmosphere of the area. Similarly, in the city of Wenchang, all of the Qilou along Wennan Old Street have been restored to their former glory. Unlike Haikou, however, their facades have not been repainted and still maintain their traditional grey colour.

Explore more about Qilou with us on the unique travel: Explore the Ancient Fortresses of Southeast China

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

Film “Raise the Red Lantern”

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!

Architectural Achievements of Qin Dynasty

Zhengguo CanalThe Qin Dynasty was responsible for some of the greatest architectural achievements in ancient Chinese history, and this was predominantly due to the fact that they had access to a colossal slave labour force made up principally of peasants and farmers. The Lingqu Canal, the Dujiangyan Irrigation System, and the Zhengguo Canal are known as the “three great hydraulic engineering projects of the Qin Dynasty” and were each revolutionary for their time. These water systems are some of the largest of their kind and miraculously are all still in use today! Yet these watery wonders pale in comparison to the dynasty’s later achievements.

During the Warring States Period, large sections of defensive wall were used to surround the different states in order to protect them from each other and outside forces. When Qin Shi Huang conquered the other six states in 221 BC, he had the interior walls destroyed but connected large sections of the existing northern walls and eventually created the foundation for the Great Wall as we know it today. Although this wall has been renovated and rebuilt beyond all recognition, credit will always go to the Qin Dynasty for its original conception.

The Terracotta Army, on the other hand, has genuinely remained unchanged for thousands of years. This collection of over 6,000 life-sized terracotta warriors and horses was constructed simply to protect the Emperor in the afterlife. They are part of a gigantic tomb complex that was hermetically-sealed after the Emperor’s death in 210 BC and remained in perfect stasis until the army was rediscovered over 2,000 years later. After such a long nap, no wonder these soldiers look so fresh and well-rested!

Diaojiaolou

According to legend, when the first ancient pioneers set out from northern and central China in the hopes of discovering and populating southern China, they came upon a number of difficulties. In the mountainous forests of south China, they met with fierce beasts, venomous snakes, and a myriad of unpleasant insects. In spite of this adversity, they managed to settle a colony in the south and set fires around the colony in order to deter wild beasts. However, the people continued to be plagued by vicious snakes and deadly scorpions, until one of the tribal leaders, an old, wise and well-respected man, came upon an idea for a building suspended on wooden stilts. The colony built these tall dwellings and soon they were safe from the dangers of the creatures below.

These were the first diaojiaolou, a dwelling popular among several of the ethnic minority communities throughout southern China. The word “diaojiao” (吊脚) in Chinese means “hanging feet” and “lou” (楼) means “building”, so diaojiaolou literally means “hanging feet building”. They are so named because of their unusual appearance. The history of the diaojiaolou stretches back over 500 years and they are widespread throughout Yunnan, Guangxi, Hunan, Guizhou, Hubei, and Sichuan province but differ in appearance depending on the ethnic group who built them.

Diaojiaolou 02Diaojiaolou are rectangular or square wooden buildings built in the ganlanstyle. A ganlan-style building is any building that is supported by stilts or wood columns. Diaojiaolou are typically two to three storeys high. The upper floors are held up by thick wooden stilts, which give the building an unsteady appearance. These stilts are further reinforced by stone blocks at their base, meaning diaojiaolou are in fact very stable. Even if one column is destroyed or one stone block is removed, the building will still stand firm. These buildings are a masterpiece of ingenious carpentry, as oftentimes they are made using no nails or rivets. The structure and stability of the building depends on groove joints, which hold the wooden beams and columns together perfectly.

The ground floor is made up primarily of the supporting columns and often does not have any walls. This floor tends to be used as a kind of stable for livestock or as a storage space for firewood and farming equipment. The second and third floors will be used as living spaces, although occasionally the top floor will be used as an extra storage space. The top two floors will have verandas or balconies, which are used to dry clothes. Some diaojiaolou built by wealthier families will have attics or annexes to provide more space.

Although the original legend behind the diaojiaolou may seem farfetched, it touches upon one of its main benefits. The key to its popularity is that, in ancient times, these stilted buildings would provide protection from wild animals, and nowadays they continue to provide protection from venomous snakes and insects that are still prolific throughout China. The cool breeze blowing through the windows of the upper levels acts like a kind of natural air conditioner, meaning these buildings also help prevent humidity-related diseases common in southern China. In the south of China, the level of humidity on the ground during summer is almost unbearable and potentially dangerous, so elevated living spaces are particularly important. These stilted houses are also designed to survive most natural disasters, such as floods and earthquakes.

