From the walls of Huancheng Xiangfu (皇城相府), I could see in the distance the broken city walls of Guoyu (郭峪). Guoyu is not a castle, but a fortified village. At the beginning of the 17th century, when Huangcheng Xiangfu’s construction had already started, Guoyu was just a big village. In 1632, when the famine in neighbouring provinces had pushed hungry farmers and bandits to this region of south Shanxi (山西) province, one thousand villagers were killed or injured.
After this attack, scholars and wealthy merchants residing in Guoyu gathered the money needed to build a wall around the village. A rich man named Wang also funded the construction of the Yu watchtower which resembles Huangcheng Xiangfu‘s Heshan watchtower.
The Emperor Tang Temple
Located on the hillside, the Emperor Tang Temple (汤帝庙) looks like a small castle with the fortified village of Guoyu. According to oracle bones (甲骨), the Emperor Tang was the first ruler of the Shang dynasty (商朝) which controlled the Yellow River valley during the second millenium BC.
The temple itself is much more recent : it was built during the Yuan dynasty and like many towns, villages and temples across China, it was renovated and expanded during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.
The main temple hall is located on top of a large elevated stone platform dominated by a giant pagoda-shaped metal incense burner. Standing in front of the main temple hall, I noticed that, behind me, there was an impressive ancient theatre stage which rested on imposing wood beams. Many ancient Chinese temples have their own theatre stage. Indeed, during performances, actors were not only entertaining the common people, but also the myriad of gods who inhabited the temple.
What caught my attention in the Emperor Tang Temple’s theatre stage where two recent washed-out paintings on the walls of on each side of the elevated theatre stage. I had to take a closer look.
Obviously, the two paintings date back to the Mao-era and show proud locals (both men and women) mining for coal in order to fuel the economic and industrial development of the People’s Republic of China.
Standing on the theatre stage and facing the main temple hall, I realised how large the space was and started imagining the numerous meetings that Communist party cadres were organising to teach the masses. Surely, this temple seemed like the right place to teach the masses that the old feudal China had to be replaced by a new Communist one, and besides, would not a temple dedicated to one of the first known ruler of China be a more appropriate place for the masses to learn about the policies of Mao, the great helmsman?
I may have seen one too many movies about mobilisation campaigns of the Mao era, but I could not but think about all the history enclosed within these walls.
The Yu Tower 豫楼
From an architectural point of view, the Yu Tower is a copy of the nearby Huangcheng Xiangfu‘s watchtowers. They were designed to temporarily house hundreds of villagers during attacks. Because there are no tourists and no money for maintenance, the tower was unfortunately closed.
In Chinese, the character Yu (豫) is also the short name for the nearby Henan (河南). It seems that most of Guoyu’s villagers actually migrated from this province just south of Shanxi.
Walking through Guoyu
Beside the Emperor Tang temple, the Yu watchtowers which is dominates the landscape of the village, there are no landmarks important enough to justify tourism development like in the neighbouring Huangcheng Xiangfu.
Like many villages in rural China, Guoyu is being hollowed out. I had the same feeling of a deserted place where the one who stayed in the village tell the tales of those who have left to the cities in the hope for a better lifestyle. The story is the same here, in the nearby castles of Xiangyu, Douzhuang or other abandoned villages I visited in southern China.
Although parts of Guoyu’s fortified walls have been destroyed, it is still possible to walk from one gate to another and gaze at this impressive landscape of stone houses and tiled roofs with, in the backdrops, high-power electrical towers.
Guoyu is a scaffolding of superimposed histories and the Ming and Qing era courtyards, remaining walls, temples and towers are just a first layer. The village is a maze of alleys and lanes dotted with ancient courtyards and mansions that belonged to local scholars and wealthy merchants.
On walls and inside courtyard, we can still see traces of the Chinese revolutions initiated by Mao Zedong. “Long life to the Great Helmans”, “Long life to the Communist Party of China” … the usual.
Another sign of China’s recent past are the statues of the lions guards, standing on each side of a doorway. These statues were destroyed or their heads were smashed during the Cultural Revolution. We can clearly see that the two larger statues were destroyed (they are missing from their square pedestal) and two smaller one had their heads smashed.
While sauntering in the village, I could not help but feel lucky to be able to walk freely in a place where history is at every corner. The fortified village of Guoyu is not abandoned, but population numbers are dwindling and historical courtyard are neglected beyond repair. I was therefore wondering whether China was entering a new era of destruction. During the Cultural Revolution, representation of China’s feudal past and superstitious beliefs had to be erased, but today, it’s rural outmigration, lack of financial means to maintain these centuries-old buildings that contribute to the demise of China’s ancient and historical villages like this one.