Nanping

nanping

When you look at Nanping, it’s hard to believe that this sleepy little village was once the site of two major battles, the home of the “10,000 silver purses”, and the backdrop for a handful of blockbuster movies. Yet there’s more to this rural slice of paradise than meets the eye! The nearby Nanping Mountain served as a battlefield during the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 AD), but the area itself wouldn’t be settled until much later. Towards the end of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), the village was established by the Ye clan, who had immigrated there from nearby Qimen.

During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), two other merchant families known as the Li and Cheng clans decided to settle in the village, which was a rarity as most villages were made up of just one clan during imperial times. And it seems that, though two may have been company, three was definitely a crowd in Nanping!

The success of these three families is often attributed to their competitiveness, as an abnormal number of villagers went on to become wealthy merchants, imperial officials, and learned scholars. Their accomplishments are living proof that a little healthy competition can go a long way! Throughout the Ming and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties, these families built glorious mansions, private schools, and ancestral halls as a testament to their fortune.

nanping old hotelTheir prosperity was so renowned that the 20 families living in the village came to be known as “the 10,000 silver purses”. Even the frequent peasant uprisings during the establishment of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom[1] (1851-1864) weren’t enough to shake the foundations of this tiny village.   Unfortunately, when the Qing Dynasty finally collapsed and the imperial regime with it, the families in Nanping fell on hard times. Though their fortuitous streak may have been curtailed, their magnificent architecture was spared from damage by warfare and looting, and remains well-preserved as a monument to their former glory.

Nowadays the village is still inhabited by over 1,000 people from the Ye, Cheng, and Li clans, as well as a handful of outside families, and over 300 of its buildings date back to the Ming and Qing dynasties. These stunning mansions, with their white-washed walls and coal black roofs, are dotted throughout a maze of 72 lanes that zigzag throughout Nanping. A stretch of ancient woods, known as Wansonglin, surrounds the village and only adds to its mystical quality.

The village’s spectacular architecture is punctuated by eight ancestral halls, of which Xuzhi Hall and Kuiguang Hall are considered the most well-preserved. Both belong to the Ye family and, while Kuiguang Hall is an impressive 490 years old, Xuzhi Hall is a staggering 530 years old!

Xuzhi Hall is divided into three parts: the front hall, which was used for recreational activities; the main hall, which served as the centre for sacrificial ceremonies; and the back hall, where the memorial tablet to the ancestors is enshrined. This hall served as the main backdrop for the critically acclaimed film Ju Dou, directed by Zhang Yimou and starring the exceptional Gong Li. Many of the sets from the film have been maintained so, if you ever wanted to be in a movie, now’s your chance! Similarly Kuiguang Hall, with its smooth marble ornaments and elaborately decorated interior, was used as a set for the Oscar-winning film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, directed by Ang Lee.

Other places of historical note include Banchun Garden, West Garden, and Baoyi Study. Banchun Garden was built during the Qing Dynasty by a wealthy merchant from the Ye family to serve as a private school for his children. The three spacious study rooms, half-moon shaped courtyard, and fragrant abundance of colourful flowers will make you wish you could go back to school! West Garden was also built as a study room but was tragically destroyed, leaving behind only a few ruins and a handful of multi-coloured peonies, plum trees, and towering bamboo grasses.

Yet by far the most poignant is the story of Baoyi Study, which was built by Li Huomei of the Li clan. Li had wanted to be a scholar but was only able to study for two years before he was forced to return home and work, as his family were very poor. He became a merchant, laboured diligently and eventually amassed a great fortune, which he used to build three private schools for the local children. As the old saying goes: “children are our future”!

[1] Taiping Heavenly Kingdom: An oppositional state in China that was formed from 1851 to 1864 and controlled some parts of southern China during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).

Make your dream trip to Nanping Village come true on our travel: Explore Traditional Culture in Picturesque Ancient Villages

Xuan Paper

xuan paper

With more than 1,000 years of history, beginning in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), Xuancheng has always been the best place for the production of Xuan Paper. The name “Xuan”, as you can see, comes from the name Xuancheng.