On top of these safety benefits, diaojiaolou also offer some unique benefits that help improve the quality of life for their inhabitants. Their stilted design means they can be built on mountainsides or across bodies of water, so they were often used to colonise previously uninhabitable areas of China. Since the upper floors are particularly high up, they receive more natural light than the ground floor. In the past, this allowed inhabitants to easily work on their craftwork inside and nowadays, because they are naturally well-lit, many diaojiaolou do not have electrical lighting on their upper floors. These upper floors also act as a vantage point, so farmers have a broad view from which to survey their land.

The Miao, Dong, Zhuang, Yao, Tujia, Bouyei, and Shui ethnic minorities have all incorporated diaojiaolou into their architecture and villages. Although the basic style of each diaojiaolou is the same, there are variations between those of different ethnic minorities.

  1. Miao Diaojiaolou

miao diaojiaolouThe Miao people have a reputation for living in mountainous areas and thus diaojiaolou make the perfect dwellings. Miao diaojiaolou spread up the sides of mountains and are built on very steep gradients. They are usually built by the villagers using local fir wood. The front of this type of diaojiaolou is held up by pillars but the rear of the house is suspended on wooden poles, making it level with the mountainside. This gives the Miao diaojiaolou their distinctive “hanging” appearance. The Miao villages of Basha, Xijiang and Langdeshang in Guizhou province have particularly stunning diaojiaolou. Xijiang is the largest Miao village in the world and has the widest showcase of Miao diaojiaolou.

  1. Dong Diaojiaolou

Dong diaojiaolouMost Dong villages are at the foot of a mountain or hill and all Dong settlements will be near to a stream or river, so stilted diaojiaolou are useful for building up the mountainside or building over the water. Since the Dong diaojiaolou are not built on a steep gradient, the “hanging” aspect of the upper floors is not as pronounced as it is in Miao diaojiaolou. Dong diaojiaolou are aesthetically magnificent, as the Dong people are skilful carpenters and love to adorn their buildings with intricate carvings of flowers, wild animals and mythical creatures. If you want to see the Dong style of diaojiaolou, we recommend visiting the villages of Zhaoxing and Xiaohuang in Guizhou province. Zhaoxing’s architecture is particularly spectacular, as it contains five Drum Towers of differing styles.

  1. Zhuang Diaojiaolou

zhuang diaojiaolouThe exterior of the Zhuang diaojiaolou does not look dissimilar to that of the Dong diaojiaolou. However, the key difference is the interior, as they have a shrine at their centre which is used for ancestor worship. They also usually incorporate separate bedrooms for the husband and wife, which is an archaic Zhuang custom. The Zhuang villages of Ping’an and Guzhuang have wonderful diaojiaolou. Guzhuang village has the largest number of Zhuang diaojiaolou in China and some of these buildings date back over 100 years, making them some of the oldest diaojiaolou in the country.

  1. Yao Diaojiaolou

yao diaojiaolouThe Yao ethnic minority tend to live on flat land so Yao diaojiaolou are usually short and have wooden stilts of even heights. In some cases, the ground floor of a Yao diaojiaolou may have walls. The cluster of Yao villages near the Jinkeng Rice Terraces in Guangxi province is the perfect place to admire this style of diaojiaolou. One of these villages, known as Dazhai, even has some diaojiaolou that now function as hotels!

  1. Tujia Diaojiaolou

In contrast to the Miao people, the Tujia people prefer to live near mountains but close to or sometimes even over rivers or streams. Thus you’ll find that many Tujia diaojiaolou are either placed directly on the waterfront or hang over the water. The Tujia believe that these stilted houses embody the coexistence of God and man, so the designs of their diaojiaolou often reflect this. Tujia diaojiaolou are hard to come by, since the Tujia people are slowly abandoning their old settlements and assimilating into modern Chinese culture. The Tujia Folk Customs Park in Zhangjiajie, Hunan, is a large scale replica of a traditional Tujia village and features Tujia style Diaojiaolou. However, if you want a more authentic experience, we recommend visiting the Tujia village of Shuitianba in the Enshi Tujia and Miao Autonomous Prefecture of Hubei Province.

