Huanglongxi (Huang Long Xi, or "Yellow Dragon River") Ancient Town, Shuangliu County, located some 30 kilometers south-southwest of the Sichuan provincial capital of Chengdu, is situated at the confluence of the Jin (aka Fu River locally) and Lu Rivers. Huanglongxi Ancient Town, or simply Huanglongxi, as we will call it here for the most part, has rich tourist resources, consisting of one lake, two rivers, three movie sets, four burrocks, five legends, six temples, seven streets, eight pentagrams and nine alleys (just pulling your leg about the movie sets, burrocks, legends and pentagrams... I just felt compelled to fill in the gaps of this play on numbers :), especially since this was written near Christmastime, though there are indeed several burrocks, or weirs (see the definition below), along the river here that stem from ancient times, and the town has in fact served as the venue for various scenes in several films, including scenes in the blockbuster film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).
The ancient town of Huanglongxi has a 1700 year history stretching back to the Three Kingdoms (CE 220-280) Period and the Shu Han (CE 221-263) State, or the Kingdom of Shu (not to be confused with the Shu State (BCE 1046-316) of the much earlier late Shang (BCE 1700-1027) and Zhou (BCE 1027-221) Dynasties period) that existed alongside the other two kingdoms, the Kingdom of Wu (CE 222–280) and the Kingdom of Wei (CE 220–265), that arose from the ruins of the Han (BCE 206 – CE 220) Dynasty and which ensuing battle for hegemony over China would eventually lead to the emergence of the Western Jin (CE 265-316) Dynasty, which conveniently leads us to the next section.
A Brief History
As the capital of the Kingdom of Shu (Gushu, or Shu, for short, being the ancient name for the region including and surrounding present-day Sichuan Province, still referred to as Shu in certain contexts), Chengdu was of supreme military importance, even if the nearby town of Huanglongxi only played a minor military role. With the breakup of the Han Dynasty, three powerful warlords – Liu Bei of Shu Han, Sun Quan of Wu (aka Eastern Wu, but strictly a geographical designation) and Cao Pi (son of Cao Cao) of Wei – each essentially carved out his own separate corner of the former empire, and the stage was thus set for a protracted battle (made famous in the 14th century historical novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which also became a TV series and spawned a series of video games).
Liu Bei led his troops in battle but made a series of tactical errors, miscalculating the size of the enemy forces in an attack upon Eastern Wu, was gravely wounded and died a year later of illnesses believed to have resulted from these wounds. His son, Liu Shan, took over, but entrusted the fighting to his Chancellor, Zhuge Liang, who quickly sued for peace with Eastern Wu in order to mobilize all of Shu's resources for the coming battle with Wei.
Despite repeated attempts to take Wei, and due to countless tactical errors related perhaps to over-confidence (Zhuge Liang pursued the enemy with great haste, stretching his line of attack much farther than his supply lines could keep up with), Zhuge Liang's army was beaten back time and again, and at a high cost. Finally, Zhuge Liang himself died of illness in CE 234, after having been on the run, often incognito, for several years, though his successor, Jiang Wei, had no better luck against the more powerful Kingdom of Wei.
In CE 263, the Kingdom of Wei, which had up to that time absorbed attack upon attack from the Kingdom of Shu, counter-attacked, decimating the forces of Shu and taking Jiang Wei prisoner. Despite certain intrigues aimed at keeping Shu Han afloat, the kingdom definitively ceased to exist, having been absorbed into the Kingdom of Wei that same year, CE 263.
In the meantime, Cao Pi had lost the Kingdom of Wei already in CE 249 to the powerful Sima family whose head was Sima Yi, the general and strategist who, as military leader of the Kingdom of Wei, had been pitted against first Liu Bei, then his Chancellor, Zhuge Liang. In CE 265, two years after the victory against Shu, the then serving Chancellor of Wei, Sima Yan, grandson of Sima Yi, seized power, declaring his new dynasty (Wei plus annexed Shu) for the Jin Dynasty. Thereafter, Sima Yan did battle against the Kingdom of Wu, eventually defeating it in CE 280.
In spite of all of these rather bloody ordeals, where essentially three factions of Han Chinese peoples were making war against each other, not even the victor would be allowed to enjoy the spoils of war for long, for the nomadic Turkic tribes from the north continued to press southward into China, and the frontline tribes of these wave after wave of Turkic nomads were already becoming sinicized while seizing parcels of China, a development that would eventually lead to the Northern and Southern Dynasties (CE 386-588) Period, where the northern dynasties were ruled by increasingly sinicized Turkic tribes while the beleagured Han Chinese – in perennial retreat for the most part, though they sometimes made alliances with their sinicized Turkic northern neighbors – ruled the southern dynasties.
