by Ernie Diaz
You need some sour with your sweet, some shade in the sunshine, some booze after a coffee marathon. The pleasure principle depends on contrast. So if you find yourself descending Huangshan, don’t go rushing off to another holy mountain. After seeing what the gods hath wrought, better to appreciate what the humble hand of man can achieve. After all, how many piles of granite can you stomach in one holiday?
Not that Huangshan, the Yellow Mountain, is any old pile of granite. Whatever glacier crushed the place some 100 million years ago was a particularly inspired one, and prescient, to boot. How could it have guessed that, eras on, tiny organisms would compare its handiwork to dragon heads, celestial palaces, and holy women?
There’s nothing uncommonly yellow about Yellow Mountain. In fact, the place was Yishan until it was switched by imperial decree in the 8th century, to honor the legendary Yellow Emperor, who liked grinding his immortality pills up there, and eventually ascended to the heavens on one of the peaks.
MVP Li Bai was the first to refer to the place as a Yellow Mountain, in his Seeing off Hermit Wen Back to Former Residence White Goose Peak on the Yellow Mountain. Despite the catchy title, the verse is a bit crap, at least in the translation. So we’ll lay on the Huangshan ruminations of a lesser known, but far more lugubrious poet – Du Xunhe:
Hid by tall grass, pine saplings raise their heads ever from birth;
Day by day, they outgrow those wormwoods and bitter fleabanes.
People of little discernment know not they’ll be great trees,
They don’t praise the height until pines grow lofty and towering.
Whether Huangshan makes you want to compose a quarto, or get it all down in an ink wash painting, as it has so many Chinese artists past and present, you’ll still be lucky to have had a few still moments above the clouds, free of the city, if not from tour group megaphones and college students screaming like escapees from a psych ward.
Hopefully, after you descend, they’ll be no tour bus waiting for you to complete the head count. Then you can match wits with an avaricious driver who will squire you to the far south slope of Huangshan, to Xidi Village. No, it’s not just another quasi-preserved Chinese Ming/Qing village. This sucker was built in the SONG dynasty, folks, BEFORE the Mongols took over, not after the Chinese took it back, before the Mongols’ cousins the Manchus took it away again. But yeah, most of the 300 houses were built in the Ming or Qing eras.
And not for nothing, but this village is whitewashed and sun-dappled, not like the rest of China’s ancient burgs, gray as a beggar’s britches. Gives the place a southern Mediterranean feel, or even north Mexican. Clint Eastwood wouldn’t look out of place here, clip-clopping about on a mule, nor would shiny-haired lotharios, polishing their stilettos in doorways.
None of that spaghetti western vibe to be had in Xidi, though. This is a place of peace, and was one of prosperity for a good two centuries, turning out national scholars and court officials like a Confucian eugenics lab. It all began in the late Tang, when emperor Zhaozong got a little too interested in the doings of his corrupt ministers and put his whole family in danger. A benefactor named Hu adopted one of his sons and gave the lad his family name.
Lacking an imperial seal, but not the pedigree, the kid’s goodness-knows-how-great grandson moved the family to the lee of Huangshan and established Xidi mid eleventh century. This Hu had resources aplenty to build aright, observing not only principles of fengshui but cutting edge Song architecture, still evident in some of the roofing.
Xidi is about courtyard living Anhui style, softer and brighter than all that bombastic gravitas up north. Softer lines, brighter tiles, and woodwork so ornately carved an Asperger-sufferer would scarcely have the patience for it.
For all that, Xidi won’t provide a full day’s entertainment to the modern tourist. It’s not like the place has an outlet mall or an Irish pub (yet). So there’s little reason not to get the crowd of gypsy cabbies worked up over which will get to overcharge you for a seven-klick trip to the foot of Leigang mountain, and Hongcun village.
This one was built in the Song, too, albeit a full century later, the Johnny-come-latelies. China had doubled in size during the tenth and eleventh centuries to fifty million souls, and General Wang needed some elbow room. He and kinsman Wang Yanji brought their families from relatively crowded Qisu to the sheltered crook of Leigang and built thirteen houses.
But the salient point of interest, historically and architecturally, is that descendants decided to build the whole place out in the shape of an ox. The west end of the village going up the slope of Leigang mountain resembles the beast’s raised head, right down to huge matching trees serving as horns, while the four bridges spanning the Jiyin river are the legs.
This is a water buffalo, make no mistake, lolling about in crystal clear mountain water that has been micromanaged by prudent farm folk. Two man-made lakes were built to symbolize the ox’s stomach and reticulum, for Pete’s sake.
All the water and propitiation led to not one but two boom times in Hongcun, 1401-1620 and 1796–1908. Prosperous officials and merchants enabled the fine craftsmanship and constant waterway digging, all on the advice of geomancers.
Orderly and understated, Hongcun stands in marked contrast to the rugged grandeur of nearby Huangshan. Misty, slow-paced, and untroubled, Hongcun provides a heck of a contrast to life in modern China. Long live the difference.