  1. Bouyei Diaojiaolou

bouyei diaojiaolouThe Bouyei people are renowned more for their unique stone houses than for their diaojiaolou. Their diaojiaolou, though no less magnificent, are relatively typical and have few distinguishing features. The fame of the Bouyei stone buildings has tragically overshadowed their diaojiaolou and thus Bouyei diaojiaolou are difficult to find. Located about 21 kilometres away from the city of Guiyang, Zhenshan village in Guizhou province has a mixed community of Bouyei and Miao people, with Bouyei making up about 75% of its population. Though most of the buildings in Zhenshan are made of stone, a few are made of both wood and stone in the diaojiaolou style. Alternatively, some of the Bouyei villages near the Nanpan River in Yunnan province contain several diaojiaolou.

  1. Shui Diaojiaolou

shui diaojiaolouThe Shui dwellings are not typical diaojiaolou and so are often referred to as “woodpile dwellings”. This is because the stilts on the ground level are very short and the ground level will usually have walls, meaning the house looks kind of like a woodpile. Shui diaojiaolou will only ever have an odd number of rooms, since there is a taboo on even numbers in Shui culture. There are some small Shui villages in Guizhou province is the perfect place to admire these quaint little “woodpiles”.

Join a tour with us to explore more about Diaojiaolou: Explore the Culture of Ethnic Minorities in Guizhou

The Yingxian Wooden Tower

The Yingxian Wooden Tower, also known as the Shakyamuni[1] Pagoda of Fogong Temple, rests just 85 kilometres (53 mi) south of Datong City in western Yingxian County. Having been built without a single nail or rivet, it is a masterpiece of carpentry and the oldest surviving wooden pagoda in the world. It has reached such a level of fame in China that it is now widely referred to simply as “Muta” (木塔) or “Wooden Tower”. At the grand old age of 959, this tower has pushed its woody competitors to the side and taught them to respect their elders!

The tower was originally built in 1056 by Emperor Daozong of the Liao Dynasty (907–1125), which controlled an empire encompassing Mongolia, northern Korea, and northern China, and was established by a nomadic subgroup of Mongolian people know as the Khitans. Emperor Daozong was a devout Buddhist and his father, the preceding Emperor Xingzong, was a native of Yingxian County. This would perhaps explain the isolated location of the tower, as pagodas such as these were normally erected to symbolise the death of Buddha and its placement may have been Emperor Daozong’s way of equating the importance of Buddha’s death with that of his father.

The tower was placed at the centre of Fogong Temple, which was known as Baogong Temple until its name was changed during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). According to local historical documents, from the years 1056 to 1103 it withstood a total of seven earthquakes and, right up until the 20th century, it required only ten minor repairs. Talk about resilient! Unfortunately, it sustained major damage during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) but, when it underwent the necessary repairs in 1974, renovators uncovered over 50 block-printed and handwritten scrolls of Buddhist sutras[2] dating back to the Liao Dynasty. These scrolls helped historians to finally establish that the use of moveable type printing had indeed spread widely across China after being developed by the Song Dynasty (960-1279). So it seems every cloud really does have a silver lining!

Although the archway, bell tower, drum tower, and shrine to Shakyamuni Buddha were all rebuilt during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), the wooden tower itself is in its original condition and has been stunningly well-preserved. It stands on a 4 metre (13 ft.) high stone platform that is delicately decorated with crawling lion sculptures in the Liao Dynasty style, and it towers in at a height of over 67 metres (220 ft.). Looking at it from the outside, it appears to have only five storeys, but walk inside and you’ll soon realise that there are in fact nine storeys in total. Just when you thought you were going to have a relaxing climb to the top!

An 11-metre-high (36 ft.) statue of Shakyamuni Buddha takes pole position at the centre of the first floor, with an ornate caisson[3] directly above its head. Similar caissons bedeck the ceilings of every storey in the pagoda and its walls are beautifully decorated with vibrant murals and vivid sculptures that all reflect the Liao Dynasty style. There are windows on all eight sides of its top floor that provide stunning views of the surrounding countryside and supposedly, on a clear day, the tower itself can be seen from up to 30 kilometres (19 mi) away!

[1] Shakyamuni: One of the titles of Gautama Buddha, the central figure and founder of the Buddhist faith. It is derived from the place named Sakya, which is where he was born.

