In my pursuit of off-the-beaten-path ancient and ethnic villages, like most travellers, I rely on tourist guide books in both English and Chinese language.
With the development of mass tourism in China, the construction of highways, airports and high-speed rail network, villages that used to be remote are now within a couple of hours from urban dwellers. Many historical villages I have visited are not remote anymore and are becoming tourist traps.
Fortunately, I sometimes stumble upon a hidden gem here and there. The ancient village of Qinshiyuan (秦氏园) is one of them.
In one of these Chinese tourist guides, I read about the old town of Xing’an (兴安古镇), northeast of Guilin. After a short bus ride from Guilin north bus station, I arrived in Xing’an and started asking locals about their old town. People kept telling me there was no old town and no part of their town had ancient buildings. When I asked one last taxi driver, he told me it would cost 80 RMB to get there.
Off I went, even without bargaining. After 45 minutes on a bumpy mountain road, we arrived in an ancient village. It was not the old town of Xing’an. It did not really matter.
The descendants of Qin Shubao
I found the villagers busy in their daily life. Nobody paid attention to the presence of a foreigner.
“What is the name of this village?” I asked my driver. “Qinshiyuan” he said.
“How do you spell it?”, I needed to visualize the Chinese characters in my head.
“It’s the Qin of Qin Shubao [秦叔宝], the Shi of Shizu [氏族 – family clan ] and the Yuan of Jiayuan [家园 – garden, courtyard]”, he replied.
“Qin Shubao, the Tang dynasty general? You mean, the ‘Door Guardian’ (门神)?”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s it! People here claim they are the descendants of Qin Shubao”.
The name of the village Qinshiyuan (秦氏园) means literally, the “Garden of the Qin family clan”. And if you are still wondering who is that Qin Shubao guy, he was a general from the Tang dynasty (618-907) who protected the door of emperor Taizong with Yuchi Jingde. They both became ‘door gods’ in Chinese folk religion. Qin Shubao is traditionally on the left.
One courtyard left
There are approximately 100 houses in the village, however, only 15 to 20 of them are still intact. Only one walled courtyard in which the different houses are set in a chessboard-like layout has been preserved. The other villagers have torn down and rebuilt their houses with contemporary construction materials.
“My house is 300 to 400 years old” said a villager who was listening my conversation with the driver. “Over there, there are some houses that are even older than that”. Indeed, on one stone house, an inscription explains that the house was built during the 13th year of the reign of emperor Hongwu (洪武) of the Ming which is a Chinese way to say the year 1381.
Most of the other houses have been built between during the late Ming to the mid-Qing dynasty. It seems that at some point during the reign of emperor Kangxi (康熙) of the Qing (1662-1722), parts of the village were destroyed because of a local war and was rebuilt with the benediction of emperor Jiaqing (嘉庆) (1796-1820).
Skywells, altars and antiques
I don’t always enter into people’s house to take pictures, but villagers are aware they are living into what basically is a museum.
One enters the house through a stone gate topped by four Chinese characters in the ‘seal style’ or zhuan shu (篆书), of one the five major calligraphy style.
Beyond, there is a one-story house. The kitchen and living quarters are articulated around a sky-well. Every house has a simple altar dedicated to the family ancestors. The households’ altars used to be more elaborated, but at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, during the “Destruction of the Old Four” campaign (破四旧运动), they were deemed superstitious and destroyed. Ironically, many households still have portraits of Mao Zedong hanging near the altar to the ancestors. Something I find ironic.
Each house is home to inestimable antiques whether it is furniture, ancient stone mills discarded by the kitchen, window cover with elaborated and rare patterns or carved beams.
Will Qinshiyuan ever be the same again?
Architecturally speaking, Qinshiyuan is a gem. The villagers are aware of that. Some have had to sell a carved beam or other antiques to make quick money during tough times.
Many villagers have left the village. Life is hard in the countryside and some have decided to try their chance in the cities. The house they have left behind abandoned and closed forever are slowly turning into ruins.
I think it is a sad thing that some villagers had decide to destroy these century old houses and built a new one out of contemporary construction materials with electricity and plumbing. We can’t blame them for wanting to improve their living conditions. Improving living standards and making money is a state-sanctioned goal for every Chinese citizens.
In the eyes of the villagers, these houses, in spite of their history and historical value are just an old pile of stone and wood.