Looking like something right out of a fairy tale, Xidi Village is almost too picturesque to be real, yet this ancient Chinese village is so genuine that it has received protective status as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site (November, 2000); Xidi Village is not just a preservation-worthy relic from China's cultural past, it is a preservation-worthy page from the cultural history of mankind.
Xidi Village is situated at the foot of Yellow Mountain's (Huangshan's, "shan" meaning "mountain") southern slope. In this idyllic valley of clear flowing streams, goldfish ponds and paddy fields sits Xidi Village in all its 900-yr-old opulence, a village whose architecture is so ornate that it could only have been created by men of power, wealth and taste. Indeed, Xidi Village, originally built during the reign of Emperor Huangyou (CE 1049-1054) of the Northern Song (CE 960-1127) Dynasty, owes its greatest cultural and architectural influence to a family of merchants, the Hu family, who rebuilt the city, as it were, on the family's wealth during the reign (CE 1449-1457) of Emperor Jingtai of the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty.
The Hu family enlarged the village of Xidi considerably, laying a network of winding, criss-crossing stone-paved streets and roads along which were erected administrative, commercial and residential buildings as well as ancestral temples and academies of classical learning, not to speak of the network of bridges necessary to span the three waterways that converge near the village. Because all of this has remained preserved to this day, including the still very much lived-in houses of the villagers themselves, Xidi Village can be likened to an open-air museum.
Xidi Village contains roughy 300 buildings in the Hui Style* that were erected during the Ming and Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasties. Brick and wood dominate, with exquisite stone archways, stone carvings, and stone-paved streets and courtyards. Major present-day tourist attractions in Xidi Village include Lingyun Pavilon, Ruiyu Pavilon, Cishi House ("Cishi" being an official title in ancient times), Daifu House ("Daifu" being another ancient official title), Qingyun House, East Garden, Taoli Garden, West Garden, Jing'ai Hall, Lvfu Hall, and Yinfu Hall, all of which are pleasingly laid out in harmony with the other man-made structures of the village and with the village's charming, cosy gardens.
* "Hui" is short for Huizhou, as in 'the Hui dialect' or 'the Hui Opera' (note that "Hui" sometimes refers to Anhui, the province, as in 'Hui Cuisine', but "Anhui" is of much later origin (CE 1667), being the composite name made up from combining the first character of each of the prefecture names of the area at the time, "An-qing" and "Hui-zhou"). Hui Style architecture refers to the vernacular, or people's, architecture, as opposed to the architectural style that characterized royal palaces and other official edifices. Yet the two are intimately related, for the degree of sophistication of vernacular architecture depends directly on the wealth that is created – and thus spread throughout society – by the ruling emperor. Huizhou vernacular architecture owes its impressive style to the opulence that was created during the reign (CE 1127–1162) of Emperor Gaozong, the first emperor of the Southern Song (CE 1127-1279) Dynasty and younger half-brother to the last emperor of the Northern Song (CE 960-1127) Dynasty who had been captured by the Jin army in 1127, only one year after his father had abdicated in his favor.
Emperor Gaozong moved the capital from Kaifeng in the north, which, in 1127 had definitively fallen under Jin control when the city was overrun by Jurchen forces, to Lin'an (present-day Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province), where he built a sumptuously large city which had a positive and contagious economic effect not only on the local community, but on cities throughout the south, as prominent administrators, courtiers, merchants and other purveyors to the royal court likewise built extravagantly back home in their respective provincial towns and villages, including in the area of Huizhou, though this development came to Huizhou only later, as indicated above, i.e., during the Ming Dynasty reign of Emperor Jingtai.
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