[2] Sutra: One of the sermons of the historical Buddha

[3] Caisson: Also known as a caisson ceiling or zaojing, it is a feature of East Asian architecture commonly seen on the ceilings of temples or palaces, usually at the centre or directly above an object of importance, such as a throne or statue. Generally speaking, it is a sunken square, octagonal, hexagonal, or circular panel set into a flat ceiling that has been richly carved and decorated.

The Great Wall

GWcoverthinboard 600

The Great Wall spans over large parts of northern China, and is the result of thousands of years of construction. In 1988 it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and in 2007 it was named as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Officially it extends for approximately 8,850 kilometres (5,500 miles) from east to west, making it 2,000 kilometres (1,200 mi) longer than the River Nile!

The history behind this practically legendary feat of architecture began during the Warring States Period (c. 476-221 BC). At that time, China was separated into seven large empires known as the states of Qin, Han, Wei, Zhao, Qi, Chu, and Yan, along with a few smaller kingdoms. In an effort to protect themselves from both inside and outside threats, many of these states began to build walls around their respective territories. The State of Chu pioneered this defensive trend in the 7th century BC when they constructed the “Square Wall”. From the 6th to the 4th century, the other six states followed suit and soon the country was littered with fortifications made of stone, packed earth, and anything they could get their hands on!

When the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, unified China in 221 BC, he was left with the unenviable task of dealing with this labyrinth of walls. He began by ordering the destruction of all fortifications that had been set up between the conquered six states, as they only presented obstacles to internal administration. However, he soon realised that he could use several of the walls to protect his newly unified China from the nomadic Xiongnu people.

In 214 BC, he ordered the construction of connections between the existing walls that had belonged to the States of Qin, Yan, and Zhao. Ten years later, the “10,000-li[1] Long Wall” was completed. Hundreds of thousands of conscripted workers were forced to labour on the wall and many of them perished. When Qin Shi Huang died in 210 BC, the wall largely fell into disrepair.

That is until the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), when Emperor Wudi’s campaign against the Xiongnu revived interest in the wall as a northern defence system. He began strengthening it not only to protect the country from invasion, but also to help the imperial court control trade routes between China and Central Asia. When the Northern Wei (386-534) and Northern Qi (550-577) dynasties took control of northern China, they too invested in extensive repairs to help defend against potential invasions.

During the Sui Dynasty (581-618), in light of the looming threat represented by the Tujue people, the wall was repaired and extended. However, when the Tang Dynasty (618-907) took over, their military prowess allowed them to defeat the Tujue and expand China’s territory further north. Thus the wall gradually became defunct and was neglected for several years.

This was all to change during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), when the Liao and Jin tribes in the north presented a constant threat. The Song rulers were forced to withdraw behind the wall and relinquish their northern territory. Extensive repairs and additions to the wall continued until the Song court was forced to retreat even further south towards the Yangtze River. Since the Mongol leaders of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) already controlled a vast empire outside of China, they had little use for the wall and only garrisoned a handful of key areas predominantly to monitor trade and travel.

Great Wall built in MingIt was during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) that the wall would finally achieve the accolade and greatness it sorely deserved. The Ming leaders tirelessly maintained, strengthened, and extended it in the hopes of staving off another Mongolian invasion. When people talk about “The Great Wall” of China, they are usually referred to the Ming Great Wall, which stretches from Tiger Mountain in the east to the Jiayu Pass in the west, as the sections of this wall around Beijing and Hebei province are in decent condition. While these sections were largely constructed with bricks, many of the ones in Shanxi Province were built using solid clay. Further west there are still some relics of the Han Great Wall, such as Yumen Pass and Yang pass, but these are largely incomplete when compared with the Ming Great Wall. The most heavily garrisoned areas along this wall were the Three Inner Passes (Juyong, Daoma, and Zijing) and the Three Outer Passes (Yanmen, Ningwu, and Piantou), which were key to the protection of Beijing.

When the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) replaced the Ming, they changed their ruling strategy to one known as huairou or “mollification”. This was where the Qing court would pacify peoples from Mongolia, Tibet, and other nationalities within their territory by allowing them to continue with their social, cultural, and religious lifestyles uninterrupted. This strategy was so successful that the Great Wall was largely unneeded and fell into disrepair once again. That is, until Chinese businessmen discovered what a valuable tourist attraction it was!