The raw materials used in the production of Xuan Paper are the bark from green sandalwood, which is found in the mountainous regions of Huizhou, and the straw made from rice grown on sandy land. Following 18 different procedures, including rubbing, steaming, starching, soaking in water, pasting, drying and so on, the white, soft and durable paper is finished and ready for sale.

xuan paper produce

Xuan Paper is mothproof and mould-proof, resistant to ageing, very tensile and invariably white in colour. So it is often referred to as “the king of paper” and “the millennial longevity paper”.

Xuan Paper can be divided into two categories – Natural Xuan and Vitriol Xuan. Natural Xuan is used for the kind of freehand brushwork found in Chinese paintings and calligraphy, whilst Vitriol Xuan is more suitable for Chinese paintings with realist technique.

 

 

Get some Xuan Paper on our travel: Explore the Ancient Chinese Villages in the Huizhou Region

Hui Merchants

 

Like the Wall Street stockbrokers of today, the Hui merchants were once renowned as some of the savviest businessmen in China. The term “Hui merchants” typically refers to any businessmen that hailed from the six counties of She, Xiuning, Qimen, Yixian, Jixi, and Wuyuan, which belonged to an ancient region known as Huizhou. Their rise to prosperity began during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), when the imperial capital was relocated from northern Kaifeng to the southern city of Lin’an (modern-day Hangzhou) in Zhejiang province. Since Huizhou was located in a focal place between the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang, this meant that trade via road or river to the imperial capital was suddenly far more viable for the local people. In short, it was the capital that gave them capital!

The shortage of fertile land in the region and the overabundance of manpower meant that many farmers in Huizhou simply became merchants because they needed to make ends meet. Little did they know that their legacy would echo through the ages! They were not skilled merchants and thus their success is all the more admirable, as it was primarily due to their painstaking efforts. Initially they engaged in the trade of almost any product they felt was profitable, including tea, grain, salt, silk, wood, and paint. Fortunately for them, Huizhou boasted the ideal climate for growing and producing several famous teas, including Huangshan Maofeng and Qimen Black Tea. By the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), over 70 per cent of the population in Huizhou was made up of merchants!

After they had amassed a substantial fortune, they were able to open teahouses, restaurants, hotels, and pawnshops. During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), it was even rumoured that there wasn’t a single pawnbroker in China who wasn’t from Huizhou and that there was no place too far for Hui merchants to expand their business. They also began concentrating their efforts on manufacturing high quality goods, such as the “Four Treasures of the Study”. These four treasures, known as the writing brush, the Huizhou ink stick, the She ink slab, and Xuan paper, are still widely sold throughout the provinces of Anhui and Jiangxi to this day.

At the peak of their prosperity, they extended their influence east towards Jiangsu province, west to the provinces of Yunnan, Guizhou, and Gansu, north towards Liaoning province, and south to the provinces of Fujian and Guangdong. Once they had established their mercantile empire in China, they sailed forth to Japan, Thailand, and numerous Southeast Asian countries. It was said that their footsteps were left on almost half of the globe!

During this time, it was common for children of Hui merchants to begin their career as apprentices at the tender age of 13 and be doing business all over China by the age of 17. Talk about starting them young! They had achieved an almost mythical status, with the Hui Chronicle describing the average Hui merchant as “properly dressed, well-spoken, fully aware of price, knowing when is the good time to buy and sell, and getting extra profits from selling local goods in other places”. Unfortunately, there was one major downside to this otherwise profitable profession. According to traditional Confucian principles, merchants ranked as one of the lowest occupations in the social hierarchy.

