This article was updated on June 14th, 2016
The driver pulled the car by the entrance of Jingping (荆坪) village. Across the river, chimneys were sending plumes of black smoke in the air. The semi-industrial, semi-agricultural landscape 15 km of Huaihua (怀化) in southwest Hunan province looked bleak and gloomy.
As I started walking through a very common Chinese village, locals looked at me in disbelief. I asked an old man where was the ancient village of Jingping. A man on his motorcycle was looking back at me as he kept going forward and almost fell off.
“Oh! You speak Chinese?! Where are you from? How long have you been in China for? Follow me!”
While I was satisfying his curiosity and responding to the usual questions people ask when they meet a Mandarin-speaking foreigner in the countryside, the old man was leading me to Jingping’s landmark : the Pan clan ancestral hall (潘氏祠).
It took my mind and my eyes a while to cope with reality.
The Pan Clan Ancestral Hall
I have already given a short explanation about ancestral halls, also called lineage temples (祠堂), in my page about ‘Ancient and Ethnic villages‘ and have seen quite a few during my travels, but I had never seen anything like the Pan Clan Ancestral Hall (潘氏祠) in Jingping village.
The facade (which is actually an elaborated type of paifang or arched gateway) of this lineage temple built during the early years of emperor Hongwu (洪武) of the Ming dynasty is breathtaking. Only the ancestral halls of the ancient Ming garrison of Longli (隆里) in Guizhou have a similar grandeur.
Each side of the gate is flanked with meticulously carved dragons twisting around a column. Under the mythic reptiles, two kirin riding on stylized clouds solemnly guard the entrance. The kirin, or qilin (麒麟) in Chinese, is a mythological animal with the body of a tiger topped with the head of dragon. It appeared in the Chinese bestiary during the 5th century BC. In Chinese folk culture, it announces the arrival or passing of a brilliant ruler.
Four Characters and Eight Immortals
Between the tails of the dragons, the inscription “嗣徽越府” (si hui yue fu) – in ancient Chinese, people used to write from right to left – exhorts local people to look up to the Pan family ancestors (who were important local officials).
The character 嗣 stands for ‘sons and grandsons’ (i.e. the future generations – sorry ladies, Chinese culture is vehemently patriarchal), 徽 means ‘government official’, 越 is short for ‘超越’ i.e. ‘to surpass’ or ‘to transcend’ and finally the character 府 refers to the men of the Pan clan.
On each side of the “嗣徽越府” inscription, we find ancestors of the Pan clan. Under the inscription, the figurines of the ‘eight immortals who crossed the sea’ (八仙过海)‘ are a popular element of Chinese folk culture and are a sign of prosperity and longevity.
Traditional Chinese scenery and the meaning of the three entrances
On top of this arched gateway, there are two miniature landscapes that are literally called ‘mountain and water’ [scenery] (山水 or shan-shui). The shan-shui has become a genre of traditional Chinese landscape painting. Here, the landscape represent the Jinding Mountain and the Baota Mountain in Henan province, where the first member of the Pan clan originally migrated from.
One access to the ancestral hall through a series of three doors (三道门 in Chinese). The occurrence of the number three is a direct reference to the chapter 42 of the Daodejing 道德经, a text which lays the foundation of Taoist philosophy : “道生一，一生二 ，二生三，三生万物” ( The Dao – i.e. the path – produced One, One produced Two, Two produced Three, Three produced All Things).
The hand of Mao
On the lower level of facade of the Pan clan ancestral hall the great chairman Mao Zedong was kind enough to add his touch (and deface the solemnity of the structure) by adding two revolutionary decaying slogans.
Only people well-versed in the Mao Zedong’s thought and geeks who have memorized ‘On the correct handling of contradictions among the people’ will have the pleasure to be able to read the full quote. Indeed, over the years, Mao’s message has collapsed.
Entering the Pan Clan Ancestral Hall
Between the second and the third gate, there is an open courtyard with an ancient performance stage. Once you step through the third gate, you formally enter the ancestral hall.
The ancestral hall is vast and solemn, but it’s unlikely that it will send shivers down your spine (like the facade did to me). Beyond a large square sky-well, there are three different altars on which we find the stone tablets which record the name of all the Pan family ancestors.
Beyond the Pan ancestral hall
After looking for too long at every detail of the Pan clan ancestral hall, my eyes had already overdosed on excessive beauty and everything else seemed dull.
The two adjacent temples, the Guansheng and Wutong temple seemed uninteresting and after a walk in the quiet slab-stone streets of the historical core of Jingping village which are dotted with Ming and Qing era courtyard mansions that belonged to government officials of the Pan clan, I rushed back to the Pan clan ancestral hall.
Change & Transformation
In April and May 2016, several readers wrote me to say they found the Pan Clan Ancestral Hall of Jingping hidden by scaffolding. As there is obvious renovation work going on, who knows what the face of the Ancestral Hall facade will look like in the future?
I do hope it is just maintenance work and not a Hollywood-style make-over that would deface the original structure. So, if you happen to travel to Jingping, please comment below or send me a message via the contact page (pictures are welcome), so that I can update this article in the future.
How to get there
The old village of Jingping (荆坪古村) is located in Zhongfang township (中方镇), 50 km north of Qianyang (黔阳) and around 15 km south of Huaihua (怀化), the major transportation hub in this part of western Hunan, which is also connected to the high-speed train network. From there, you can reach Fenghuang (凤凰) in a couple of hours.
In Hongjiang (洪江), drivers did not know where the village was and only one had heard of Zhongfang (中方镇). Yet, it is very simple to go. The driver will have to follow the old road (not the highway) from Qianyang to Huaihua. At some point, you will reach the township of Zhongfang (there will be a road sign). Once in the township, ask for direction … local people know, they will tell the driver to turn left at the intersection before Longjing village (龙井村) and cross the Jingping bridge (荆坪桥)