Construction

To maximize the effectiveness of the Great Wall, several mountains were incorporated into it as natural barriers and these account for about a quarter of its length. This helped prevent the construction costs from becoming too steep! That being said, over 70% of it is made up of manmade wall, which is incredibly impressive. It consists of three main components: passes, signal towers, and walls.

The passes represented the greatest strongholds and were usually located at strategically significant points, such as along trade routes. They served as access points for merchants and civilians, as well as exits for soldiers when they performed counterattacks or went out on patrols. On average, the bastions measured 10 metres (30 ft.) in height and were 4 to 5 metres (13-16 ft.) wide at the top. The outside was crenelated while the inside was marked by a metre-high (3 ft.) wall that prevented people or horses from falling off the top. Let’s just hope no one was clumsy enough to trip over the wall!

the construction of the Great WallSignal towers were used to communicate along the wall via the use of beacons (lanterns) at night or smoke signals during the day. In addition, soldiers stationed at the towers would raise banners, beat clappers, or fire guns to convey certain messages. For example, one release of smoke with one shot of gunfire signified the approach of 100 enemies, while three smoke releases with three gunshots indicated more than 1,000. Once one tower spotted the signal, they would replicate it in order to warn towers further down the line. Kind of like forwarding work emails!

The walls themselves are on average 7 to 8 metres (23-26 ft.) in height and 6 metres (19 ft.) in width. To put that into perspective, they’re so wide that five horses could gallop side by side with room to spare! Their structure varies from place to place and largely depended on the kinds of building materials that were available. For example, in the western deserts the walls are mainly made of rammed earth, while in the eastern regions they are faced with stones from outlying mountains.

The Legend of Meng Jiangnu

Of all the myths associated with the Great Wall, the legend of Meng Jiangnu is the most famous and ranks as one of China’s Four Great Folktales. The legend takes place during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), around the time that Emperor Qin Shi Huang announced his intentions to build the Great Wall. A beautiful girl named Meng Jiangnu was tending her family’s garden when she caught sight of a young scholar named Fan Qiliang, who was hiding from the federal officials as he did not want to labour on the wall. As with all good fairy tales, they fell in love at first sight and agreed to marry. But, just three days after the wedding, officials broke into their home and took Fan away.

For many months, Meng heard nothing about her husband and so resolved to travel to the wall herself. Upon her arrival, her eagerness to see him was matched only by her despair when she discovered that he had died of exhaustion. She sat on the ground and wept so bitterly that her cries caused a 400-kilometre-long (248 mi) stretch of the wall to collapse and reveal the bones of her deceased lover.

孟姜女Meanwhile, the Emperor happened to be touring the wall and was enraged to find part of it had been destroyed. Yet, the moment he set eyes upon Meng, he was transfixed by her beauty and, instead of executing her, he asked her to marry him. She agreed, but only on three conditions: a festival should be held in her husband’s honour; a state funeral should be conducted for him; and a terrace should be built on the wall near the river so she could make sacrificial offerings to him.

The Emperor reluctantly met her terms but, before their wedding, she climbed the newly built terrace, cursed him and threw herself into the river. This tragic tale embodies the cruelty of the first emperor and honours the many workers who lost their lives building the wall. The Temple of Meng Jiangnu can be found near Shanhai Pass and dates all the way back to the Song Dynasty.

Badaling

The Badaling section of the Great Wall is arguably the most famous and attracts thousands of visitors every day. It rests near the city of Zhangjiakou, just 70 kilometres (43 mi) northwest of Beijing, and was the first section to be opened to the public. Although it was originally built in 1505, it was rebuilt during the 1950s and is thus one of the most “complete” sections of the Great Wall. It stretches over 12 kilometres (7.5 mi) and contains 43 signal towers.

jiankou002Jiankou

The term “jiankou” means “nocked arrow” and this section of the Great Wall was so-named because part of it resembles a large sideways “W”, like an arrow that is ready to shoot. It is located just outside Xizhazi Village, about 30 kilometres (19 mi) from Huairou County.

