The village of Zhongtian (中田) belongs to this category of abandoned historical villages lost somewhere in the Chinese countryside, in this case, lost between two towns most travellers have never heard of, Changning (常宁) and Guiyang (桂阳) in southeast Hunan (湖南) province. Let’s avoid the confusion betwwn Guiyang 桂阳 in Hunan and Guiyang 贵阳 in Guizhou. The tones are the same, but the characters hide two different cities.
Finding and selecting historical villages to visit in China is a lengthy process. It does not matter how many articles (which are all copies of each others) and pictures I find on Baidu, the Chinese search engine, in the end, I never exactly know what to expect. No matter how much information I may gather, each arrival to a village is a new discovery.
Here is an account of a visit to Zhongtian, a village founded in 1404.
From Ming to Qing to contemporary China
In theory, some fo the buildings in Zhongtian were built 600 years ago when the village was founded in 1404 during the reign of emperor Yongle (永乐).
During the mid-Qing dynasty Zhongtian had 100 houses made of stone and wood, 100 lanes and 200 wells. Today, it is praised today as one of the larger and most well-preserved Ming-Qing era village of Hunan.
Today, Zhongtian is deserted. Villagers have moved out of this witness of China’s history.
Zhongtian vs Banliang : two states of abandonment
At the entrance of Banliang, a long abandoned makeshift ticket booth was a sign that local government wanted to capitalise on those outsiders who decided to explore the village. In the streets of Banliang, signs show the visitors the direction to the ‘South Gate’, the ‘Turtle Hill’, the ancient ‘Official buildings’ and other local ‘must-see’ historical landmarks. I was the only tourist and most people had deserted this 600 to 800 household village.
In Banliang, like in Yuxian (鱼鲜) in northeast Guangdong province, or in Qinshiyuan (秦氏园) villagers had abandoned the harsh lifestyle of the countryside and went off to nearby towns and sometimes further to find a job in a factory and other kind of manual labor (去城里打工). This workforce leaves behind older parents and young children in a slowly decaying village.
As I arrived in Zhongtian, a busload of tourists with matching baseball caps had just finished their visit and the tour guide was rushing them back on the bus, off to the next destination. A sign of the historical significance of the village. No entrance fee was charged and there was no sign of a decaying ticket booth nearby.
Behind, the first row of buildings decorated with red lanterns and dominating the geomantic pond, the narrow streets of Zhongtian were desperately empty. Centuries-old houses had collapsed, but most of them, were still intact. Locked forever.
An old man with a navy blue jacket and a hat that would remind anyone of the Mao era stopped in front of me, and inspected me with a astonished smile : “Why the heck did you come here?” (你到底为什么来这里呢). “Has everyone left the village? Nobody lives here anymore?” was my best answer.
“There is an old guy living in the house just right there, another one in another house two streets from here and a few other here and there in the village. Everyone has built a new house just outside the village. It’s more convenient. These houses are too small, too old” he said pointing at different directions. He nodded, said it had to take care of some business. He walked away slowly bidding me a good day.
The new vs the old Zhongtian
Many of the houses, even though they had been abandoned by their owners, were all locked. After all, the villagers had just moved a few hundred meters. Yet, a few of them remained opened and constituted an interesting terrain for rural exploration.
The truth is, the soul of the ancestors are still living in some of these houses. I’m not talking about ghosts. I’m saying that, in the few unlocked houses I ventured into, I found systematically found a small altar where the framed portrait of deceased family members rested in front of incense burner.
In one house, I found three portraits on a shelf. Underneath, a small makeshift altar where a can of Eight-Treasure congee (八宝粥) functioned as an incense burner. There were one chair and two benches around a small table on which, in the middle of candle holders, three little cups had been carefully filled with rice wine for the spirit of the ancestors.
On my way out I met the old man again, locking up a door. “Is this your house? Did you go burn incense?” (是不是你的家？你有没有去烧香哈?). He nodded with a smile and explained that the elders who moved to the new village regularly come to worship their ancestors.
The dead did not move from these centuries-old houses and the living, who moved, keep coming back to pay their respects. For an instant, it seemed to me that ancestor worship, this untheologized religion which has always existed in China and takes different forms in various region, maintain, somehow, traces of life in Zhongtian.
Where is it?
Not the easiest place to get to. The exact location in south Hunan province in Hengyang administrative area, Changning City, Miaoqian Township, Zhongtian village (衡阳常宁市庙前镇中田村).