Huizhou: ancient China today

Huizhou (徽州) is an area in Anhui Province (安徽省) consisting of several relatively small villages that were established more than eight hundred years ago and still largely preserve ancient Huizhou culture (徽州文化). The culture is mainly represented by exceptional memorial archways (牌坊), distinctive memorial temples (祠堂) and unique civil residences (民居). Natural landscape of the area is quite striking, too. Hongcun (宏村), Xidi (西递) and Nanping (南屏) villages, as well as a group of memorial archways (棠樾牌坊群) in She County (歙县) are usually named as main attractions. On 30 November 2000, Hongcun and Xidi were placed on the List of World Cultural Heritage sites by UNESCO. Many scenes from "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (卧虎藏龙)" were shot in the area. Unfortunately, due to the time and weather constraints, I only had an opportunity to photograph in Hongcun and Mukeng villages.

Hongcun, Huizhou, China (中国徽州宏村) - 1

Hongcun at dusk...

Hongcun (宏村) was established in 1131. The village is geographically laid out in the form of a cow, which represents a very unique architectural decision and cultural heritage. It is also different from the other villages in the area in that it has a very sophisticated water system.

Hongcun, Huizhou, China (中国徽州宏村) - 2

...and night

Quite interestingly, the water system was designed first (according to the principles of the ancient Chinese philosophy of Feng Shui) and the village was then build around it. A canal starts in the northwestern part of the village, forms a half–moon–shaped pond (月沼) in the middle of the village and then flows into a man–made lake in the southern part (South Lake, 南湖). It bypasses every household thus providing a means of fire protection, as well as making everyday life much more convenient. Every family has its designated place for washing things and washing actually is allowed only after 8 a.m. (earlier hours are for reserving water for drinking only). This rule has been around for ages and is common sense for the locals. I found it fascinating that a water system designed several hundred years ago is still being effectively and sufficiently used today.

Hongcun, Huizhou, China (中国徽州宏村) - 3

Hui–style architecture...

Characteristic features of Hui–style architecture (徽派建筑) are tall walls in shape of a horse's head (马头墙) and an extensive use of black bricks and tiles. All buildings and walls are of different height and, on the outside, have relatively simple appearance. On the inside, however, many buildings feature very sophisticated construction and subtle ornamentation. Rooms and halls are used very daintily—apart from general–purpose rooms, many buildings also have separate rooms for reading, playing Mahjong, smoking, or even discussing secret matters. As to decoration, it is vastly dominated by elaborate wood, stone and tile carvings.

Hongcun, Huizhou, China (中国徽州宏村) - 4

...and wood carvings

Hongcun, Huizhou, China (中国徽州宏村) - 5

Daily life @ Half–moon Lake

Mukeng village (木坑), which is only about ten–minute drive away from Hongcun, is a very interesting place, too. To begin with, it is located smack in the middle of a bamboo forest. As far as bamboo forests go, I cannot really say I have been to too many of them but this one, without a doubt, is the most beautiful among those that I have seen. Also, the fact that some of the scenes from "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (卧虎藏龙)" were shot here, as well as that the place has been visited by some famous photographers and officials, suffices to say that the place is quite appealing indeed.

Another interesting thing about the village is that there are currently eighty four inhabitants and they all bear the same surname—Fu (付). As you might have already guessed, they are all relatives and, from this perspective, it is a one–family village; their ancestors actually came from Jiangxi (江西).

I spent about an hour there watching kids play, chatting to locals about this and that and just spacing out. The people that I got to know were surprisingly guileless and openhanded. Nothing beats experiencing a place where simplicity and friendliness still rule.

Mukeng, Huizhou, China (中国徽州木坑) - 6

Children of Mukeng village

Warning: any foreign national traveling to Huizhou area needs to have an "Alien's Travel Permit" (外国人旅行证).

The permit can only be obtained in the Police Department of The County Seat of Yi County (黟县县城) and costs RMB50 (USD6). Do you need any special documents or qualifications? No. All you have to produce is your passport and, of course, cash. This permit is supposed to be obtained by your travel agency in advance if you travel with a group (real photographers always travel by themselves, though). It is not a lethal obstacle and just a matter of wasting time and paying extra money if you speak Chinese. If you do not speak Chinese, though, you are in trouble—they will not let you in and you will spend ages figuring out why.

An explanation offered by the locals is that there are "military installations" in the area. I have to say that this rationale is entirely implausible—you can freely stay and travel in the area without any permits and need one only when entering Hongcun and Xidi villages, which are nothing but cramped ancient parishes. Also, you can easily sneak into the villages if you put your mind to it. In other words, in actuality it is just a way for the local government to generate extra revenue and one is forced to travel a long way off to bring it to the government's doorstep. Now, I am not that hard up and do not mind paying extra little fee. What I do mind is having to deal with it all unexpectedly and on an emergency basis as well as wasting lots of time. Beware!