Flashback in southern Shanxi province (山西). This region of north China, on the left banks of the Yellow River (黄河) remains unknown to foreign travellers, but it concentrates most of China’s civilian castles (民间古堡) which were built between the late Ming (1368-1644) and early Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.
During a short trip last summer, I visited a few of these vernacular castles that dot south Shanxi province’s Qinhe River (沁河) basin. I have already talked the well-preserved and almost deserted stone fortress of Xiangyu castle (相峪堡) and explained how the castle of Douzhuang (窦庄堡) lost its walls.
Today, we are heading to the more touristy Ming-Qing era compound of Huangcheng Xianfu (皇城相府) and examine its connection to the Qing Emperor Kangxi (康熙), one of the world longest-reigning ruler.
Beyond the touristic site
Unlike Xiangyu castle (相峪堡) or Douzhuang (窦庄堡), Huangcheng Xiangfu was renovated and classified as a 5A-level national tourist site in 2007. I found the entrance fee to be very expensive (120 RMB), but it is largest and the most representative castle in the region. Both watchtowers, Heshan Tower (河山楼) and the Yu Tower (豫楼) are open to the public (whereas watchtowers in other non-touristy castles I visited in the region are closed) and provide a point of view on this impressive structure.
Since it’s a tourist destination of choice near the town of Jincheng (晋城), most buildings within the walls are open to the public and they tell the story of the Chen family who contributed to built this castle and who had a connection to the Qing Emperor Kangxi (康熙).
A Classic Ming-Qing Civilian Castle
Like Xiangyu castle (相峪堡) or Douzhuang (窦庄堡), Huangcheng Xiangfu was built during the late years of the Ming dynasty, when turmoil was brewing in the region. The Chen family who had amassed considerable wealth through trading activities, contributed financially to the construction of Huangcheng.
From the top of the two watchtowers, we can see that the castle is divided in two parts. The first part of Huancheng Xiangfu was built in 1632 with the Heshan Tower (河山楼), designed to provide shelter to 800 people during attacks, a protective wall which, like in Xiangyu castle (相峪堡), takes advantage of the hillside. The rear wall is combined with a three-layer structure which hosted barracks and soldiers quarters. In front of this military defence, the Chen family built a complex of eight courtyards boasting several hundred rooms for the civilians.
During the Ming dynasty, the castle was called douzhuju (斗筑居). This name indicates that it was built (筑) for defence (斗) and civilian dwelling (居).
Under the Qing dynasty, the castle was expanded. A new outer wall was added and the Ming-era douzhuju (斗筑居) first line of defence became an inner city wall.Turrets and small watchtowers dot the walls. The most impressive of these towers is the Wenchang Tower (文昌楼) where visitors can burn incense to Wenchang (文昌) the god of culture and literature in Chinese religion.
The new watchtower, the Yu Tower, dominated a new compound where the Chen family members who made a successful career at the imperial court had their own house or fortified villas. Following the expansion, the castle was renamed Zongdao Zhuang (中道庄), literally ‘The Manor of the Doctrine of the Golden Mean’. Here ‘中道’ is short for ‘中庸之道’ and refers to the concept elaborated by Confucius (孔夫子).
The renaming shows that the Qing rulers had use Confucius philosophy to legitimise their reign (the Qing were not Han Chinese, but ‘barbarian’ Manchus from beyond the Great Wall). It also shows the desire of the Chen family to be more attune with the new ruling dynasty.
Let’s keep focusing on the different names given to this castle to tell its history. In the 18th century, the ‘Manor of the Golden Mean’ (中道庄) became known as Huangcheng Xiangfu (皇城相府).
The term xiangfu (相府) means ‘the House of the Chancelor’. Here, the Chancelor is a prominent Chen family member, Chen Tingjing (陈廷敬) who gained the favour of Emperor Kangxi (康熙) thanks to his talents. Chen Tingjing worked as a minister at the court, was the personal teacher of the emperor and was promoted head of the prestigious Imperial Academy (文渊阁) in 1703 at the age of 65.
The term huangcheng (皇城) means ‘Imperial City’ and refers to the two visits Emperor Kangxi (康熙) made. A few places in Huangcheng Xiangfu (皇城相府) castle, which can be translated by something like ‘The House of the Chancellor (相府) in the Imperial City (皇城)’, reminds us of the connection between the Chen family and the Emperor.
First, the Museum of Dictionary which looks at the development, evolution and history of dictionary in China. Chen Tingjing was also editor-in-chief of the famous Kangxi Dictionary (康熙字典) published in 1716 which organised the 47,000 Chinese characters in use at that time into 214 radicals. Second, the current main entrance to the castle, the Tower of Imperial Calligraphy (御书楼) built in 1714 stores scrolls of calligraphy written by Emperor Kangxi. They praise the virtues of Chen Tingjing. Finally, behind the entrance, the Stone Portal, erected in 1699 under the order of the Emperor commemorate the achievements of five generation of Chen family members at the imperial court.
Visiting Huangcheng Xiangfu
It was the first castle I visited in the region. Although I found the entrance fee expensive (120 RMB), I felt the price is justified. Huangcheng Xiangfu is large, well-preserved (or well-restored compared to other non-touristy castles I visited) and most of the courtyard houses, watchtowers, family ancestral halls, turrets and the Chen family gardens (beyond the wall) are open to the public.
It’s easy to spend at least 2 or 3 hours walking around, circling the castle on the outer and inner wall, visiting the different courtyard and admiring the impressive stone carving on arched gateways.
Huangcheng Xiangfu is located in southern Shanxi province (山西), 30 km west of Jincheng (晋城), in Beiliu Township (北留镇).