Opinion / Shanxi trip

Elder of Xiwan recounts 16 generations of village history

By Elannah Young ( Updated: 2016-07-07 10:23

  Elder of Xiwan recounts 16 generations of village history

Chen Guangyu sits merrily in his cave dwelling in Xiwan village, surrounded by mountains, near the Yellow River in Shanxi province. (Photo provided to

Xiwan is a rural village in Qikou town of north China's Shanxi province, only a few hours from Beijing on the high-speed train. It is currently off the beaten track. However it is fast becoming another spot on Shanxi’s long list of impressive scenic sites.

When arriving along the dusty road, the first glimpses of the village are of the steeply pitched roofs that cascade down the hill, looking almost as ancient as the surrounding mountains.

A plethora of arched doorways are visible, each adorned with strings of red lanterns. The village is a labyrinth of small courtyards and single-room homes. It was in the first of these courtyards that Chen Guangyu anticipated the arrival of guests.

The summer sun beat down, drying the bulbs of corn that hung from the old roofs, providing a perch for the singing sparrows. Stepping into Xiwan village feels like stepping back in time. The place is well preserved, although the small carvings etched into panels across the windows and on the roof peaks are well worn. A large store of coal and wood is stowed away in the corner, used for cooking and heating. This is juxtaposed by the newly-installed solar panel, giving the village heated water.

Chen opened the door to his home, decorated with gourds and spring couplets. The entrance revealed a room with a bed, a coal stove and a framed portrait of Mao Zedong.

Chen Guangyu, 67, is the head of a family with 7 members including three grandsons who are the 16th generation of the Chen family to live here since their ancestor, Chen Shifan, moved into Xiwan around 300 years ago.

All 480 residents with the surname Chen in the village are descendants of Chen Shifan. He first worked as a dockwalloper in a nearby port and then got rich gradually and finally built a house in today's site of Xiwan. From generation to generation, his offspring built Xiwan village. These days most of the youth in the village are migrants themselves, trying to improve their quality of life by working in nearby cities. However, for Chen Guangyu, this is home, after living here all his 67 years.

Apart from the first generation's startup story, Chen reminisces about the stories his elders told him, perhaps the most intriguing of which occurred around the Kangxi period (1654-1722) during the 10th generation of his ancestors, when the town was used as a battle ground, to defeat rebels, thanks to the organization of Chen’s ancestor, who was greatly honoured by the government then.

Energetic and animated, Chen shares the tales of the past, but when asked about the future he immediately becomes more thoughtful and reflective. He is unsure whether future generations will continue to live in this 300-year-old village since the bigger cities could provide an easier life and higher paying jobs.

Many people just like Chen sweep their own courtyards in rural Shanxi, filled with tales of times gone by, and insights into the fascinating past of the province. Discovering Shanxi province is to discover these people whose stories of culture and history paint an authentic picture of ancient China.

Nowadays Chen hopes his village could attract more tourists and thus the government could issue an overhaul plan for the village which could ensure the beauty of Xiwan can be better preserved, and enjoyed for many more generations.

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