With his grin and his chubby cheeks, Master He (贺), the only monk in the village, looked like Buddha Maitreya, the smiling Buddha whose statue throned at the entrance of the temple. He invited me to sit and served us a strong tea in tiny plastic cups.
Last born in a family of eight children in Anhui’s province countryside, his parents did not have the financial means to provide for his entire family and he was often going to the temple to work in exchange of food. Becoming a monk was for him the only way to survive in the poverty-stricken rural Anhui.
He dedicated his life to the renewal of Buddhist faith and temples in the countryside and was posted in the village Yuxian (鱼鲜) for barely two years. His hardest assignment ever, he admitted.
What is happening in this village of northeast Guangdong province near the southern tip of Jiangxi province is symptomatic of the situation in rural China : adults have already left to find a job in nearby towns or went to the Pearl River Delta to work in factories in Shenzhen, Dongguan or Guangzhou. They leave behind their elderly parents and children. Parts of the village are deserted and its historical treasures are slowly crumbling away.
Master He brought me two large books about the history of the village. These two meticulous surveys concerning the historical relics of the village were published after the village Yuxian made it to the list of “China’s traditional villages” worthy of being protected by national and provincial authorities.
“In 2008, when Yuxian was put on the list, the village was neatly kept, and now, you’ve seen it for yourself, the vegetation has grown back which makes it hard to reach the ancestral temples. Those who remain in the village do not have the physical strength to take care of the village “, lamented Master He while pouring another cup of tea.
There are two ancestral halls which were originally founded during the Song dynasty, nearly 1000 years ago when an imperial official, Wang Dexian, on his way back from Guangzhou to the capital was attracted by the beauty of the landscape and settled there. Both were expanded during the Ming and renovated during the reign of Jiaqing of the Qing.
Dragons, carved miniature scenes and abstract designs inspired by nature ornate the red-stoned gates that lead to the temples. Master He assures me that some of the patterns found here are unique.
Much like the village, the ancestral temples are virtually empty. There is nothing else than a table that acts as an altar and ceramic bowls overwhelmed by incense sticks no longer burning. There are signs of periodic religious activity, but unlike in other villages of rural China where elderly people gather during the afternoon to chat over a cup of tea or over endless games of mahjong, the ancestral halls of Yuxian are dead.
Both ancestral temples bare the marks of more recent era: the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
Walking towards one of the temple, the vegetation has grown above my waste. I could not see the ground and almost tripped over rocks. Once inside, I discover big red Chinese characters which read: “cherish the motherland, get rid of old traditions, destroy the old four’”. The campaign against the ‘old four’ (old ideas, old culture, old customs, old habits) marked the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, when Communist theorists explained the reactionary nature of religion and proclaimed that religion was a wrong political ideology serving the anti-revolutionary forces.
In the second ancestral hall, the walls were covered with slogans that chant the glory of the Chinese Communist Party (中国共产党万岁) and of the Great Leap Forward (大跳进万岁), Mao’s disastrous campaign launched in 1958 to industrialise which eventually led to the worst human-made catastrophe of Chine : the famine of the 1960s.
Between these two ancestral halls, the ruins of a back wall and lonely stone pillars that once marked the entrance of a building are crumbling away under northern Guangdong province’s sub-tropical sun.
I felt that Yuxian’s village incredible silence was only broken by the conversations the Master He and I had. He wanted me to stay longer and chat, but I stopped him before he cut open a second watermelon. It was time for me to start heading back to Guangzhou which, for a second, appeared to be in another world.
HOW TO GET THERE
Yuxian village (鱼鲜村) is located in northern Guangdong province, east of Shaoguan city (韶关) on the Beijing – Guangzhou high-speed train line, in Nanxiong town (南雄市), Nanmu township (南亩镇).
From Shaoguan to Nanxiong, there are frequent buses (1 hour). Do take the buses that run on the newly built highway (全程高速) otherwise it will take two hours or more. From Nanxiong, the only way to get to the village is by hiring a taxi directly at the bus station.