The vestiges of Guobi | An ancient walled commercial town in Shanxi

After visiting what remains of the ancient castle of Douzhuang castle (窦庄堡) with Master Gu, a local who kindly improvised himself as my tour guide, I asked him where I could find any other castles nearby. 

It turned out, that the nearby village of Guobi (郭壁), less than one kilometre away from Douzhuang, used to be a castle-like structure. Master Gu came with to demystify this place for me.

Courtyard gate in Guobi

Courtyard gate in Guobi

The demise of Guobi

Master Gu explained that locals have a saying : “Gold Guobi, Silver Douzhuang” (金郭壁,银窦庄). It seemed ironic – Guobi, as I saw it looked like any impoverished village lost in rural China and not one of the castles of Shanxi province I came to see in this part of the country. Surely, the demise of Guobi is equal to its past grandeur

The outer walls of Guobi did not survive into the 21st century, but hidden behind the village’s lanes, on top of a hill, a fortress named Qingxiangli (青缃里) still exists. We accessed to the fortress through a steep stone staircase. On the back, we found the remaining walls: rammed earth structures in ruins. In the front, there are a few courtyard mansions now home to a few households which dominate Guobi. 

Master He explains that Guobi used to be an ancient trading town that consisted essentially of a commercial street in the front of the village, walled-in courtyard mansions which ressembles small castles and the Qingxiangli fortress. An outer wall surrounded the town. 

The rammed earth walls of behind the Qingxiangli fortress in Guobi.

The rammed earth walls of behind the Qingxiangli fortress in Guobi.

Chinese Etymology 

In spite of its outer city walls, now destroyed, Guobi was not a real castle. The word bi (壁) here refers to ramparts and the outer walls, while other castles I visited in Shanxi were called bao (堡) which means ‘castle’. Guobi’s fortress of Qingxiangli was the town’s stronghold and the last layer of protection for the villagers, but unlike in Xiangyu Castle (相峪堡) or in Huangcheng Xiangfu (皇城相府), there were no soldiers to counter-attack bandits and barbarian raids, only civilians. Wealthy merchants had built fortified mansions with watchtower-like structure called diaolou (碉楼).

Inside Guobi's courtyard mansions.

Inside Guobi’s courtyard mansions.

The last period of destruction

Master Gu made a point in saying that, like in Douzhuang, most of the destruction of this ancient commercial walled-city occurred mainly during the 20th century. While passing by an imposing courtyard gate, I noticed that all the four lions guards, two directly on the ground and two others on stone pedestals, had been systematically defaced and their legs smashed. Looking closer, all the lions guards in front of every courtyard gate had been destroyed by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. 

Lion guards, defaced during the Cultural Revolution

Lion guards, defaced during the Cultural Revolution

Off-the-beaten path

Guobi rates among one of the most off-the-beaten path historical villages I have been during my travels across China. To be honest, there was nothing attractive in this fortified village. It was deserted and the state of disrepair and abandonment was almost sad. Yet, thanks to Master Gu as my improvised guide in this remote region and thanks to his explanation, I was able to grasp some of Guobi’s history, see things I would have missed and understand better how the village looks the way it does today.

Guobi, Shanxi

The ruins of the Wang Clan Ancestral Hall with a yellow pipe that provides natural gaz to the village