In order to improve their social standing, many Hui merchant families invested in a good education for their children, so as to increase the possibility of them becoming scholars or government officials. Thanks to these venerable efforts, over 2,000 people from Huizhou passed the imperial examination and were able to obtain an official position during the Ming and Qing dynasties. This gave rise to a number of local sayings, such as “both father and son as ministers” or “three generations of imperial courtiers”. While these high ranking positions improved the social standing of the Hui merchant families, they also allowed these families to exert a considerable amount of political influence over the imperial government. After all, the long-term strategy of these families was to “provide funds for academic pursuits with business profits, get political positions through academic pursuits, and ensure business profits from the political positions”.

This may sound rather Machiavellian, but the Hui merchants were actually renowned for their strict moral code. They valued honesty and felt that cheating their customers would only damage profits in the long-term, as they would develop an unfavourable reputation. They ensured that their products were always of the best quality and refused to buy anything that they thought fell short of their exceptionally high standards. Once their wealth and fame had been established, many Hui merchants returned home to construct glorious mansions, ancestral temples, flourishing academies, decorative bridges, and towering archways to honour their ancestors. Yet these elegant constructions also proved to be part of their downfall.

As the Qing Dynasty collapsed and imperial rule in China came to an end, the Hui merchants lost their monopoly on the salt trade, as this had been enforced by the imperial government. Instead of investing their money in improving their other business ventures, the Hui merchants had spent it on their lavish mansions, meaning they were unable to compete with foreign factories that had adopted new technologies and become more streamlined. While China began to embrace modernity, this tragically sounded the death knell for the Hui merchants. Nowadays, all that remains of their illustrious legacy are the stunning works of architecture that they left behind.

 

Join a travel with us to discover more stories about Hui MerchantsExplore the Ancient Chinese Villages in the Huizhou Region and Explore Chinese Culture through the Ages

She Ink Slab

She Ink Slab

It is called the “Dragon Tail Ink Slab” because the best material for making the slab comes from Dragon Tail Mountain in Hizhou ( Hizhou is in Jiangxi Province now).

The She Ink Slab is green and sparkling in colour, it has a fine grain and it is very hard. It blends the ink with water well. The She Ink Slab is very precious for three reasons: 1. It is made of rare and beautiful stones which are only found on the bottom of streams in remote mountains. 2. It is a laborious job to try and carve this kind of hard stone.

 

Get some She Ink Slab on our travel: Explore the Ancient Chinese Villages in the Huizhou Region

Huizhou Ink Stick

The Huizhou Ink Stick is famed for being lustrous, black, moist, strongly fragrant, mothproof and mould-proof. The ink will be spread too much on the paper nor stick to the brush. So it is perfect for both painting and calligraphy.

Hui ink stick01Shexian, Tunxi and Jixi in the Mt. Huangshan region are the main areas of production for the Huizhou ink stick and they have been producing the Huizhou Ink Stick for more than a thousand years. Xi Chao and his son Xi Yangui founded the manufacture of the ink stick during the Southern Tang dynasty (937-975).

The Huizhou Ink Stick uses pine wood as its main raw ingredient, which is then mixed with another 20 different materials. The manufacturing procedure includes lighting the smoke, blending the materials together, pressing the ink stick, drying by airing, filling the margin and boxing. The “Super Lacquer Smoke Ink Stick” is the best quality ink stick amongst the already superior Hui ink sticks.

Get some Huizhou Ink Stick on our travel: Explore the Ancient Chinese Villages in the Huizhou Region

Chengkan

With its labyrinthine streets and elegant architecture, the ancient village of Chengkan is endowed with an air of mystery. Surrounded by eight mountains and halved by the S-shaped Longxi River, the village’s location is no accident. Its layout and placement were designed to replicate a traditional Chinese pattern known as Bagua or the Eight Diagrams, which is derived from a classical text known as the I-Ching or Book of Changes and contains the famous Yin-Yang symbol. The Yin part of the village is represented by the fields, while the Yang part is made up of residential buildings, with the river separating the two. According to traditional feng shui[1] principles, its unique design is particularly auspicious and is thought to bring the villagers good fortune. In a place as picturesque as Chengkan, most people would think you were lucky just to live there!

