It’s picture of one of Longli’s ancient ancestral hall, with its meticulously carved eaves, painted miniatures on each side, grandeur and solemnity that drew my attention. After checking my maps, I put Longli on my bucket-list of must-see ancient villages in southwest China.
Longli (隆里) seemed like a fairly remote ancient town on the Guizhou – Hunan border, just 20 km north of Liping (黎平). When the driver pointed to the brand new airport with direct flights to Guiyang (the capital of Guizhou province) and Guangzhou, and the new road under construction, Longli became an easy week-end escape. So much for remoteness!
Longli has a historical value that should not be under-estimated. Indeed, the village used to be a Han-Chinese military garrison in the middle of the Miao and Dong ethnic country. It was also going through massive renovation when I visited in early March 2014.
Steeped in blood and history
Since the Tang dynasty (618-907), Longli was a village on the outer ring of the Middle Kingdom and populated by Dong ethnic group (侗族) people. During the early years of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), a 200’000 men strong army of Dong and Miao soldiers took the nearby towns of Liping (黎平) and Mianjing (锦屏).
The response of the Ming was swift : 300’000 Han Chinese soldiers took back Liping, Mianjing and Longli (which was then written ‘龙里’).
In 1385, Ming soldiers settled in Longli and the town became an advanced military outpost on the margin of the Chinese empire. The region acted as a buffer zone which protected the empire against any other ethnic uprising.
In 1397, Ming soldiers were slaughtered during a Miao uprising. The rest of the Ming soldiers escaped and Longli was back under the control of the Miao. Again, in 1404, the imperial armies of emperor Yongle re-established Ming rule over Longli.
Longli remained a military garrison until 1685 when emperor Sunzhi of the Qing decide to change Longli from an army outpost to a regular town ruled by imperial officials. The name of the town was changed from 龙里 to 隆里. Same pronunciation, the first character ‘龙’ [dragon] was changed into ‘隆’ [which stands for 隆盛更新 or ‘prosperous renewal’].
Upgrading a historical site
After entering through the Gate of the Pure Sun (清阳门), the main entrance to the village, I began thinking I came a long way for nothing.
Half of the town was going through major renovation work (and still is at the time of writing). Workers in yellow helmets are busy on bamboo scaffolding, local women carry bricks and mud in woven baskets and wheel barrows. There are piles of bricks, tiles, sand all over the streets. Ancestral halls are either empty waiting for renovation or full of workers who are committed to make Longli ‘more beautiful’.
I could hear the yellow-helmets workers laughing and shouting “Hellooooo! Helloooo!” to me.
– 你们什么时候完工，这里？[When will you be finished renovating?] I asked.
– 哦呀！老外会说中文阿！ [Oh! The foreigner speak Chinese] I heard one construction worker say.
– 明年才完工，你倒是再回来，就更美丽 [Construction will be finished next year, come back then, it will be beautiful] shouted another one from the top of the bamboo scaffolding.
A local man wearing a western-style suit started practicing his English on me :
– Welcome to Longli, he said with a bright smile. “When you come back next year everything will be more beautiful and there will be a highway from Liping“.
– “Oh yeah? And there the government will charge a very expensive entrance fee, right? ” I asked (with a tinge of sarcasm)
– “Uh … well maybe… I don’t know”, he replied visibly taken aback by my question.
– “Believe me, once there is a highway from Liping, tourists will have to pay to see how beautiful Longli has become”.
– “You understand China very well” he said laughing.
Between the old, original and the new, shiny Longli
What appeared to be an ancestral hall had already been entirely remodeled. Crisp white walls with splashes of carmine and deep blue. It looks nice, but it looks too new to look like the original. Interesting traditional architecture, but it won’t fool anyone, it’s not the original, ancient one.
It seems that only the ‘public building’ are being ‘renovated’. As the man who drove me to Qinshiyuan, a 600-year old ancient village in Guangxi province said : ‘One can’t rebuild ancient buildings and make look like they’re old. It does not work. One has to preserve the original ancient structure.’
In Liping bus station, when I was inquiring about how to get to Longli, a woman ask me : “Why do you want to go and see these old buildings? There is nothing interesting over there!”
Ancient high officials and scholars’ houses
When I visited, there was a number of buildings that seemed untouched by this wave of beautification. These buildings are ancient high officials and scholars’ houses.
These houses are signifies by the Chinese character “第”. You will see this character often because it is use before numerals to form ordinal numbers, but in ancient Chinese “第“ refers either to a grade into which candidates to the imperial examination were placed (like in the word 及第) or the residence of a high official (like in the word 府第).
I have seen three or four different “第“ (pronounce “di” by the way) which are now protected buildings and home to a few households. Each of them has its own story. People who live in them are fully aware that their home is a piece of local history and they usually welcome visitors. Some will even point at architectural details like the finely carved window cover or an inscription in stone.
How to get there
Longli is 30 km north of Liping (黎平) in south-east Guizhou. There are direct bus connection Congjiang (2 hours), Kaili (5 hours) and Guiyang (4 to 5 hours) in Guizhou. There are also buses from Guilin (5 to 6 hours) and if you visit the Chengyang Dong area, there are two buses in the morning from Sanjiang (3 hours)
From Liping, there are no direct connection. If you are on a budget, you will have to take the bus to Aoshi (敖市), which is just 4 km from Longli. Once in Aoshi, you will have to find another means of transportation to get to Longli.
The non-budget option is to negotiate a fare with a taxi driver in Liping. You can easily spend at least 2 hours exploring the streets of Longli, even though it’s under construction.