Beauty of Past Riches in Poor, Rural China

By Wong, Edward | International Herald Tribune, March 30, 2012 | Go to article overview

Beauty of Past Riches in Poor, Rural China


Wong, Edward, International Herald Tribune


The legacy of the merchants of Anhui Province can be seen in their lavish two-story family villas, which are drawing the attention of scholars, tourists and filmmakers.

CORRECTION APPENDED

In the spring, as rapeseed flowers bloom, this fertile swath of central China is transformed into a sea of yellow. In the summer, when rainstorms descend, the fields pulsate emerald green and canals brim with brown water. But through all the seasons in the Huizhou region of Anhui Province, the weathered white-walled homes endure, rising like pottery shards from the earth, testimony to the commercial acumen and prosperity of earlier generations.

Now considered one of the poorer provinces of China, Anhui is known more for migrant workers who flee for boom cities across China than for any economic miracles of its own. But it was from its villages that some of the most aggressive merchants of the dynastic era originated, fanning out to nearby provinces on the east coast and reaping outsize profits. They saw with clear eyes what ordinary people craved -- salt, tea and lumber, for instance -- and came to dominate trade in those commodities.

Huizhou, in the southernmost part of Anhui, became synonymous with entrepreneurialism. Though that is no longer the case, the legacy of the merchants can be seen in the lavish two-story family villas they built, which are drawing the attention of scholars, tourists and filmmakers.

"These houses are why people come here," said Cao Lili, 24, a native of the area who led visitors one rainy afternoon through narrow alleyways in the village of Guanlu. "Where else in China can you see this kind of history?"

The preserved villas of Guanlu, a village with 400 residents, are typical of those throughout Huizhou. They have interior courtyards with robust wooden pillars and latticed screens that shield window openings. The windows face the inner yard rather than open into the village lanes because the merchants, who were invariably men and often away from home, did not want people to catch glimpses of their wealth, or of their wives, concubines and daughters. The children lived on the second floor; the wives and concubines had separate quarters on the first floor.

"A lot of men miss the days of the feudal society," Ms. Cao said with a smile.

The most impressive Guanlu villas were built by the eight sons of a businessman surnamed Wang who, during the late Qing dynasty, which ended in 1911, made his fortune by selling candle wax. Ms. Cao said the sons' villas occupy 6,000 square meters, or 65,000 square feet, in total, about two-thirds of the village. The homes are now split among multiple households, including some descended from the original Wang family.

In Xidi, a village famous for being shaped like a boat, about 1,000 residents belong to 300 households at the foot of lush hills. Outsiders can be seen on weekends wandering the alleyways to gawk at some of the two-story ancestral temples built with merchant money. A couple from Shanghai have converted one home into a popular rustic guesthouse, Pig's Inn.

From the 13th to the 20th centuries, Huizhou was known across China for its mountains and merchants, according to research by Nancy Zeng Berliner, a curator of Chinese art at the Essex Peabody Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. …

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