Earlier this summer, I decided to leave China’s southwest and travelled north beyond the Yangze (长江) and the Yellow River (黄河) to Shanxi (山西) province. Do make a distinction between Shanxi (山西) and Shaanxi (陕西).
Shaanxi (transliterated with two ‘a’) is home to Xi’an and the famous terracotta army, while Shanxi (with only one ‘a’) is famous for the Buddhist grottoes of Yungang (云冈石窟) in Datong (大同), the ancient walled town of Pingyao (平遥). The southern part of Shanxi remains unknown to foreign travellers, yet the region of the Qinhe River (沁河) basin concentrates most of China’s civilian castles, most of which were built during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).
In a previous post, I wrote about the well-preserved but almost deserted Xiangyu castle (相峪堡). Today, we are exploring what remains of Douzhuang castle (窦庄堡) where most of the ancient walls have been recently destroyed.
An ancient watchtower-like stone gate with a narrow entrance led to the village. After visiting the impressive stone fortress of Xiangyu () and with no walls in sight, Douzhuang did not feel like the castle I came to see.
Behind the gate, two women were quietly seating in the shade. When I asked them if this was Douzhuang castle, they nodded and one pointed at one of the courtyard behind her without saying a word.
‘The castle is behind the courtyard?’ I asked again. She rolled her eyes, got up and dragged her feet to one of the door and screamed “Oh! Grand father Gu! There is a laowai asking about Douzhuang”.
A bald man wearing worn-out grey trouser, a navy long-sleeve t-shirt and old army shoes came out. He invited me into his house.
After pouring tea in a large ceramic bowl, Master Gu pointed at a detailed map he had drawn himself. Everything was on the map : the walls, the watchtowers, the major courtyards that belonged to the different family clans (the Dou 窦, the Zhang 张, the Lu 卢, the Yang 杨), the gates, the Buddhist temple (佛庙), the Confucius temple (文庙), the Money god temple (财神), the major wells and the market places.
The castle of the ‘high-ranking wives’
Looking for the lost walls
Exploring the maze with Master Gu
We went from courtyard to another, entering from a main massive and meticulously decorate stone gate and exiting from a hidden door in the back into a narrow alley. Master Gu was a man of few words, but he always told me which family the courtyard we were in belonged to or which temple we were passing by.
In some courtyards, he explained how people torn town walls and built another one somewhere else so as to make a new house. Reconfiguration of space has taken place within the lost walls of Douzhuang and overall, it is a lively village, unlike the Xiangyu (相峪堡), another Ming civilian castle I visited the previous day.
I noticed that the guardian lions that stood on a pedestal on the sides of each courtyard gate were badly damaged. Master Gu explained that the Red Guards (红兵), armed with sledge-hammers, systematically smashed the each guardian lions’ heads off each guardian lions in Douzhuang.
Many buildings were in bad shape. There are several reasons for that. First they were destroyed or damaged in the 1960s and 1970s during the Cultural Revolution. Then, although most of the households are protected historical relics, villagers do not have the financial means to renovate or maintain them. As a consequence, some structures have caved in and other, abandoned, are slowly crumbling away, like the castle’s Buddhist temple (佛庙) which had been transformed into a school during the Cultural Revolution (文化大革命)
Although Douzhuang lost its walls, it’s still a fascinating village to visit in this hidden part of southern Shanxi’s countryside. It does not have this fortified village feel that Xiangyu (相峪堡) has, but the sheer size of the courtyard stone gates and the amount of carving found every where in the village makes Douzhuang a gem of rural exploration.