The village was built over 1,800 years ago and was originally known as Longxi, but its name was changed towards the end of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) when it was occupied by the Luo family. The Luo brothers were great believers in feng shui theory and, after they recognised the importance of the village’s location, they decided to settle there in a bid to improve their family’s fortunes. In fact, Chengkan is widely believed to be one of the best examples of feng shui theory in practice! Unlike the villages of Hongcun and Xidi, Chengkan has yet to become a popular tourist attraction, in spite of the fact that it is located just 40 kilometres (25 mi) from Mount Huang.

The village itself is a veritable maze, with three main streets and ninety lanes crisscrossing one another in a hectic mesh. In its heyday, it originally consisted of ninety-nine lanes, making it even more complex to navigate! While the village may have been established in ancient times, its oldest remaining buildings actually date back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). With their white-washed walls, black tile roofs, artistic woodcut panels, and elaborate stone carvings, the mansions and temples of Chengkan are said to exemplify the intricate beauty of Hui-style architecture. There are over 150 ancient residences in Chengkan and 21 major historic sites, which are currently under state protection.

The entrance to the village is marked by the Shuikou or “Water Gap”, where a pond full of blossoming lotus flowers entices people in. From there, its most iconic attraction is Baolun Hall, which is part of Luo Dongshu’s Ancestral Temple. Luo Dongshu was an accomplished scholar, as well as a hermit, who lived during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and who greatly contributed to the fine reputation of the Luo family in Chengkan. The temple was constructed by his descendants so that they may honour his memory and worship him. So remember, next time you have to help your parents with something, at least they’re not asking you to build them a temple!

Once you’ve passed through the first three entrances of the temple, you’ll arrive at the magnificent Baolun Hall. It was originally built in 1542, during the Ming Dynasty, and is famed for its stunning murals, which have barely faded in spite of the fact that they are over 500 years old! Vivid sculptures of lions, clouds, and lotuses grace the façades of bluestone parapets, wooden eaves, and crossbeams. Ascending the wooden staircase to the attic, you’ll be treated with a breath-taking panoramic view of the village below and the lofty Mount Huang in the distance.

While Baolun Hall is one of the most impressive features in Chengkan, it is by no means the most important. Since the village is split by a river, it should come as no surprise that the oldest and arguably most significant structure is Huanxiu Bridge, which dates all the way back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). You could almost say it bridges the gap between the past and the present! Another major attraction in the village is Luo Chunfu’s Residence, which was constructed in 1730. From the granite slabs and black bricks that make up its gate to the elegant reliefs on its eaves, its unusual décor makes it stand out from other mansions in the village. After all, the Luo family were nothing if not extravagant!

Alongside Luo Dongshu’s Ancestral Temple, Changchun Temple is the other main house of worship in Chengkan. In ancient times, this was the place where the Luo family and neighbouring villagers would worship the God of Earth. In spring, they would pray for favourable weather so that their crops would grow, while in autumn they would thank the gods for a bumper harvest. The beauty and prosperity of Chengkan itself is evidence enough that the gods were clearly listening to the Luo family’s prayers!

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

Chengkan is one of the many wonderful stops on our tour: Explore the Ancient Chinese Villages in the Huizhou Region

Hui Architecture

Hui Architecture

Picturesque villages dot the verdant countryside of Anhui province and Jiangxi province, resplendent with the snowy white-washed walls and obsidian roofs of traditional Hui-style architecture. They represent one of the lasting remnants of Huizhou; an ancient region in southeast China that once boasted its own unique culture and history. The birth of Hui culture took place towards the end of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), when the imperial court relocated their capital to the southern city of Lin’an (modern-day Hangzhou) in Zhejiang province. Suddenly the merchants in Huizhou found themselves exceptionally close to the imperial capital and were able to transport their wares easily to Lin’an, either by road or by river.

