On the last day of our Huangshan trip, a few hours before catching the midday train back to Shangahi, Matt and I stopped to take a look around Chengkan (呈坎) Ancient Village which is around 30km from downtown Tunxi.
Our first glimpse of the village is captured in the photo below; white walled, grey roofed houses bedded into the hilly countryside. A view which has, remarkably, remained largely unchanged since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.).
At the entrance to the village a heavy brass bell hung from a red rope tied to a leafless branch was pointed out to us by an eager security guard who – using hand gestures – encouraged us to use the bell to announce our arrival to no-one in particular…
Making our way into the village our tour guide explained that each building, alleyway and bridge had been oriented according to the ancient Chinese philosophical system of feng-shui, which was believed to ensure good energy flow and bring harmony and good fortune to those who lived there. According to this philosophy, even the components of the village’s name are auspicious, with Cheng representing ‘yang’ (阳) and Kan representing ‘yin’ (阴) – seemingly opposite but also complimentary and interconnected elements, which form two parts of an indivisible and balanced whole.
The dividing line between yin and yang is also seen in the s-shaped Zhongchuan River which divides Chengkan village into two halves, one residential and the other agricultural. This layout has remained largely unchanged for the last 1800 years, despite feng-shui being suppressed during the cultural revolution.
Harmonious architectural intentions aside, the village itself unfolds as an intricate maze of three main streets, criss-crossed by ninety-nine lanes and alleyways and lined by around 700 residences, a large number of which are still occupied today.
The absence of souvenir shops and Starbucks was significant; in fact, the table of carved wooden ornaments (below) was about as commercial as things got, which added a sense of credibility to the ‘authentic’ tagline. While undoubtedly marketed at tourists, Chengkan hasn’t – yet – sold out to them.
The village’s 2000 or so residents predominantly descend from a single family, sustained by a custom whereby daughter-in-laws move in to the village (usually to live with the parents of her new husband) while daughters marry men from outside the village and leave the family home.
The occupied houses are distinguishable from their empty neighbours by the extent to which they have been preserved. Twenty-one of the houses in Chengkan are protected by the state due to their historical significance and a couple are open to the public – one house that we explored was in the throws of being converted into a boutique hotel for visitors who want to experience authentic authentic village-life!
The houses themselves give a glimpse into what life would be like for residents over the centuries. Made from wood, brick and stone with an open-top roof you couldn’t exactly describe the living conditions as ‘homely’, but what the houses lacked in comfort, they made up for in savvy practicality… particularly from the perspective of fire-prevention. For example, a huge urn placed below the skylight collected rainwater which could be used to extinguish small fires; a heavy stone base adhered to each wooden pillar helped ensure structural integrity should the place be set alight, and one house we saw had a triple-decker roof constructed using layers of wood and sand… if the inner layer of wood was incinerated, the sandy filling would drop to the floor and dampen any flames. Genius!
The house pictured below would have belonged to a fairly wealthy family; the ground floor with it’s lofty ceiling and beautifully carved features would have belonged to the father and contain space for entertaining guests, sleeping and prayer; children would be stored on the second floor out of harm’s way and staff would live on the top floor – more exposed to the elements and probably a little cramped.
Continuing to explore, we came an ancestral temple built by the descendants of Luo Dongshu – a noted scholar of the Song Dynasty – to celebrate and worship him.
The temple consisted of a number of interlinking rooms and courtyards, spacious and bright in spite of the wooden-paneled interior. The pièce de résistance at the back of the temple is Baolun Hall; sitting on a raised platform, Greco-Roman columns support the beautifully engraved timber frame. The complex geometric patterns etched into the wooden crossbeams overhead and painted in the earthy teraccotta tones of the Middle East were a curious compliment to the fantastical Chinese-style carvings of flora and fauna. The roof has never been restored and the natural preservation of vivid colour remains a mystery… it was certainly a magical place.
As in Tunxi (and perhaps somewhat less surprising, in this rural setting), the traditional way of life prevails in Chengkan; we watch women wash clothes and gut fish into the fresh running water just as their mothers and grandmothers would have done. We walked past one women lathering shampoo into her hair while talking to two friends by the side of the river, a bucket of water at her feet ready to rinse. They smiled at us, the strange foreigners, and then carried on their conversation.
If you are lucky enough to visit Huangshan, I would strongly recommend that you also make time to see one of the Ancient Villages, either Chengkan, Xidi or Hongcun. The latter two are more popular and well-developed, so we opted for Chengkan in the hope of avoiding the crowds and were not disappointed – a truly fascinating place of living breathing history.