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June 12, 2013


It was pouring when the train pulled in to the terminal station, and my new friends advised, not surprisingly, that it might not be the best day to climb a very large mountain. So I found a bus to take me to the Huizhou village of Xidi, a tiny settlement of maybe 150 buildings near the confluence of two rivers. Because the village was home to a large number of very successful salt merchants 500 years ago, the architecture is unusually solid, attractive, and well preserved for a rural area, and the many original homes represent rare surviving examples of Ming dynasty living spaces. The village is still very much alive and well, surrounded by lush fields and occupied by people of all ages going about their business. It has gotten a considerable additional boost from tourism after having been designated a Unesco World Heritage Site ten years ago for its beauty and historical significance.

When I arrived it was still pouring. As is invariably the case, there was a row of souvenir stands attended by local peasant women who were, on that morning, doing a brisk business in "name brand" collapsible umbrellas at what was no doubt a healthy mark-up. A number of visitors were purchasing disposable galoshes as well, and when I entered the village I saw why: the main street was a torrent of rushing water, watched over by residents gamely sweeping gathering puddles away from their front steps with sturdy straw brooms. As there wasn't much to see on my side of the brook, I followed the example of a local who removed his shoes and stepped carefully across the street on the edge of a step that produced a miniature waterfall into the plaza below.

The richly supplied antique shops that lined both sides of the alley on the other side provided welcome refuge from the rain that was still coming down in bucketloads. My favorite shop specialized in what I took to be excavated old pieces of tree root, polished to the smoothness of driftwood and then varnished to a fine sheen, so that they resembled the twisted and contorted rock formations so beloved of the Ming-Qing elite. Some of the neighboring buildings, designated as "protected civilian residences," preserved the original furnishings of the inhabitants from a century or two ago, inevitably including a narrow mantelpiece-like table at the back of the entrance hall bearing an old pendulum clock, a mirror, and a porcelain vase, a list of objects which, owing to the richness of homonyms in Chinese speech, sounds exactly the same as the phrase "life-long peace and security." I later glimpsed these same three talismanic objects through the doorways of very modest homes occupied by very unassuming older couples, suggesting that their arrangement there continues to perform the same function as it did many generations ago. (Mechanical clocks were widely imported from Europe beginning in the eighteenth century; I couldn't find anyone who could tell me whether any comparably resonant and suitably named object had been displaced by its arrival.)

The other feature of these houses that I found fascinating was the painted or inscribed couplets that invariably adorned the paired structural pillars framing the ceremonial entrance hall. The doorways of ordinary houses all over China are (and for a long time have been) adorned with inexpensive red paper scrolls hung vertically on each side of the entrance and offering, in rhythmically parallel and often rhyming lines, an elegant expression of good wishes for the residents and their visitors. The couplets in these merchant homes were unique in that they had been composed by the owners to reflect some distinctive aspect of the family or its outlook and artfully carved or painted directly onto the structure itself. A number of the museum-homes offered books for sale that contained photographs of hundreds of these paired lines, along with transcriptions into modern simplified characters and explanations of their often cryptically compressed or allusive meanings in modern colloquial Chinese.

As someone who spends a good bit of time musing over poetic uses of language, I found myself thoroughly intrigued by this convention of quite literally and very conspicuously framing domestic space between perfectly matched segments of patterned language. Though I'll have to research the practice further, it would suggest that status display and personal individuation within this group operated less through sheer opulence than poetic prowess. There's also the intriguing sense in which certain activities performed within this space would have been understood as somehow contained within the structured poetic (and perhaps ideological) space bracketed by the matching lines of verse. I couldn't help but wonder how these 12- or 14-character couplets, most of which I found difficult to read, compared in both the sentiments they conveyed and the structural sense of balance and closure their form assured to the exquisitely turned couplets of iambic pentameter that characterize the work of Alexander Pope. Pope produced his major works in the early eighteenth century, a time when England's merchant class was enjoying a period of new prosperity that was perhaps comparable in some of its broader social and even cultural effects to the mercantile age that left such remarkable traces in this little village in southern Anhui.

You can see a few pictures of Xidi here:


or if that doesn't work, try this:


Posted by dporter at June 12, 2013 08:25 AM


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