By trading in high quality tea, ink, and paper, they were able to amass substantial fortunes and, at one point, it was rumoured that boys of twelve or thirteen years of age in Huizhou had already begun to do business for their families! These merchants reached the height of their prosperity during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties, during which time they built many of their spectacular mansions. Over time, they had gradually become acquainted with the exquisite architecture that was typical of imperial residences in southern China, and this in turn inspired them to design their own homes in a similarly majestic fashion. However, there was one major element holding them back: their low social status!

According to Confucian principles, merchants were considered one of the lowliest occupations in the social hierarchy, so it would be considered a serious affront to decorum if a merchant were to build a home larger or more grandiose than their resident government official. Keen to show off their newly accumulated fortunes, the cunning Hui merchants found a loophole. From the outside, a typical Hui residence looks rather modest. They are usually only two-storeys in height and consist of a single compound centred on an inner courtyard, with several satellite buildings around its four sides.

The outer wall of the compound is known as a “horse-head wall”, because it was said to resemble a horse’s head in shape. These high, crenelated walls were designed to separate Hui residences from each other, in order to prevent the spread of fire, to block out cold drafts, and to deter thieves. The roofs of all the buildings are constructed so that they incline towards the inner courtyard. Since the Hui merchants believed that water was a symbol of wealth, having all rainwater trickle into the inner courtyard symbolised the flow of wealth into the family. The rainwater would then collect in a large jar at the centre of the courtyard, which could be used in the event of a fire. Like true businessmen, the Hui merchant families never missed a trick!

hui building inner

Like the water flooding into the courtyard, much of the family’s wealth is on display within the interior. In order to simultaneously show off their immense fortune without committing a social faux pas, the wily Hui merchants decked the inside of their homes with the finest brick sculptures, woodcuttings, and stone carvings that money could buy. From the roof-beams and the pillars to the windows and the doors, every element of the interior is blanketed in artistic splendour. To put that into perspective, historically the cost of a single high quality carving from a skilled artisan would be approximately equal to the price of an acre of land!

These carvings are brimming with vivid images of animals, people, and flowers; each one ripe with deep symbolism. In particular, you’ll find that fluttering bats bedeck the halls of many Hui mansions, as the word for “bat” in Chinese is a homonym for “happiness”. Nowadays, the best places to visit beautifully preserved traditional Hui mansions is in Hongcun or Xidi. Located in Anhui province, these ancient villages were collectively made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.

woodcut

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Try the traditional Hui style mansion hotels on the tour: Explore the Ancient Chinese Villages in the Huizhou Region

 

Huangshan Maofeng

At 700 to 800 metres above sea level, the area around and on Huangshan Mountain, is the perfect place and main area of production for the superfine Huangshan Maofeng tea leaves. Huangshan Maofeng is produced in several different places on the mountain, including Peach Blossom Peak, Purple Cloud Peak, Cloud Valley Monastery, Pine Valley Temple and Hanging Bridge Temple. In fact, Huangshan Maofeng is produced throughout the whole Huizhou District. This region boasts a temperate climate and receives plenty of rainfall. The annual average temperature is between 15 to 16°C, and the average amount of precipitation is between 1,800 to 2,000 millimetres. The soil is deeply layered and made up of the yellow earth typically found in mountainous regions. This type of soil is loose in texture and has good water permeability. It contains an abundance of organic matter and phosphorus potassium, and it has an acidity level of between ph 4.5 and 5.5 which makes it suitable for the growth of tea trees.

Huangshan Maofeng was created by the Xie Yuantai Teahouse in the Guangxu Period of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). After 1875, in order to meet the market demands, each year, during the Qingming period (a time which falls around the 5th of April and is one of the 24 solar terms according to the Chinese lunisolar calendar), pickers would climb high mountains in Tangkou, Chongchuan and some other places in the Huangshan region in order to collect fat leaves and bud points, which were then fried and baked. They named the kind of tea made from this practice Huangshan Maofeng.

