As I was given a private tour of the newly renovated Wenwu Temple (文武庙) of Zhoucheng (州城), an ancient town in Binchuan county, famed for the holy Buddhist Chicken Foot Mountain (鸡足山), east of the backpacker’s haven of Dali, I could see in the distance the top of the town’s bell tower.
The woman who opened the Wenwu temple called a local man to come with my driver and I to explore the ancient town’s main street. She gave him specific directions in local dialect asking him to make sure I’d bring us to all the different historical sites.
Zhoucheng Bell Tower
Although the friendly locals who were selling live chicken and rabbits for personal consumption, laughing at the sight of the big-nosed foreigner assured me the bell tower was built so long ago that nobody remembers exactly when, a stone tablet encrusted puts its construction during the Republican era.
While the facade of the paintings of the eastern side are faded but intact, the first floor’s walls of the western, southern and northern sides are harboring the friendly face of Mao clapping his hands to revolutionary slogans dating back from the Cultural Revolution era.
As we were walking up the main street which concentrates most of the ancient buildings of Zhoucheng, the local man who was showing us around stopped in front of a new concrete building, and explained that the local government has trouble enforcing some basic laws concerning the preservation of Zhoucheng’s cultural and historical heritage.
Many centuries-old stone and adobe courtyards and buildings lining the main street have been knocked down and replaced by new concrete and brick houses. Who would blame people for upgrading their standard of living? In the same time, who would not feel a pinch in the heart when a piece of local history is just bulldozed away?
As our improvised local tour guide simply but truthfully puts it : “There was a lot of destruction during the Cultural Revolution, but even the Wenwu Temple survived. But the destruction that occurred during the Cultural Revolution does not match the destruction that we are witnessing today. So many old building have been destroyed over the past ten years”.
The House of the Scholar
Like many ancient town in China and Yunnan province, Zhoucheng gave birth to a few scholars who successfully passed the imperial examination and became officials.
We followed the local guy to the ancient dwelling of this famous local man whose name I forgot. We entered through a massive stone gate to discover an large courtyard house home to three different households.
One of the inhabitants, the man in a pinkish long-sleeve t-shirt and gray trouser on the photo above, was smoking a Hongtashan – Hongtashan is one of the most famous cigarette brand of Yunnan – and explained that at the beginning of the Communist rule, the descendants of the famous scholar were ousted out for being bourgeois and the compound was divided and given to three households.
The ancient theater
The Wenwu temple caretaker had given very precised instruction to our improvised local tour guide. However, on the way to visit the ancient theater, he admitted that, even though he was born in Zhoucheng 50 years ago, he had never heard of that place.
He had a solution though. We stopped by the ancient church built by some Swedish or Dutch missionaries at the end of the 19th century (he knew they were blond and tall, but was not exactly sure of their nationalities) which is conveniently located in front of the local Communist Party headquarters and was transformed into the recreation center for Zhoucheng’s pensioners years after the last Christians in town died out.
We knocked on a door. Hidden behind high walls, a man lives with his old dog and take care of the trees and plants of the garden dominated by this ancient theater stage. It was not as impressive as the ones we can see in the Shaxi (沙溪) valley, yet I felt privileged to have that woman from the Wenwu temple asking a local to guide us on the historical sites of this remote Yunannese town and have closed gates open to see this type of structure.
The man who was living there explained that the theater was part of the Sichuan guild hall (四川会馆) and was consequently not open to the public. Back in the days, the rich Sichuan merchants from Zhoucheng would hire actors crews to perform for them from time to time.
The real pride of Zhoucheng
From the Wenwu Temple, to the Zhoucheng bell tower, the scholar’s courtyard and the hidden ancient theater, all these buildings, renovated, crumbling away or barely surviving in the middle of the push towards modernization, the Nanxun Bridge (南薰桥) will never change.
Indeed the bridge is the real pride of Zhoucheng. When the Communist armies fled in front of the Republican armies and started their aimless wandering throughout China and southwest China, they eventually came into the region and cross this bridge.
Every year, locals commemorate the anniversary of the Communist armies crossing the Nanxun bridge.
Read my other article about Zhoucheng’s Wenwu Temple. This tiny town lost in the middle of the Yunnanese countryside was everything what I was looking for. Friendly locals and a few historical sites that have survived, so far, the waves of modernization and that tell the tales of the region.
How to get there
I hired a driver from Dali old town for 400 RMB round trip. It was a 2 hour drive (one way) from Dali. Make sure you tell the driver you want to go to Zhoucheng 州城 in Bingchuan county 宾川县 and not Zhoucheng 周城 near Xizhou 喜州.
If you want to go by bus, it should be possible to take a bus from Dali / Xiaguag to Binchuan and from Binchuan change to a local bus to Zhoucheng.