China / fenghuang20150907

History comes alive in picturesque old town

(China Daily) Updated: 2015-09-09 14:10

Surrounded by mountains with a river cutting through its center and multiple ethnic cultural backgrounds, the old town of Fenghuang is known as one of the most beautiful in China.

Literally meaning phoenix in Chinese, Fenghuang is a county in Xiangxi Tujia and Miao autonomous prefecture in western Hunan province.

The core area of its old town, covering no more than 1 square kilometer, attracts about 10 million tourists from home and overseas each year.

The many buildings in Fenghuang old town, including residences, temples and shrines, were mostly built during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and have been well preserved. Built mainly of wood and stone, they feature a combined architectural style of the Han and local ethnic groups.

Most of the houses now serve as shops, restaurants, inns and art workshops. One of the landmark buildings is Hongqiao, or Rainbow Bridge, built about 600 years ago.

Local legends say the bridge was built according to the order of Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

A fortuneteller told Zhu that the landscape of the region was like a dragon, which meant that a new emperor would be born there to replace him. Believing what he was told, Zhu issued an order to build a bridge over the Tuojiang River to “cut off ” the dragon’s head.

The iconic red sandstone streets in the old town are said to be the result of the dragon’s blood.

The two-story bridge is now a shopping site. The first floor has many booths that sell souvenirs, snacks and handicrafts, and the top floor is a teahouse with views of both banks of the river.

Along the river are many stilt houses. Previously the homes of local poor people, they have mostly been transformed into restaurants, inns and bars that attract tourists because of their wonderful river views.

Visitors can get an even closer view of the water by taking a boat from the North Gate Wharf to Wanshou Palace.

Four bridges were built over the Tuojiang River in 2012, designed and funded by local painter and art designer Huang Yongyu. He integrated traditional architectural styles with his own ideas, and named the bridges for four natural elements — wind, rain, snow and fog.

Fenghuang was a military garrison in the Qing Dynasty to suppress the aboriginal Miao people who would not be governed by the central government. Since 1840, the region has been home to more than 200 high-ranking army officers, according to available statistics. It is also the hometown of many celebrities in various fields in China’s modern history, including Shen Tsung-wen, one of the greatest modern Chinese writers, and Hsiung Hsi-ling, an educator, philanthropist and premier of the Republic of China. The former residences of Shen and Hsiung are well preserved in the old town, today serving as commemorative museums. Both are popular tourism sites, despite being tucked away in narrow alleys.

The houses feature traditional Chinese architecture, highlighting wooden mortise and tenon joinery, intricately carved windows and decorated roofs with ridges extending into the walls.

The furniture and daily appliances in the residences are arranged as they would have been 100 years ago to show the local people’s lifestyles at the time.

The Shen residence, covering about 600 square meters, was built by the writer’s grandfather in 1866. It has two buildings with 10 rooms and a yard. Shen was born in 1902 and spent his childhood there and his cradle is preserved in a bedroom.

Shen’s most renowned novel, The Border Town, has been adapted to a 75-minute drama that integrates dance, acrobatics and local culture. It is performed every evening at a purpose-built theater.

Even at night, the old town bustles with tourists from around the world shopping, relaxing in bars and taking photographs, and shop owners smilingly welcome new guests. With colorful lights illuminating both banks of the Tuojiang River, it is another good location for photographers.

Visitors can buy through tickets to visit the old town that cover 10 sites and activities in the area. The tickets are valid for two days.

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