It was first with the establishment of the Sui (CE 581-617) Dynasty that the two groups, the Han Chinese and their sinicized Turkic northern neighbors, made peace, sharing the various governmental posts of first the Sui then the illustrious Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty.
The town of Huanglongxi is said to have played a minor role, as indicated, in the Kingdom of Shu's campaign – albeit, an unsuccessful campaign – against the Kingdom of Wu, as Huanglongxi was a more or less secluded retreat where Zhuge Liang is said to have spent some time planning Shu's campaign against Wu. The town sits, as indicated, astride the Huanglong River at the confluence of the southward flowing Jin and Lu Rivers. Moreover, only a few kilometers southwest of the town, the Huanglong River empties into the Min River, which in turn empties into the Yangtze River at the city of Yibin in the southeastern corner of Sichuan Province, about 200 kilometers west-southwest of present-day Chongqing City (note that above the confluence with the Min, the Yangtze is called Jinsha).
From Chongqing, the Yangtze snakes its way east-northeast along what was at the time the border area between the Kingdom of Wu and the Kingdom of Wei, but on the Wu side of the border. Chengdu's access to eastern China via this river system would make the city, as well as the province, a much prized venue from which to launch attacks upon eastern China down through the ages. For example, Sichuan Province was part of a larger soviet along the Yangtze River that was under the command of the Red Army during the War of Liberation, even if the Kuomintang (KMT) eventually managed to secure Chengdu in its last gasp attempt at holding onto the mainland (indeed, the KMT fled to Taiwan precisely from Chengdu).
Zhuge Liang had no easy river access in his campaign against the Kingdom of Wei, though easy access to the Kingdom of Wu via the Yangtze had proven to be insufficient to decide the contest between the two states. Still, the town of Huanglongxi was not a bad place in which to seek refuge while planning a military campaign, since one could easily escape down the river, and within minutes one would be on the much larger Min River enroute to the Yangtze, if that was deemed necessary. It is perhaps for this reason that Zhuge Liang is said to have kept a small garrison in Huanglongxi to defend the town.
The "ancient" town of Huanglongxi as it stands today, however, is not so ancient, even if it does look quite rustic, being chiefly from the latter part of the Qing Dynasty, as the next section illustrates.
Present-Day Huanglongxi Highlights
Most of the old buildings of Huanglongxi stem from the late Qing Dynasty period, as indicated, though parts of it belong to the close of the Ming Dynasty, and of course the town's even older buildings, or pile dwellings (kanlan, alternatively ganlan), situated near the river, represent the ancient vernacular architecture – with certain Han Chinese inspired modifications, or improvements (especially the roof, which eventually was tiled) – of the Ba people who eked out a living here before the arrival of the Han Chinese.
The pile dwellings, or stilt dwellings, as they are also called, of southern China differ greatly in function from the ancient, Neolithic Age pile dwellings of Europe. Whereas the function of the latter was solely to raise the house above the ground in flood plain areas – especially along rivers or on the shores of lakes – the purpose of the pile dwellings of southern China was to provide a modicum of shelter for livestock on the ground storey (this was literally a ground storey, i.e., the earth was its "floor") as well as a place to feed them whatever supplementary fodder might be necessary, depending on the season.
The Chinese pile dwelling was typically in three storeys: a semi-open ground storey ('first floor', in the U.S.), with the living quarters for humans on the first storey ('second floor') and with a second storey ('third floor') attic, or combination pantry-grainery, for storing foodstuffs for both humans and animals, as well as a place to dry clothes during inclement weather (it also served as a play room for smaller children).
Pile dwellings might occasionally come in five storeys, but never in two or four storeys, as having even-numbered storeys was considered bad luck. Most of the pile dwellings that still stand in China (as one can appreciate, wood – unless painted or varnished in the Han Chinese fashion – will not last long) incorporate elements of Han Chinese architecture, which the indigenous peoples embraced as improvements over their own building methods, and therefore themselves borrowed these new architectural features from their Han Chinese neighbors.
