Walking back in time | The historical town of Shiping, Yunnan

Shiping, Yunnan

The southern Yunnan prefecture of Honghe (红河), literally ‘Red River’ is known to foreign travellers for the surreal scenery of the Yuanyang’s rice terraces.

For those who like off-the-beaten tracks travel destinations, a taste of authenticity and places that have not been transformed into theme park by China-style mass-tourism, the prefecture of Honghe has a few options.

During the Ming dynasty, waves of Han-Chinese migrants have transformed the region and gave birth to the ancient town Jianshui (建水), the nearby Double-Dragon bridge (双龙桥) and the village of Tuanshan (团山).

Today, we are heading to Shiping (石屏), another historical town just 45 minutes west of Jianshui (建水) by bus. The relative remoteness of the town has contributed to preservation, Shiping, also called Yilong township (异龙镇).

Between centuries

Shiping, Yunnan

After the Mongol swoop across the Asian continent, they established their rule over China and founded the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). Yunnan province was officially created in 1274.

Although Shiping (石屏) was created during the Tang dynasty, the Mongol dynasty of the Yuan transformed it into a military outpost in the land of the Yi ethnic group (彝族).

In 1480, during the Ming dynasty, city walls pierced with four gates were built. The East Gate in the picture above is one of them. Born as a borderland garrison, the city flourished during the Ming dynasty when Han-Chinese migrants moved from the interior and settled in this region, at the margin of China’s empire.

Today this gate, like the other that survived the centuries, marks the limit between the ancient historical part and the new town of Shiping. The  faded yellow characters”Long Life to the Chinese Communist Party” (中国共产党万岁) – on the left side and “Long Life to Mao Zedong” (毛泽东主席万岁) – on the right side shows that Mao’s revolution has had an impact on China’s historical and cultural landscape.

The Confucius temple

Shiping, Yunnan

The Confucius temple embodies Shiping’s history : built during the Yuan dynasty, it was destroyed by fire during the reign of Emperor Hongwu of the Ming and was re-built shortly after. In 1523 and 1625, the Confucius temple went through two phases of  expansion and was completely renovated during the reign of Kangxi of the Qing.

The expansion of the Confucius temple somehow reflects the shift of Shiping from a military garrison on the borderland to the town of scholars and entrepreneurs who built their wealth on mining.

During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the worship to Confucius was seasonal : there was a spring and an autumn worship. The spring worship was performed from the first to the seventh day of the second month of the Chinese lunar calendar and the autumn worship was performed on the twenty-seventh day of the eight month. Shiping’s civil and military officials as well as members of the imperial academy and other scholars would gather to chant and praise Confucius.

Today, the Confucius temple or Wen Miao (文庙) is the place where elderly citizens gather, specially on Sunday. They play cards, smoke, talk, and look after their grandchildren who are very curious about the foreigners’ every moves.

The Yamen : the government headquarters 

The Yamen of Shiping

The Yamen of Shiping

In ancient feudal China, a town’s government office was called ‘yamen [衙门]’ or sometimes ‘yashu [衙署]’. Built during the Yuan dynasty, in 1272, the building was restored and expanded several times during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

The front gate is one of the best preserved stone gate in Yunnan. The complex, closed when I visited, thrones at the end of a square in what used to be the center of Shiping.

In 1596, a local magistrate Xiao Tingdui who was well-versed into the fengshui went on top of a tower to look at Shiping. He notice the town was built on top of hill and that the streets that criss-crossed Shiping resembled the eight taoist trigram drawn on a turtle shell. He later divided Shiping into 9 districts which evolved into the twelve streets and seventeen lanes of the historical town.

Yuping College

Yuping College

Yuping College

Like many historical buildings in Shiping, the Yuping college is closed. It’s only by pushing the massive wooden gates that I could get a glimpse at the interior of this major Shiping’s landmark.

Yuping College (玉屏书院), literally, the Library of the Jade Screen, was first built during the Tang dynasty. It’s only during the Qing dynasty, the it was turned into a college where local scholars could prepare for the imperial examination.

During the Ming and Qing dynasty, the emphasis was put on Confucian education. Through the system of imperial examination, men could become imperial agents and work for the state as government officials.

The other side of Shiping

Shiping, Yunnan

The Confucius temple, the Yamen office and the Yuping college, as well as most of the buildings that surround these three historical buildings represent the Shiping of government officials and scholars.

The old town has two sides. Like Jianshui, Shiping has a well-preserved ‘popular’ old town, where the commoners lived. In this part of the old town of Shiping, the slab-stones streets are lined with small one-story high wood and stone bricks houses. On some of them, we can still see ‘the hand of Mao’ : slogans written in yellow faded characters dating back from the Cultural Revolution.

Beyond the history of this small town of south Yunnan province, the old streets of Shiping provide a unique window into what the daily life is like for in this remote corner of China.

How to get there

From Jianshui bus station, there are regular buses that leave once they are full. The journey to Shiping last around 45 minutes.

Once in Shiping, take a tuk-tuk and ask to go to the Wen Miao (文庙) – the Confucius Temple. It should cost around 5 to 8 RMB.
The Confucius temple is in the middle of the ancient town.