Hongcun Village is situated at the southwestern base of Yellow Mountain (Huangshan), about 11 kilometers southwest of the city of Yixian, the seat of Yi County.* Present-day Hongcun Village covers a total area of some 30 hectares, while the old village covers only about 2/3 of that area. Hongcun Village was founded in the Shaoxing (CE 1131-1162) period of the reign (CE 1127-1162) of Emperor Gaozong of the Southern Song (CE 1127-1279) Dynasty, giving it a history of about 900 years, though the village first saw a boost in its growth during the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty, which boost in growth would first be matched again in the period 1796-1908, during the latter part of the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty. Like the Hu family of nearby Xidi Village, the Wang family of Hongcun Village became rich merchants and influential government officials, and thus accumulated enormous wealth, which they used to endow their home village with many large and finely-appointed buildings.
The overall shape of the village is said to resemble a cow. The erect Leigang Hill is the head of the cow, as it were, the old green and shadowy trees atop the hill form the cow's horns, the long rows of village buildings form the cow's upper torso, the crescent-shaped Moon Pond formed by the canal as it makes its first swing through the village forms the cow's stomach, the glittering village lake is the cow's belly, the long, winding, manmade canal that interstices the rows of buildings make up the cow's intestines (see the detailed description of the canal below), and finally, the four wooden bridges that flank the village make up the cow's four folded legs. "Folded" legs, because Hongcun Village, using the metaphor of a bovine, resembles namely a cow lying prone, perhaps chewing its cud, surrounded by Yellow Mountain in the background and large, rambling rice fields on either side.
Hongcun Village consists of some 160 residences - of which 137 remain in good condition - besides halls, pavilions and temples. The most important hall is Chengzhi Hall, a commoner's rival to the imperial palace in Beijing, the Forbidden City (see a detailed description of Chengzhi Hall farther below). The Ming and Qing Dynasty architecture of the village's residences, and the carvings that decorate them, are widely regarded as some of the best of their kind in all of China, and it was surely this general assessment of Hongcun Village that lay behind UNESCO's decision to register the village, along with Xidi Village - also located at the foot of Yellow Mountain - on the World Heritage List in 2000 (as a matter of curiosity, Hongcun Village is one of the locations where the blockbuster movie directed by Ang Lee, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, was filmed).
An outstanding representative of Huizhou traditional local culture, its building techniques and landscape design, Hongcun Village is laid out in the form of a highly functional, yet aesthetic, grid. The village is centered on crescent-shaped Moon Pond, or the "stomach" of the cow, and consists of a system of streets and alleyways whose surfaces are of granite. In between the houses run the aforementioned canal (the "intestines" of the cow), which provide water for the village's households; water is diverted from the canal into houses and courtyards, where the villagers establish smaller or larger gardens in one form or another.
Over the years, the people of Hongcun Village built six family schools along the northern bank of South Lake. Though each school had its own name, the schools came to be known collectively as the "Six Schools Leaning on the Lake". In the 19th year of the reign (CE 1796-1820) of Emperor Jiaqing of the Qing Dynasty, or in 1814, it was decided to consolidate the six schools, to build them under a single roof, as it were. The new, consolidated school was named Yiwen Family School, but was also known as the South Lake Academy, a name that eventually became more popular. The academy, whose grounds cover 6000 square meters with tall and majestic buildings, was honored on a stele inscribed with the words "Yiwen Family School" by a celebrated publicist, calligrapher, and connoisseur of antiques, Liang Tongshu, who was 93 years old at the time of inscribing the stele. The academy was held in high esteem in its heyday as an example of unparallelled excellence. It was seen both as a product of, and contributing to, the cohesive society of Hongcun Village, which numbered over a thousand thriving, close-knit families during the Qing Dynasty.
The buildings, streets and alleyways of Hongcun Village, as well as the canal, the bridges and other parts of the "cow", are a wonder to behold. There are also hundred-year-old trees of various types on Thunder Hillock in Hongcun Village, in addition to blossoming peonies. Though it hardly seems fair to highlight any particular part of the village, the following list is nonetheless humbly offered.
The Highlights of Hongcun Village (in alphabetical order)
Biyuan Waterside Pavilion: Biyuan Waterside Pavilion is situated alongside Hongcun Canal. It was built at the close of the Ming Dynasty, but was later destroyed. It was rebuilt in the 6th year of the reign (CE 1820-1850) of Emperor Daoguang of the Qing Dynasty, or in 1825. Biyuan Waterside Pavilion covers some 280 square meters, the building itself covering about 260 square meters.
Chengzhi Hall: Referred to by some as the "Forbidden City of Commoners' Houses", Chengzhi Hall was built in the 5th year of the reign (CE 1850-1861) of Emperor Xianfeng of the Qing Dynasty, or in 1854. It was the private residence of a merchant by the name of Wandinggui, a very successful salt trader during the latter part of the Qing Dynasty. Chengzhi Hall is vast, and truly majestic in scope, with 7 storeys, 9 courtyards and more than 60 rooms with 132 supporting and decorative wooden pillars. Chengzhi Hall is principally a brick-and-wood structure, but with some parts made of stone. The engravings in its wooden columns and panels are particularly exquisite.
