Down the road from the historical village of Zhongtian (中田), a village ‘kept alive by the spirit of ancestors’, right after the giant concrete elevated highway which cuts through the impoverished countryside of southern Hunan (湖南) province, I noticed a cluster of centuries-old looking houses seemingly crumbling away under the afternoon sun.
I had to stop and explore this village that did not even showed up on my smartphone’s Baidu map.
Same old story : the old versus the new
Like Zhongtian (中田), or Daqitou (大旗头) in Guangdong province, the village of Shiren (石人村) is divided into two parts. A deserted ancient village with centuries-old stone houses nobody wants to live in anymore and the new concrete brick and mortar, soulless but functional and more comfortable new village.
The driver I hired for the day was scratching his head and I could see from his look that he thought I had surely gone crazy. What a weird idea to stop in this place. I encountered the same reaction from locals.
I saluted an elderly couple who were attending to the fruits they had laid on the concrete narrow road to dry with a ‘ni hao’ and a smile. They could not fathom what I was doing here. I asked them whether there were still people living in the old part of the village. The woman said that there were only a few people left, like them, and ask why I wanted to go and see this ugly old village while the new part was much more beautiful than this pile of stone.
Too poor to move out
What attracted me into exploring Shiren was the contrast between dark and orange bricks as well as the patterns either carved in or painted that ornate each side of the building, gates and windows that I could see from the main road.
With a new village built right next to the old, I did not expect to meet anyone in the streets of the ancient streets of Shiren. Yet, I did make an interesting encounter. As I was venturing into the ancient village, I saw, in the distance, someone squatting down and slurping noodle out of white bowl. At my sight, the person went back inside. I felt like an intruder.
Soon, a man came out of a crumbling house. A part of the corner wall had collapsed and was covered with a blue plastic tarp. He was flabbergasted to see a white man inspecting his home town with a camera. I could feel his incomprehension. In this place, a foreigner did not make sense to him.
I tried and break the ice with a casual ‘ni hao’ 你好.
‘Oh! You speak Chinese!’ The man smiled. Without giving too much details, he explained that he and his mother were the only ones living in the ancient part of the village, because they were too poor to afford to build a new house, on the other side, like the others. He was visibly embarrassed by this situation.
The man scratched the back of his head when I asked him how old the village was. He did not exactly know. Maybe a couple of centuries … more or less. ‘You know, here in the countryside, we farmers do not have much education. We don’t know about history. We live here, work in the fields so that we can eat’ he said still scratching his head with a bright smile on his face.
He was nervous and explained to me where to find the village’s ancestral hall.
The ancestral hall and the old theatre stage
I walk through the village. Houses are crumbling away, moss has recovered the narrow slab-stone alleys, and weed is growing back.
In spite of its state of disrepair, the village’s ancestral hall is still in use. When I entered, I almost scared two men who were busy washing a pile of pig knuckles and fishes in pink plastic basin.
An old portrait of Mao painted on one of the temple’s withering walls was overlooking freshly calligraphed black and white couplets that on the wooden beams. When couplets are written with black ink on white paper, it’s a sign that someone passed away in the village, and the two men were busy preparing a banquet for all the family members who were going to attend the funeral.
Obviously, the altar dedicated to the ancestors were long gone. There were probably dismantled during the Cultural Revolution when religious beliefs was deemed a political heresy to be erased. Yet, on the picture above, you see in the centre of the rear wall, a red rectangle. This red rectangle is actually a red sheet of rice paper with the inscription 敬祖堂 (‘Honour the Ancestors Hall’) that is placed above a shelf on which I found two small incense burner. That’s what the altar have become.
The altar faces an disused performance stage flanked with the ruins of two side wings.
This ancient ancestral hall and theatre stage had something grandiose in their decay. In spite of abandonment, neglect and dire stage of disrepair the place had something solemn.
A new cultural revolution
There was not much to see in Shiren. Yet, the village must be several centuries old and is therefore part of Hunan and China’s historical and cultural heritage. The ancient village of Shiren sends us back to China’s imperial past. This past is being replaced by a new contemporary version of concrete houses and another set of societal problems, and which is wilfully let to fade away like it never existed.