A few highlights along this part of the wall include: the Nine-Eye Tower, a command tower that has nine holes resembling nine eyes on each side; the Sky Stairs, a set of stairs that elevate at a dizzying angle of 70 to 80 degrees; and “The Eagle Flies Facing Upward”, a watch tower built so high up that supposedly even eagles would have to fly facing upward to reach the top!

mutianyu great wall 03Mutianyu

Mutianyu was originally built during the Northern Qi Dynasty (550-557) and stretches approximately 2 kilometres (1.5 mi) from the Juyong Pass in the west to the Gubeikou section in the east. Since it protected one of the passes leading to Beijing, it was repaired regularly throughout the Ming Dynasty and is now considered one of the most well-preserved parts of the Great Wall. It was partly made of granite and is considered virtually indestructible!

Jinshanling

At its western point, Jinshanling is connected with Simatai and, together with Simatai, it is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Jinshanling portion of the Great Wall consists of 67 towers and is approximately 11 kilometres (7 mi) long. It has been repaired several times and appears to be as well-developed as Badaling. However, thus far there are substantially fewer tourists here than at Badaling. If you want to witness the Great Wall in its complete glory, Jinshanling is the best place to go. The refurbishment that it has undergone has not altered its original appearance too much. All of the components of the original Great Wall – the tower, the gate, the fire beacon tower—are still there.

Panlongshan

The Panlongshan or “Coiling Dragon Mountain” section of the Great Wall is the part of the Gubeikou section of the Great Wall that connects to the Jinshanling section.

The main highlights of the Panlongshan section are the General Tower and 24-Window Tower. The General Tower is a two-storey, square-shaped structure that originally functioned as the office of the military general who managed this section of the wall, while the 24-Window Tower is the final watchtower along the Panlongshan Section. The northwestern side of the 24-Tower Window has completely collapsed, which endows it with a certain ruined beauty that has attracted the admiration of many visitors. 

Simatai

司马台600Historically, the Simatai segment was considered the most impenetrable stronghold along the Great Wall as it’s built across a particularly unforgiving stretch of mountains. It’s located near Gubeikou Town in Miyun County and is about 5 kilometres (3 mi) long. According to legend, its Fairy Maiden Tower was home to a beautiful sprite named the Lotus Flower Fairy and is thus beautifully decorated with marble engravings of lotus flowers.

Highlights along this section of the Great Wall include: the Wangjing Tower, which rests at a staggering elevation of about 1,000 metres (3,300 ft.); and the Stairway to Heaven, the 100-metre-long (330 ft.) path that connects the aforementioned towers and is only 30 centimetres (12 in) wide, with cliffs on both sides!

The Jiaoshan Section of the Great Wall

Known as the “First Mountain of the Great Wall”, Jiaoshan earned its unusual nickname simply because it is the first mountain that the Great Wall climbs after it begins in the east. In fact, the term “Jiaoshan” literally translates to mean “Horn Peak” due to its profound steepness. This section of the wall was built during the early Ming Dynasty and thus boasts a history that is over 600 years long!

What makes this section of the wall so unusual is that parts of it have been renovated in recent years, but other parts have been left to grow wild. This gives Jiaoshan a hybrid appearance, as both a beautifully preserved and partially crumbling section of the wall. 

A major highlight at Jiaoshan is known as Big Flat Summit and represents the highest point of this section. From the top, visitors are rewarded with a breathtaking panoramic view of the surrounding Yan Mountains.

The Dongjiakou Section of the Great Wall 

The Dongjiakou section of the Great Wall is widely considered to be one of the best-preserved sections of the original Ming Dynasty wall. It is estimated that around 60% of this section has been preserved in its original condition.

This is allegedly due to the efforts of locals from the nearby village of Dongjiakou, who are said to be the descendants of the original builders and guards of this part of the wall! They take their ancestral heritage very seriously and inspect the wall on a regular basis, making repairs as and when they are needed. 

The Dongjiakou section is also renowned for its bricks, some of which have been carved with various images that are typical of the folk art style of southern China. This sets it apart from other sections of the Great Wall, which are invariably constructed from blank bricks.  

The Huangyaguan Section of the Great Wall

Huangyaguan or Huangya Pass was once one of the most important fortresses along the Great Wall. It was originally constructed during the Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577 AD), but the wall we see today is a result of major renovations that took place in 1569, during the Ming Dynasty, under the supervision of the renowned general Qi Jiguang.

Its name, which translates to mean “Yellow Cliff Pass”, is derived from the fact that the cliffs to the east of the pass are made of yellow rocks that supposedly appear as though they’ve been gilded in gold when hit by the soft glow of the sunset. 