It is claimed that this magnificent woodwork escaped destruction during the Cultural Revolution only through the foresight of an unnamed local individual who covered the engravings with mud on which, once dried, were then written pro Cultural Revolutionary slogans, a clever trick that fooled zealous youths and which no older, knowledgeable person who might otherwise have been inclined to reveal the trick, dared do anything about, perhaps for fear of being misunderstood or perhaps simply for fear of bringing attention upon oneself that might eventually boomerang in an unpleasant way.
Deyi Hall: Deyi Hall was built in the 20th year of the reign (CE 1796-1820) of Emperor Jiaqing of the Qing Dynasty, or in 1815. Its grounds cover an area of 220 square meters, with the building itself covering roughly 145 square meters. Yet, on this small space was amazingly erected a handsome hall built in a garden-like style, surrounded by large fruit trees and a charming, modest-sized potted landscape.
Hongcun Canal: Hongcun Canal originates in the northwest corner of the village, runs the length (or width, if you prefer) of the village in the manner of a street, then turns 180 degrees and runs the length of the village in the reverse direction, only to reverse itself again and run the course of the village in the opposite direction, and so on and so forth, with the rows of village houses built on the strips of land that were left remaining in between the "laps" of the canal, until the canal finally ends in an artificial lake south of the village, South Lake (now you can appreciate why the canal is said to represent the intestines of the cow!). This ingenious canal, reputed to be purposefully designed according to the principles of Feng Shui, and put in place prior to the construction of the grid-like rows of houses, provides an invaluable source of household water for the inhabitants of Hongcun Village (from drinking water to water for washing floors, clothes, dishes, etc., to water for extinguishing fires).
Lexian Hall: Located in the main street of Hongcun Village, Lexian Hall was built in the 38th year of the reign (CE 1661-1722) of Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty, or in 1698. The hall's grounds cover an area of 958 square meters, the hall itself covering some 400 square meters. Lexian Hall is one of three residential halls which were built by descendants of the Wang family of Hongcun at the beginning of Qing Dynasty (the other two being Sanli Hall and Baoyi Hall).
Lexu Hall: Also known as Zhongjia Hall, Lexu Hall was the ancestral temple complex of the Wang family. It lies roughly midway along the north bank of Moon Pond. Both Lexu Hall and the Moon Pond were constructed during the reign (CE 1402-1424) of Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty. It has always been the place where the Wang family gathered to offer sacrifices to their ancestors, to celebrate auspicious occasions, and to observe other familial events. Lexu Hall is composed of three parts - a gate tower, the hall proper, and the ancestral temple. Lexu Hall, like many other buildings in Hongcun Village, is also rich in exquisite wood and stone carvings.
Moon Pond: Moon Pond has a history dating back, as indicated above, to the reign of Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty. Though part of the canal that systematically weaves its way through the village, Moon Pond is also fed by a spring, which contributes to the coolness and freshness of the rest of the canal downstreams from Moon Pond. Ducks thrive in the pond, which, against the background of the adjacent buildings, with their wispy smoke curling up from chimneys, is one of the most picturesque places in all of Hongcun Village.
Qishu Lake: Qishu Lake is located in the southeastern part of Hongcun Village. If one proceeds along the dirt road along the eastern entrance of the village, one will catch sight of the greenish-tinged water of Qishu Lake on the right, with many colorful plants growing alongs its banks. A half hour's further walk along the dirt road, the surface of the lake suddenly widens dramatically as the lake merges into East Red Reservoir.
South Lake: South Lake is situated due south of Hongcun Village. It was built in the 35th year of the Wanli period (i.e., during the reign (CE 1572-1620) of Emperor Shenzhong) of the Ming Dynasty, or in 1607, as an extension of Hongcun Canal. South Lake is an artificial lake covering an area of 20,000 hectares. The surface of the lake is said to be in the shape of a huge bow. At the back of the bow, as it were, the lake's shore, or bank, is divided into two sections: an upper section of several zhangs wide (a zhang is a unit of length of about 3.33 meters) that is paved with slate and cobblestones; and a lower section planted with poplar and willow trees. On the bowstring side, as it were, is located South Lake Academy as well as long rows of houses.
Wood Pit: Wood Pit, which is a large bamboo grove, is situated about 1½ kilometers from the outer edge of the village of Hongcun, at the foot of Deep Mountain, which itself is located only about 5 kilometers from the heart of Hongcun Village. Wood Pit, which lies in an area that can only be described as a steep incline, can nevertheless be accessed by car, as there is a local road leading from the village to the mountain which passes the bamboo grove.
* In China, the administrative entity "county" is often both a city (or town or village) and a larger geographical region, somewhat similar to, for example, a county in the U.S. (which may comprise several villages, towns and cities - and which always has a county seat in the form of a village, town, or city) In the example above, Yi County (in Pinyin Chinese, Yixian), which is situated on the southern edge of Anhui Province, almost equidistant from the borders of Jiangxi and Zhejiang Provinces, is both a county somewhat similar to the U.S. sense of the word, and a medium-small city. The main difference between "county" in the U.S. and in China is that while a U.S. county belongs directly under the administrative jurisdiction of the state (think of Orange County in the state of California, whose seat is the city of Santa Ana, but whose largest metropolis is in fact Anaheim), in China, in contrast, a county often belongs under the jurisdiction of a larger metropolis, as is the case with Yi County, which belongs under the administrative jurisdiction of Huangshan City.
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