The Wang Family Residential Compound is a rare example of vintage Chinese civilization handed down through the ages. Built by the Wang family of Jingsheng in Lingshi County, descendants of the Wang family of the city of Taiyuan some 150 kilometers to the north and one of the four prominant merchant families of Shanxi Province during the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty, the compound is an unsurpassed masterpiece of Chinese residential architecture from the Qing Dynasty period.
Since the Wang Family Residential Compound was a private residence that reflected the status of the Wang family, the progress of its construction followed the financial and social progress of the family down through the generations. It was a work in progress that was begun during the Wanli (CE 1572-1620) period of the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty, and thereafter enlarged, restored and further embellished throughout the course of the Yongzheng (CE 1722-1735), Qianlong (CE 1735-1796) and Jiaqing (CE 1796-1820) periods of the Qing Dynasty. Though the Wang Family Residential Compound is itself not of ancient origin (as it stands today, the compound reflects the building arts of the Qing Dynasty period), its Siheyuan compound architectural style – and most especially the heritage of the artwork that adorns its interiors – traces back at least 3000 years.
The Wang Family Residential Compound is built on a truly magnificent scale, on a series of hills. It faces a river, with a mountain as a backdrop. The Wang Family Residential Compound is in fact a collection of compounds within an outer wall that is quite tall, the residential compound's various structures – its halls, towers, pavilions, etc. – and courtyards occupying different levels in the surrounding topography in an aesthetically pleasing, well-coordinated manner. The compound's main components are the Gaoji Ya (East Compound), the Hongmen Bao (West Compound, aka Red-Gate Fort), and the Wang Ancestral Hall (aka Xiaoyi Ancestral Temple), in all covering an area of some 150,000 square meters, of which roughly 45,000 square meters is under official provincial government protection as a cultural heritage site.
Together, the various components of the Wang Family Residential Compound consists of 5 alleys, 5 forts, and 5 ancestral temples, in keeping with the notion of the 5 lucky animals, the long (dragon), the fenghuang (phoenix), the gui xian (tortoise), the qilin (unicorn) and the lao hu (tiger), where the first four represent the 4 holy animals of Chinese mythology. The number 5 is also central to Taoism, there being 5 elements: earth, fire, water, wood and metal. Indeed, the yin and the yang, on which feng shui ultimately rests (and there can be no doubt that the Wang family was attentive to feng shui while constructing the family residence – for an explanation of the principles of feng shui, click here), is at the very heart of Taoism. The compound also comprises 231 courtyards and 2078 houses, causing some to liken the Wang Family Residential Compound to the Imperial Forbidden City, China's grandest Siheyuan compound.
The East Compound today houses especially personal items belonging to the Wang family. The East Compound, which has a gate on each of its four sides, consists of two main courtyards (i.e., making the East Compound a 2-jin Siheyuan compound – see the link above) with a kitchen garden, a playground for children (with classrooms where Chinese classics were taught by a private tutor), a locale for teaching the art of embroidering, a flower garden, a courtyard (and dwelling) for the resident agricultural supervisor, and a courtyard (and dwellings) for the house servants.
The West Compound houses, among other things, the Wang Museum, which includes various exhibitions and a culture center profiling the Wang family history. The West Compound also contains a unique homage to the Wang family in that it has a set of criss-crossing streets which, together, form the Chinese character for "Wang" (one vertical line with three cross slashes), namely, the main "vertical" (north-south) street which is crossed by three "horizontal" (east-west) alleyways.
The Liqun Art Gallery, named in honor of the Lingshi County woodcut icon, Li Qun, born in 1912, is located in a separate fortress compound, the Chongning Bao compound (the 5 fortress compounds are: Gaoji Ya (East Compound), Hongmen Bao (West Compound), Chongning Bao, Gongji Bao and Dongnan Bao). The Chongning Bao compound also houses the Painting and Calligraphy Hall, which displays numerous priceless artworks and examples of calligraphy, including couplets by prominent literary personages, and Treasure Hall, which displays furniture, porcelain, jade- and other carvings, various rare stones, and old coins. The artwork assembled here, including the elaborate carving that decorates much of the woodwork, has inherited much from China's ancient past, which has earned the Wang Family Residential Compound the title: the "art gallery of Chinese folk residences".
The Wang Family Ancestral Hall is divided into an upper and a lower section. At the entrance to the hall hangs a stele with the following engraved text: "Stele of Filial Piety". The Wang Family Ancestral Hall is the representational earthly habitat of the souls of Wang family ancestors, from the earliest times to the recent past. Not surprisingly, it is a popular venue for Wang Family members from near and far – including Wang family descendants from the four corners of the earth – who come here to learn more about their ancestral lineage, and to pay homage to their departed ancestors.
Wang Family Residential Compound earned the title of the "First Courtyard in Cathay" ("Cathay" being the name for China used by Marco Polo in his travel journals), thanks to its grandeur and its exquisite appointments, which showcased all the best that China had to offer in the way of art and architecture at the height of the Qing Dynasty. The Wang Family Residential Compound, as one of four family residential compounds belonging to Qing Dynasty merchants of Shanxi Province, was suggested for inclusion on the 2008 UNESCO World Heritage List, but none of these compounds made it on the final list for 2008 (the competition is quite stiff, with more and more countries suggesting what they consider as their own world heritage pearls), though another Chinese cultural site, the Fujian Tulou complex, did make it on the final list for 2008.