Kept alive by the spirit of ancestors | 600 year old Zhongtian village

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. 

The village of Zhongtian, Hunan

The village of Zhongtian, Hunan

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. 

An elderly woman walking in the abandoned village of Zhongtian in Hunan.

An elderly woman walking in the abandoned village of Zhongtian in Hunan.

Zhongtian vs Banliang : two states of abandonment

The village of Banliang 钣梁 which I talked about in another article, is just a 2-hour drive from Zhongtian 中田. Both villages showed tenuous signs of tourism development. 

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. 

The empty streets of Zhongtian, Hunan

The empty streets of Zhongtian, Hunan

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. 

In the deserted alleys of Zhongtian, Hunan

In the deserted alleys of Zhongtian, Hunan

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. 

Improvised altar in an abandoned house of Zhongtian, in Hunan

Improvised altar in an abandoned house of Zhongtian, in Hunan

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. 

Another altar in an abandoned house in Zhongtian village, Hunan

Another altar in an abandoned house in Zhongtian village, Hunan

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).

There are 25 comments

  1. Judy Carroll

    I would like permission to draw one of your photos.
    I love the one of the deserted alleyway. The brick texture is stunning.

    1. Gaetan

      Hi Judy! sure, please go ahead and draw the picture. Once your drawing is finished, can you post a link to your website? I’d be curious to see the picture in drawing.

  2. Rena El

    I just found this blog and must say that I love it. The pictures are amazing and make me wanna visit all these places 🙂 China is a beautiful country though, or maybe because, it’s a completely different world.
    Like I said: I love this blog and will definitely read through your other posts.

    1. Gaetan

      Thank you for your nice comment. Yes! China is a beautiful country (which is changing very fast). Hope you enjoy all the other posts!

  3. Dalo 2013

    These are really some impressive photos ~ simple and beautiful, I think the most difficult photos to find/take regarding China! I often go to Guiyang (Guizhou), we have a company there…so nice to be introduced to the other Guiyang. The words you write are descriptive complements to your photography. Cheers!

    1. Gaetan

      Hi! Thank you very much for your nice words. It can be difficult to take pictures in this type of ancient and deserted village. Streets are very narrow. Well, I thought the driver was crazy when he told me we had to drive through Guiyang to get to the village 😉

    1. Gaetan

      You’re right, these houses are very ancient. The village was founded during the early 15th century during the Ming dynasty, most of the houses dates back to the early and mid-Qing era … which means they are around 300-400 years old.

  4. MyLivingAsia

    This looks simply amazing! I love countryside, everywhere. Its a pity that in China they often demolish old village buildings and build very dull 2-3 store ones instead. We have seen this in many villages in Yunnan, really disappointing.

    1. Gaetan

      Thank you! I agree, from our foreign visitor’s point of view, it’s sad to see these centuries-old courtyard houses destroyed, crumbling away because of lack of maintenance (and financial means to maintain them) and replaces by concrete and brick buildings. Yet, in the case of the stone houses of Zhongtian, it somehow hard to blame the villagers for wanting to improve their lifestyle, have AC, toilets, running water. It’s tough to live in a 300-year old stone house 🙂
      In addition, many households decide to move out and build a bigger concrete house so that the whole family can stay together.

  5. Darcy Alexander Shillingford

    Very cool, and the pictures really capture the emptiness of this village. I definitely wouldn’t mind being the only tourist walking around. And even though it can be a bit sketchy, I really like the idea of never really knowing what you’re going to experience regardless of how much you try to research beforehand. Personally, if I know I’m traveling somewhere, I avoid all pictures; I want it to be new to my senses every time.

    1. Gaetan

      Thank you for your comment.
      The main reason why I try and do some research beforehand is to make sure of to things : 1) the village I go to has not been ‘renovated’ (in China it means that the entire village was levelled to the ground and rebuilt with new materials. It happened to me when I went to a place called Qianzhou) and 2) that there is no entrance fee (charging visitors an entrance fee -up to 20 US$ depending on the place- is becoming very common).
      However you’re right, the less research I do, the more likely I have a sense of new when I get here and it’s priceless 🙂

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