In many Chinese cities, ancient neighbourhoods have been transformed shopping malls, residential high-rises, and contemporary office buildings. Chinese cities are epicentres of globalisation where the country’s rich history is systematically relegated to museums and unread books.
To me (and to many people), the ancient villages hidden in the Chinese countryside have preserved the country’s rich history. Rural areas lag behind coastal cities in economic development, meaning older structures have not been destroyed. In the same time, it’s because of a lack of financial means that centuries-old structures are slowly crumbling away: there is not enough money to maintain these old structures.
Yet, China’s countryside is full of treasures.
Baoxiu, the ‘elegant treasure’
I had stumbled upon a book about Chinese traditional architecture in Honghe (红河), a prefecture in south Yunnan province. Honghe literally means ‘Red River’ for its red soil that taints the region’s river.
West of Jianshui (建水), I headed first to the town of Shiping (石屏) from where I rode a rusty green mini-bus to Baoxiu (宝秀), a township which name means ‘elegant treasure’ in Chinese. Baoxiu is also the name of one of twelve villages, all founded at the end of the 14th century in the plain around the Chirui Lake when the Ming armies settled there.
Baoxiu and the other villages around eventually became home to entrepreneurs in tin mining, scholars, and local officials who settled the area and built impressive courtyard houses, connected by a maze of narrow alleys. I hoped to uncover some of these architectural treasures.
A local woman turned tour guide
Walking through the village, the first thing I saw was a decayed slogan on an adobe wall proclaiming: 伟大的导师，伟大的领袖，伟大的统帅，伟大的舵手，毛主席万岁！(A great teacher, a great leader, a great master, a great helmsman! Long life to Chairman Mao!). It was not exactly the type of ‘treasure’ I was looking for.
A woman in her mid-sixties with short, grey hair had stopped nearby. She looked at me and laughed.
“What are you doing?” she asked with a thick Yunnan dialect.
“I am looking to visit old courtyard houses. I want to see the old architecture of Baoxiu.”
“This is of no interest to you” she said with an embarrassed smile, pointing at the decayed slogans I was capturing with my camera.
Since I am a white man, obviously traveling, people often assume I do not understand Chinese and few people interact with me. She was different. She started giving me direction to Baoxiu’s oldest houses.
However, I barely understood her dialect, meeting her words with wide eyes. She laughed and buried her face in her hands, then looked up and took me by the arm, pulling me into an alley inundated. She showed me what I had come to see in this remote corner of Yunnan. Her name was Li, but I called her ‘a-yi,’ (阿姨) which means ‘auntie’ in Chinese.
We stopped in front of courtyard gate and a-yi pointed at the dougong (斗拱). The dougong is a structure of wooden beams, which stretches horizontally (gong), supported by trapezoidal blocks (dou), on which rests the roof of a courtyard gate. You have probably seen dougong on the arched gateway that marks the entrance of Chinatown in New York, London, or Chicago.
“When was it built?” I asked her.
“Guangxu” she said simply.
Guangxu is the name of the Qing emperor who ruled during the last quarter of the 19th century.
For a few hours, I followed a-yi who shepherded me to a half-dozen courtyard houses, all about 130 years old. The pattern developed: a-yi stopped in front of a courtyard gate, gave me time to take pictures, then entered the house and beckoned me to follow.
Each time we arrived in house, a-yi sat for a cup of tea and enjoyed conversation with her friends while I discovered the treasures of Baoxiu’s ancient courtyard houses. The home-owners did not mind nor care about my presence. I felt I was travelling back to an era when craftsmen truly honed their skills, carving dragons, phoenix, kirins and other auspicious legendary animals from the traditional Chinese bestiary on dougong, designing elaborate patterns for the window covers’ lattice work, and sculpting miniature scenes on the doors’ frames. These ancient structures were well kept but time was obviously wearing on them. The village didn’t have the financial means to maintain these beautiful, crumbling artefacts.
On our journey from courthouse to courthouse, older people gave me a thumb up or nodded with a smile that hinted at pride and admiration. Maybe thinking, ‘Someone from afar is coming to see my house’.
To me, Baoxiu, the ‘elegant treasure’ township, appeared as a jewel of ancient Chinese architecture. With rapid modernization, such sophisticated residential dwellings are hard to come by, even in the countryside.
While a-yi and her age-old friends appreciated my interest and intrigue, young people did not share this view.
As I stood in front of one house, taking pictures of the front gate’s dougong, a guy in his mid-twenties and a group of his friends passed by. Seeing me, they stopped and looked me over from head to toe.
I said “hello” in Chinese.
“What the hell are you doing here?” one asked bluntly.
“Well, I am taking pictures of the old architecture of your village”.
They laughed in disbelief. “Why do you take picture of these ugly places?”
In rural areas, this attitude from the younger generation evokes dismay from their parents and grandparents who complain about their children being more interested in money than their cultural heritage. As a country, China is proud of its long history, but the young generation is quick to put it in the most.
A-yi responded to that young crowd with only a dismissive hand gesture. The end of the tour was approaching.
On the main square of the village, she hailed a rickshaw and told me to jump in the back. She gave instructions to the driver and told me I was going to ‘the first village of Yunnan’. As I wondered what I would see in this next village, a-yi waved good-bye through the cloud of dust. I did not know I was on my way to Zhengying 郑营.