Huangshan Maofeng must be picked carefully. The picking standard for top grade Maofeng is to pick one bud and one leaf just before it’s about to unfold Top grade Maofeng is picked during the Qingming period. Grades 1 to 3 are processed during the Grain Rain period (one of the 24 solar terms according to the Chinese lunisolar calendar, roughly falling around the 20th of April). After the fresh leaves are picked, they will be sorted to ensure that all of the leaves are of a high quality and that all of the buds are of a similar size. Then the fresh leaves will be separated by their differing degrees of tenderness and spread to dry out. In order to guarantee the quality and to keep the freshness of the tea, it is recommended that the tea leaves are picked in the morning and processed in the afternoon, or picked in the afternoon and processed at night. The manufacture of Huangshan Maofeng is divided into three procedures – heating, rubbing and twisting, and curing.

huangshan maofeng tea

The shape of top grade Huangshan Maofeng is like a sparrow’s tongue and has thick leaves with white fluff on them. It is yellowish green, nearing ivory white, in colour and golden pieces grow below the tea leaves. It smells fragrant and tastes mellow and luscious. When brewing Huangshan Maofeng, you will notice that the tea water is limpid in colour. Thanks to the distinctive characteristics of the “golden pieces” and the “ivory” coloured leaves found in Huangshan Maofeng, the taste of top grade Huangshan Maofeng is sharply distinguishable from the taste of other varieties of Maofeng.

Try it on the tour: Explore the Ancient Chinese Villages in the Huizhou Region

Jixi

As a part of Huizhou, Jixi also has a long history of making ink. In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the “Appraisal of Antiques House” and the “Hu Kaiwen Ink House” were very successful in the ink business. Buildings in Jixi are also famous for the three styles of Hui carving – brick carving, woodcarving and stone carving.

Hui Cuisine is one of the eight types of Chinese cuisine Hui cuisine originated from Jixi. In the beginning, Hui Cuisine was a kind of indigenous cuisine with strong regional characteristics. It was not until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasty, when the Hui merchants were economically thriving, that Hui Cuisine began to incorporate the advantages of other types of cuisine and developed into a more wholesome style via the process of exchanging qualities with other local cuisines.

Jixi has both fragile old buildings and beautiful landscapes. The Cooling Peak area is one of the national reserves, with an abundance of fauna and flora. In Shangzhuang Village, you can find the former residence of Hu Shi (a famous scholar from the early 20th century), which was built in 1897. The Hu’s Ancestral Hall, located in Yingzhou Town, was built for Hu Fu and Hu Zongxian, high-ranking officials from the Ming Dynasty. In 2007, Jixi was awarded status as a national historic and cultural city.

Xidi

Xidi Village was built during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). At that time, people lived together based on clanship and consanguinity. Xidi was occupied by the Hu clan. There are more than 300 buildings in Xidi, which were mainly built during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties, among which there are 124 residential houses and three Ancestral Halls1 that have been preserved in their original state. The layout of Xidi is well designed. It looks like a sailing boat. Most of the houses are composed of three rooms and a square yard. The presence of elaborate brick-sculpture, woodcut and stone carvings on these ancient residences make them typical examples of the Hui style of architecture.

Walking into any of these houses, you will find art everywhere. Stone carvings of flowers, birds and beasts are usually on the doorframe. Brick carvings and woodcuts decorate the windows.

As a famous village in Huizhou, Xidi was once occupied by many rich Hui merchants. They wanted to build luxury houses to show off their wealth. But the strict hierarchy of society had restrictions on construction which specifically affected people of a lower social class. So the merchants were only able to choose the best materials and utilize the most sophisticated workmanship when building their place of residence. The memorial archway—built in 1578 by Hu Wenguang, who was a high-ranking official during the Ming Dynasty—is a good representation of the Hui-style of stone carving. The best example of Hui brick sculpture is in the house of another Ming official, which is in a place called the West Garden.

Xidi is considered to be at its most beautiful in the spring. The fields outside the village are covered in yellow canola flowers and there are hundreds of peach trees in the village, which all blossom together in April.

Note:
Ancestral Hall: It is a kind of temple where families can worship their ancestors.