Over 300 years ago, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), a simple dockworker named Chen Shifan made his fortune working at a port along the Yellow River. In order to celebrate this fine achievement, he decided to build himself a grand castle-like compound, which he carved into the side of a hill just one kilometre (0.6 mi) from the ancient town of Qikou. Generation after generation, his descendants constructed their own yaodongs or “loess cave houses” in the same area and eventually they formed the village of Xiwan. It may take a village to raise a child, but evidently it takes a family to raise a village! Sixteen generations of the Chen family have since called this humble village home and over 400 of its residents are descendants of Chen Shifan. Talk about keeping it in the family!
The village itself only occupies a narrow strip of the hillside, approximately 250 metres (820 ft.) in length and 120 metres (394 ft.) in width. The Chen’s Ancestral Hall is the centrepiece of the settlement, although the entire area is resplendent with beautifully constructed yaodongs. It functions less like a typical village and more like a large compound, with 30 small courtyards connected to each other by a row of five vertical lanes running from north to south. These secret lanes not only helped people communicate within the village, but also provided an escape route if it was under siege. They each represent the Five Elements of traditional Chinese philosophy: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. However, they also signify the five branches of the Chen family and, historically, each branch would occupy their own personal lane.
The village boasts over 40 well-preserved yaodongs, complete with their ancient courtyards, which are widely regarded as some of the finest remaining structures from the Ming and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties. Each residence is stacked on top of the other as they creep their way up the hillside, with the roof of the house on the lower stage forming the courtyard of its neighbour on the upper stage. With stone walls and gate towers, they are markedly fortified structures designed to protect the village from intruders. That being said, nowadays the only people invading Xiwan are curious tourists!