The Han Chinese buildings of Huanglongxi that one sees standing today were mainly built during the latter half of the Qing Dynasty. Miraculously, they escaped the ravages of war, that is, of the civil conflict that led to the 1911 overthrow of the feudalistic, dynastic system, and of the civil conflict that later broke out between the Nationalist forces (the KMT) and the Chinese Communists (the Red Army), not to speak of having escaped the threats posed by the regional warlordism that ravaged throughout parts of China during most of the period of the Republic of China.
The buildings of Huanglongxi are quintessentially Qing period structures with tiled roofs ending in flying, or upturned, eaves, but with the patina of time upon them, especially the patches of moss here and there that is the local equivalent to ivy on an old European or American university (as in "ivy league university"). It is not by accident that the TV advertising and cinema film industry worldwide, when looking for Chinese houses that are natural period pieces, come to Huanglongxi to film. Huanglongxi has stood model to countless TV ads and over 200 motion picture films, a development that has prompted the moniker "Movie and Television City" as well as "China's Hollywood".
Huanglongxi has seven ancient, well-preserved, cobblestone streets that were built during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Along these streets are six temples, three of them – Gulong ("Ancient Dragon") Temple, Chaoyin ("Tidal Sounds") Temple, and Zhenjiang ("River Town") Temple – being located in the same street, Huanglongzheng Jie ("Huanglong Main Street"), which is only about 200 meters in length. In between the temples are residences, ancient wharves, bamboo groves and a large official residence, or yamen, that served three ancient counties: Huanyang, Pengshan and Renshou. Besides the seven streets, there are a number of nameless, serpentine alleyways where bamboo groves also abound.
The cobblestone streets are winding rather than being laid out in a geometrical grid format, some of them crossing the river via stone bridges, the whole forming a pleasing unity that is so complete that it looks like something out of a fairytale. Along the river are burrocks, or weirs, i.e., narrow, stone-walled canals that lead fish into a closed tank where they can be caught, the most notable of which is called Buddha Weir.
On the outskirts of the town are ancient memorial archways, cliff tombs, or burial caves – sometimes called Buddha Caves – dug into the cliff faces. Many of these cliff tombs were dug for the first Han Chinese settlers who arrived here. There is also an ancient military emplacement called Old Battlefield. Huanglongxi also has six ancient banyan trees, the youngest of which are not less than 800 years old and oldest of which are over 1000 years old. The largest of these ancient trees, the banyan tree standing in the courtyard of Gulong Temple on Huanglong Main Street requires 10 adults, hand in hand, to reach around its trunk. A number of the ancient city's old residences now serve as souvenir shops.
Huanglongxi belongs to a subtropical monsoon climate. It has an early but brief spring, a hot summer, a cool autumn, and a mild winter. The average annual temperature is a very temperate 16 degrees Celsius. The best travel time is spring and autumn, or from March to June, then from September to December. Visitors can rent a boat with "chauffeur" (shall we say, a gondola?) – for a leisurely trip down the river and back. The trip may lack some of the glamor of Venice or Paris, but is charming nonetheless. Most of the town's restaurants are situated alongside the river, while tea houses can be found virtually everywhere in the town, many of them with outdoor tables under the shade of a banyan tree or a clutch of bamboo trees. Nor is one rarely beyond the view of a temple and the accompanying scent of the joss sticks (incense) burning there.
Huanglongxi is one of ten ancient, highly picturesque villages distributed throughout China. The famous Tang Dynasty poet, Du Fu, once celebrated Huanglongxi Ancient Town in a poem. And thanks to the town's rustic, quaint charm, its quintessentially Qing-period architecture and its non-linear layout, it is a favorite haunt of art students from the neighboring mega-metropolis, Chengdu.
Huanglongxi is hometown (originator) to the Fire Dragon Dance, a traditional dragon dance but with the added dimension that fireworks are set off at certain key points in time inside the dragon. Another unique thing about Huanglongxi is that the ancient town still observes the night watch every other hour, where an unintrusive gong will sound (if you are awake and if things are quiet around you, you will hear it, otherwise not). The town of course holds an annual Dragon Boat Dance on the River, and observes as well many other festivals, including the Spring Festival, or the Lunar New Year, as it is also called. You might be fortunate enough to observe the filming of a scene from an upcoming movie during your visit to Huanglongxi, or the filming of a TV ad for one of the myriad of consumer products that make use of Huanglongxi as a backdrop.
You can take a bus to Huanglongxi Ancient Town from Xinnanmen Bus Station in Chengdu. The buses depart every 30 minutes between 8:00 AM and 3:20 PM. The trip takes about 90 minutes each direction. There are naturally corresponding return buses.