The pass itself is often playfully referred to as the “Eight Diagram Fortification City”, as its labyrinth of narrow streets supposedly resembles the “Bagua” or “Eight Trigrams” symbol that forms an integral part of traditional Chinese culture. 

The Chengziyu Section of the Great Wall

Unlike other sections of the Great Wall, which are named for their unusual shape or their lofty historical significant, the Chengziyu section is named simply after the nearby village of Chengziyu. The section itself is divided in the middle by a large valley, which separates the east part from the west part. This valley was once home to the Chengziyu Pass, which has tragically fallen to ruin. 

The Baiyangyu Section of the Great Wall 

The Baiyangyu section of the Great Wall is located in Qian’an of Hebei province, beginning at Da’ao Tower in the east and ending at the Laojuntai Terrace of the Sidaogou section in the west. It was originally constructed towards the beginning of the Ming Dynasty and was greatly enhanced during the dynasty’s later years. It stretches for a whopping 4,550 metres in length and includes 1,500 metres of marble walling, which is highly unusual when compared to other sections of the Great Wall. This marble section of the Great Wall is 10 metres high and 5 metres wide. Of the 21 towers that once guarded this section of the wall, 6 of them are still in good condition.

Unlike the Badaling section of the Great Wall, which is arguably the most famous, the Baiyangyu section receives markedly few visitors and has fallen into a state of disrepair, endowing it with a wild beauty that sets it apart from more complete sections of the wall. Thus it represents the ideal opportunity to enjoy a quiet hike through the countryside while simultaneously appreciating one of the greatest architectural achievements of mankind.

Shanhai Pass

Shanhai PassThe name “Shanhai Pass” literally means “Mountain and Sea Pass” because it is strategically placed so it joins the Bohai Sea to the southeast and the Yanshan Mountains to the northwest. It was built during the Ming Dynasty and is one of the most well-preserved passes along the Great Wall. Many historians believe it was the eastern starting point of the Great Wall and above its East Gate there is a famous inscription which reads “First Pass Under Heaven”. This refers to the traditional view of Chinese civilization behind the wall and barbarian lands to the north of it, though we’re sure those “barbarians” might have a different view of the situation. In an act of ironic revenge, the pass was eventually captured by one such barbarian tribe named the Jurchen people, who went on to establish the Qing Dynasty!

Jiayu Pass

Shanhai may be the “First Pass Under Heaven”, but Jiayu Pass is commonly referred to as the “First and Greatest Pass Under Heaven”. Talk about one-upmanship! It earned this title primarily because it was built around about 1372, during the early Ming Dynasty, and is one of the most well-preserved military buildings remaining along the Great Wall. It is located at the narrowest point along the western section of the Hexi Corridor in Gansu province, about 6 kilometres (3.7 mi) southwest of Jiayuguan city, and it represents the first pass at the western end of the wall. It was once both a vital fortification for protecting the northwestern border and also a significant point along the ancient Silk Road.

According to legend, when the pass was being planned, the official charged with its construction approached the designer and asked him to estimate the number of bricks they would need. The designer emphatically replied that they needed exactly 99,999 bricks but the official flew into a rage, believing the designer to be overconfident in his abilities. He demanded that the designer compensate for any potential oversights by ordering more bricks and, as an act of defiance, the designer ordered just one extra brick. In the end, he was right and the one lone brick, left over after the pass’ completion, still rests on top of one of the gates.

[1] Li: A unit of distance used in China that roughly equates to 500 metres (1,640 ft.)

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Mu Family Mansion

The history of the Mu clan is intrinsically linked to that of Lijiang; for one would not exist without the other. The Mu were a Naxi family who became well-known for their exceptional skill and experience in city planning, and eventually masterminded the construction of Baisha Village and Dayan Town (modern-day Lijiang Old Town). They managed to maintain rule over the area right up until the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), when they were overthrown by the Mongolians and reinstated as Tusi[1]. Under their new title, this industrious and talented family led the region into financial prosperity throughout the Yuan, Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties and their glorious family mansion is a testament to their success.

In its heyday, twenty-two generations of the Mu family lived in this mansion. It once covered over 64,000 square metres (16 acres) and consisted of nearly one hundred buildings. Many visitors described it as a miniature Forbidden City because of its beauty and design. Bear in mind comparing any lowly mortal to the deified Emperor was punishable by death, so saying the mansion of an official was reminiscent of the imperial palace was a pretty risky compliment to make!

