Fenghuang Ancient Town

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Fenghuang Ancient Town
Fenghuang Ancient Town
Fenghuang Ancient Town

Fenghuang(Chinese for phoenix), a small city under the jurisdiction of the Tujia Autonomous Prefecture of Hunan Province, borders northern Guizhou Province and eastern Chongqing Municipality. Surrounded by mountains and girdled by the Tuojiang River, this small, quiet city is famous for its beautiful landscape, and as birthplace of several celebrated Chinese personages.

Fenghuang's history dates back 1,316 years. It was originally named Weiyang, and its location was in today's Huangsiqiao Town, about 24 kilometers from present-day Fenghuang. Archaeologists believe it was a main military camp. The city moved to its present site during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), but the majority of its inhabitants were still soldiers, sent to quell Miao ethnic minority riots. In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the Miao people, who had originally lived in caves, moved to the city and began building wooden dwellings. Most of the wooden buildings in the old part of the city were constructed at that time.

Three celebrated men of the Chinese Republican era were born in this small city. They are Xiong Xiling, first premier of the Republic of China, Shen Congwen, an important modern writer whose representative work, Chinese Ancient Costume Research, is the most authoritative and well known book ever written on ancient Chinese costume. The third is traditional Chinese painter Huang Yongyu, pioneer of the reform school of traditional Chinese painting. Huang combined traditional Chinese painting with Western oil painting techniques to create a completely new effect. In recent years, five folk artists from the city have been designated "Folk Arts and Crafts Master" by UNESCO.

Fenghuang Ancient Town
Fenghuang Ancient Town
Fenghuang Ancient Town

Fenghuang has developed into a popular tourist destination over the past decade. Through to the 1980s, most of the local residents made a living by rafting or cutting wood and bartering logs and folk products for their daily necessities. Life was simple and quiet, and very few tourists came to the city. When the local government began to develop tourism, many family inns opened to provide accommodation and meals for Chinese and overseas visitors. The city has profited from tourism prompted by the past two years' long May, October and Spring Festival holidays, and has consequently built a new modern city alongside the old town.

On a trip to Fenghuang it is, however, the historic part of the city that is the best place to stay. Accommodation is inexpensive, and most of the scenic spots and places of interest, such as the former residence of Shen Congwen, Chaoyang Palace, the Three Kings Temple, and the Northern Gate Jumping Rock, are here. It also has a folk art street, where hand-crafted souvenirs and local delicacies are on sale.

Fenghuang is at the foot of Nanhua Mountain, by the Tuojiang River. The red sandstone city wall stands on the riverbank, and the city tower and iron gate were constructed during the Qing Dynasty. The 2-kilometer-long city wall built during the Kangxi reign of the Qing Dynasty has collapsed. The eastern and northern gates remain, but there are no traces now of the southern and western gates. Walking along the city wall, the clear Tuojiang River, residences on either side of the wall, and slabstone streets spring into view.

Outside the Northern Gate is Huxiao Shoal. Here, a narrow 100-meter-long wooden bridge supported by 15 stone blocks spans the Tuojiang River. This used to be the city's only exit, called the "Jumping Rock" by the local people. The bridge is so narrow that it must be crossed in single file. If two people cross the bridge from opposite directions, they must carefully turn and walk sideways. There are occasional falls into the river that always cause great hilarity. As dusk approaches, women come to the riverbank to wash clothes, as elderly men fly kites on the open ground. At sunset, the old wooden houses glow and the rippling river glistens in the golden sunlight.

Fenghuang Ancient Town
Fenghuang Ancient Town
Fenghuang Ancient Town

Fenghuang City is most famous for its Miao-style tilted houses. These are two-story wooden structures whose lower stories are supported by several heavy logs standing tilted on the ground, and whose large, wide upper stories lean over the river. The upper story is beautifully crafted and decorated, with up-turned eaves and carved windows, doors and railings. The lower story has no living rooms, but the tilted sections are ornately carved. There are now only one dozen Qing Dynasty and early Republican period tilted houses extant. These are in Huilongtan, and many are rented out as holiday accommodation at a monthly rental of less than 200 yuan. Overnight visitors pay only 20 yuan, but buying such a house would cost over 500,000 yuan.

Shen Congwen lived on a quiet street in the old city, in a residence constructed over 100 years ago by his father when serving in the Qing imperial government. Shen Congwen was born in this house in 1902, and spent his childhood there, leaving when he was 15. The residence then changed owners several times, and when he came back in 1982, strangers were living there. In 1988, the city government purchased the house, made the necessary renovations, and opened it to the public as the Former Residence of Shen Congwen. The house is of a modest size, and the small courtyard is surrounded by eight rooms in which Shen Congwen's pictures, original hand written essays, and copies of his works are on display. His bedroom is in the left wing, and his portrait hangs in the principal south-facing room.

The ancient Huangsiqiao Town, an hour's bus journey away, and the Southern Great Wall, are two scenic spots outside Fenghuang City. There is a story told about how the town got its name. There was once a silk worker who lived in the area. With the money he had earned over many years he built a bridge over the river so that the Miao people could come more easily to the town and buy his silk. The bridge thus helped to increase contact between the Han and Miao people. As the family name of the silk worker was Huang, the Miao people named the town where he lived Huangsiqiao (meaning Huang Silk Bridge). The town is over 600 meters in circumference with gate towers to the east, west and north. About one hundred families live in this old town, which is also site of several old tilted houses.

Fenghuang Ancient Town
Fenghuang Ancient Town
Fenghuang Ancient Town

The Southern Great Wall is 10 kilometers away from Fenghuang City, and takes about half an hour to reach by bus. It was in April 2000 that archaeologists discovered more than 200 kilometers of ancient wall here, similar to the Great Wall of northern China. After more archaeological research, they found its structural and military systems to be the same as those of the northern Great Wall. They were therefore able to confirm that it was part of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall built to defend the kingdom against the Miao people of the south. Experts estimate that the Southern Great Wall was 380 meters or more long, 2.3 meters tall, 1.7 meters wide at its base, and 1 meter wide on top. They also believe that the wall's 10 meter-tall rampart was constructed from stone. All in all, it must have been a magnificent sight, but since the Ming and Qing dynasties, the wall's stones have been taken away by the local people. Hence the wall now visible comes to an abrupt halt, and its rampart has had to be renovated by the local government at huge cost.

There is another nearby village named Duluo Village, which is regarded as a heavenly place. Duluo means "many bamboos" in the Miao language. This suggests that there were originally luxuriant growths of bamboo in the village, but this is unfortunately no longer the case. All houses in the village have high stone bases and are constructed on a slope. The village is warm in winter and cool in summer. There is a magnificent waterfall in the village and in order to enjoy the best of views, visitors walk along the muddy road from its top to its bottom. On approaching the bottom, there is a large waterfall about 1 meter wide and dozens of meters high, and a smaller one next to it. They are separated by liana vines. In the summer the vines are submerged as the two waterfalls link together to form a glorious vista.