Ancient towns of Hunan | Qianyang’s photographic rambling

As I was making my way into western Hunan (湘西) from Chengyang (程阳) via Tongdao (通道) region that I inadvertently got the luck to discover, Qianyang was not on my list of places to visit. I had never heard of it. I was in fact heading to the ancient business town of Hongjiang (洪江古商城) which is located in the same area.

It’s been more than two years since I’ve written my first blog post about the old town of Qianyang 黔阳 in western Hunan province. Since then, inspired by the few pictures of this old town that I posted online, many readers got in touch with me and express their desire to go and discover that old town for themselves.

Qianyang, Qiancheng, Hunan

Finding Qianyang (on a map)

Many people wrote to me telling me they were not able to find Qianyang on a map. It’s not that finding the town on a map is tricky. First, Qianyang is a county level town of very limited regional importance located south of Huaihua (怀化), seat of the prefecture government and transportation hub in this region of western Hunan. Second, Qianyang goes by different names. As ‘Qianyang’ (黔阳) which is also  ‘Qiancheng’ (黔城) is the county seat of Hongjiang county (洪江), on a map, you will be more likely to see ‘Hongjiang’ (洪江) instead of ‘Qiangyang’ or ‘Qiancheng’.

Basically, if you can find Huaihua on a map, just follow the highway south. You will probably see ‘Hongjiang’ or ‘Qianyang’ or ‘Qiancheng’ about 70 to 80 km south of Huaihua.

Qianyang, Qiancheng, Hunan

The character qian (黔) in the town’s name ‘Qianyang’ or ‘Qiancheng’ is actually the Chinese acronym for Guizhou province (贵州省). Since the town was built at the confluence of the Yuan River (沅江) and the Wu River (潕水), it was an important fluvial transportation nod between this part of Hunan and northeast Guizhou province. If you follow the Wu River, you will end up in northeastern Guizhou town of Zhenyuan, an ancient town of significant importance during the imperial era. Translated into English, Qianyang means ‘the sun of Guizhou’ and Qiancheng ‘the city of Guizhou’.

Qianyang, Qiancheng, Hunan

So, Qianyang is also called Qiancheng and Hongjiang. People in Qianyang do not refer to their town as Hongjiang. Indeed, to complicate things further, 30 km east, on the banks of the Yuan River, there is another town which also named Hongjiang. It’s not the county seat town, but the ancient business town of Hongjiang (洪江古商城) about which I wrote a few articles as well.

If you are not confused by now, you are ready to go travel in China for sure. About everything in China can be cumbersome and confusing for no discernible reason. Any expat can tell you.

Another pace of life

To me, Qianyang is the quintessential example of the ‘slow pace of life’, the man shenghuo (慢生活), that is disappearing from the cities. Like in any other parts of China, playing cards or mahjong is an integral part of life. While it is the favorite hobby of men, playing cards in Qianyang knows no gender.

Qianyang, Qiancheng, Hunan

Mao is (still) everywhere I

Hunan is the home province of the Great Helmsman. It’s only logical that the portraits of Mao Zedong, a native of Shaoshan (韶山) a few hundreds kilometers east of Qianyang, seem omnipresent in the old town. While exploring an abandoned liquor factory, I stumbled upon this altar.

Qianyang, Qiancheng, Hunan

Faded revolutionary overtone

The picture below is one of my favorite. In the characters in black ‘Zhongshan Street’ (中山街) are to be read the old fashion way from right to left. Zhongshan refers to Sun Zhongshan (孙中山), also known as Sun Yat Sen in Cantonese, and who is considered to be the father of modern China.

Underneath in red characters, from left to right, we see ‘Jiefang Xiang’ (解放巷) or ‘Alley of the Liberation’ over which a layer of white paint was added.

In my opinion, this alley was renamed ‘Alley of the Liberation’ during the Cultural Revolution, a period of time during which people had to part away from the old traditional culture, liberate their thinking and embrace a new classless China.

Qianyang, Qiancheng, Hunan

Mao is (still) everywhere II

In addition to the multiple portraits of Mao that accompany altars dedicated to the ancestors found inside people’s home, traces of slogans and murals dating back to the Cultural Revolution, I also found this yellow spray painted portrait of Mao, with the Chinese character 忠 (zhong) underneath, which stands for ‘loyalty’, ‘devotion’ and ‘fidelity’.

The power of Mao extends beyond the grave.

Qianyang, Hunan

Beyond change

It feels as though Qianyang has been immune to change and that it kind in the recent past of China. Definitely off-the-radar to many foreigners who do not really know the existence of this old town stuck in time, Qianyang does see its fair share of Chinese tourists.

For locals, it is another struggle. Witnesses of centuries, many of the houses in the ancient town are old and decayed.

Like many other places in China, the old town is coming at a cross-road where the tensions between the will to modernize and preserve the past come into play.

Qianyang, Hunan

How to get there

Everything is explained in a previous article about Qianyang. With the expansion of the high-speed rail network in the region, it is now easier to visit Qianyang from Changsha or Guiyang via Huaihua.