Tragically most of the original mansion was destroyed during the Qing Dynasty due to the frequent wars that broke out around the region but, from 1996 to 1999, it was rebuilt. Nowadays the complex covers half the area it once did, stretching to only about 32,000 square metres (8 acres), but all attempts were made to capture the essence and style of its original magnificence. It stretches up the east side of the Shizi or Lion Mountain in the southwest part of Lijiang Old Town and is made up of two areas; the office area and the living area.

As you enter the main gate, you’ll come upon the Yishi or Meeting Hall at the end of a vast courtyard. This marks the beginning of the office area and, as the name suggests, this hall was used to conduct official business and hold meetings. The building itself is surrounded by stunningly carved marble balustrades and on the inside you’ll find three wooden steles that have been engraved by three different Ming Emperors with the words “Devoted to the Country” (诚心报国). With an office this tranquil, it’s no wonder the Mu family were so successful. If only all offices could be like this!

Directly behind Yishi Hall, you’ll find the spectacular Wanjuan Pavilion. The word “wanjuan” (万卷) means “ten thousand scrolls” or “ten thousand books” and this pavilion is truly a book lover’s paradise, with thousands of sutras[2], paintings, and scrolls of calligraphy lining its walls. Parts of this collection are over 2,000 years old and include sacred texts of the Dongba[3] religion, volumes of the Tripitaka[4], poetry anthologies of six poets from the Mu family, and the calligraphy and paintings of numerous celebrated calligraphers and artists.

Behind the pavilion, the mysterious Hufa Hall was once the centre for the family’s religious activities, such as ritual sacrifices and prayers. To the far north of the hall, there’s a vast expanse of courtyards that represent the living area of the Mu clan. These courtyards, and the mansion as a whole, reflect the architectural style of the Ming and Qing dynasties. The layout is incredibly similar to that of the Forbidden City and the simple elegance of the decorations is characteristic of the Central Han Chinese style. The exotic flowers and rare medicinal herbs that bedeck the many courtyards are reminiscent of Suzhou’s royal gardens and the paintings on the inner and outer walls are imbued with ethnic flair from the Bai, Tibetan and Naxi styles.

At the top of the complex, there is a Taoist temple where monks still worship and Taoist fortune tellers ply their trade. In a few of the courtyards, visitors can purchase tea, beer or other beverages and settle down to a quiet afternoon spent admiring the many lush azaleas and orchids adorning the gardens. A peaceful evening spent in contemplative thought, sipping on a hot cup of tea and feeling the last warm rays of the sun as it sets over the mountains; I can’t think of a better way to spend a day.

[1] Tusi: Chieftains or tribal leaders who were permitted to rule over a certain region and were acknowledged as imperial officials but who ultimately answered to the Emperor.

[2] Sutra: One of the sermons of the historical Buddha.

[3] Dongba: The main religion of the Naxi ethnic minority. It is most famous for the Dongba script, the last known hieroglyphic writing system still in use.

[4] Tripitaka: The collective term for the three main categories of sacred text that make up the Buddhist canon. These are sutras, abhidharma, and vinaya.

Lucun

Lucun 01

The scenic village of Lucun is just one kilometre (0.6 mi) north of Hongcun village, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and matches it in both artistry and beauty. The village was originally established during the late Tang Dynasty (618-907), although much of its magnificent architecture dates back to the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties. Of the more than 140 stunningly well-preserved buildings dotted throughout Lucun, Zhicheng Hall is considered the most spectacular.

lucunThis hall is almost entirely made out of woodcut pieces, a characteristic feature of Huizhou-style buildings. These wood carvings are so elaborate and vivid that setting foot inside this hall is sure to take your breath away. Plus you’re spoilt for choice if you ever need to knock on wood! It was constructed by the wealthy merchant turned politician Lu Bangxie during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). By that time, Lu had amassed such a colossal fortune that he had earned the nickname Lu Baiwan, meaning “Lu the Millionaire”!

The building complex consists of seven courtyards, of which Zhicheng Hall was used by Lu as his own personal living room. The interior is so exquisite and well-preserved that it is frequently used as a set for operas and television series. After all, when your name is “Lu the Millionaire”, the only thing you can’t afford is to look cheap!

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