Ancient towns of Yunnan | Fengyu (near Dali)

Dubbed the capital of calligraphy “文墨之乡”, the ancient village of Fenygu (凤羽) was recently added to the list of the historical and traditional villages of China. The village is nestled in a fertile valley about 20 kilometers south or Eryuan 洱源, a small town between Dali and Lijiang.

Fengyu, Yunnan

Ancient courtyard gate in Fengyu, Yunnan

After all the historical villages I visited in China, some better preserved than others, I am always flabbergasted when I arrive in a place like Fengyu What was once a cluster of small villages in the villages is merging into a small town, then because one has to go beyond the new concrete housing and deep into the village and get lost in the maze of narrow alleys to find the old heart of the place.

As I was trying to dig for treasure behind the concrete, I heard “呃!呃!我带你去 ‘. (Oh! I show you!). Beyond the new gate of the village, a man harboring a brown cowboy hat and pushing is buy up the cobblestone street of the village was shouting at me. It was not the first time that I was roaming the streets of a remote place, looking for old architecture and Mr. Zheng, like a few other before him in other places had understood that the foreigner was not lost.

Fengyu, Yunnan

Crumbling courtyard gate in Fengyu, Yunnan

Professor Zheng was a native of Fengyu and brought me on a quick tour and showed me the last remnants of the village. Actually teaching in Xishuangbanna, professor Zheng explained he had spent months away and admitted that a lot of ancient courtyards had been torn down and replaced by brick and concrete houses. Hoping from a courtyard to another, we entered into a few houses, surprising the owners who were keen to show me inside. In the narrow alleys, when we would meet a friend of his, professor Zheng would harbor a proud smile, give a friendly tap on my back and would explain in the local dialect he was showing me the centuries-old structures of the historic Fengyu. Faces brightened up and a thumb up accompanied a smile. One older man we met even said : ‘好好拍照,过几年这些老建筑物都没啦’ (Take a lot of pictures, in a couple of years, all these old buildings will be gone).

Fengyu, Yunnan

Decorated courtyard gate in Fengyu, Yunnan

After going around the last few courtyards, Zheng said he was going to show me the ‘big gate’ (大门). I was not so sure what he was referring to and when we were entering the village’s primary school, I was wondering what he wanted to show me. We were actually entering the Wen Miao (文庙), the former Confucian temple of the village. Hence the current renovation, scaffolding and, on each side of what used to be the main and behind it the secondary hall of the Wen Miao, two soulless concrete buildings for the school. “噢,以前很好看。文化大革被破坏了 “. (Before it was very very beautiful, but it was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution).

Fengyu, Yunnan

Stones piling up in front of an old house in Fengyu, Yunnan

Before bidding farewell, professor Zheng added that, if there was a lot of destruction during the Cultural Revolution, it is nothing compare to what is going on now. Parts of the historical and cultural legacy of the village is now gone forever. He had a dismissive gesture … 啊呀!以前很好,以前很好… (It was beautiful before)

Fengyu, like many other ancient villages across China is at a crossroad. Of course, we can’t blame locals to tear down their old uncomfortable houses to build new modern ones. The courtyards I visited in Fengyu were perfectly livable places. Old dwellings, beyond any consideration about comfort or livability, are also the antithesis of modernity, and as China pursue its path towards the 21st century, rural people also want to be modern. Getting rid of the past and building concrete houses where they use to stand is a way to express this modernity.

Fengyu, Yunnan

Closed down

How to get there

From Dali, catch a bus to Eryuan 洱源. In Eryuan, you will arrive at the new bus station and you will have to walk to mini-van terminal where you’ll find yellow mini-buses to Fengyu. Depending on the road the bus take, it can take up to 1.5 hours from Dali to Eryuan. From Eryuan to Fengyu, it takes around 20 to 30 minutes.

Read my article about transportation around Dali / Xiaguan area.

Fengyu, Yunnan

Peeking into the courtyard