A Defensive Design: Natural and Man-made Features
Being located next to both mountains and water, Huangyao is well suited for both living and defending. With the limited cropland outside the town being of great value, all of the homes, both large and small, are concentrated within the town, on either side of the river. At the foot of the mountains there is only a narrow strip of uneven land, which is covered in stone, and the people of Huangyao built their structures in layers up the side of the mountain, atop the rocky ground. They say this staircase style of stacking homes upward represents “constant improvement”.
Huangyao once had walls surrounding its perimeter, but today the north strip by the east gate tower has completely fallen into ruin, and is difficult to recognize as it intermingles with the homes, leaving the south side as the only extant portion of the wall. If in the middle of the road you see a two-level structure, it’s sure to be an ancient gate. The gates were once used for keeping watch as people passed through below, with an outer door of sturdy camphorwood boards, and the inner door consisting of a round Chinese fir fence gate. The gate is surprisingly small and narrow, allowing only two people to pass through abreast, so that a battalion of troops would take a considerable amount of time to enter the town, thus further improving the town’s defensiveness.
Aside from the city gates, in Huangyao there were once also more than 30 drop gates constructed on the streets and at the intersections. The purposes of these gates were to protect from invaders and intercept would-be bandits; once the town was breached, the drop gates could be closed, so that the bandits could be taken care of like fish in a barrel.
Some may wonder, if there was a large group of bandits, then wouldn’t the residents living within the confines of the drop gates be like sitting ducks? Faced with such risks, the people of Huangyao have long since come up with counter-measures. When constructing the courtyards of the town’s homes, the outer walls adjacent to the street were connected, while the walls separating the courtyards were built with doorways in between. When the drop gates
were closed and the outer doorways were sealed, the streets became an enclosed area, but the courtyards were still connected, so that the residents could easily gather and strike against the bandits, and the women and children could also escape and hide.
Huangyao, with mountains at its back and rivers on all sides, is a treasure of a location blessed by nature, and the town, drop, courtyard and wall gates are the result of the wisdom of the residents there as they sought to protect their beloved home.
The Grapefruit Lantern Festival: A Holiday Unique to Huangyao
In Chinese tradition, the 15th day of the 7th lunar month is the Ghost Festival, on which day, according to legend all of the ghosts and spirits of the underworld would be released, so most of the common folk would hold events in worship of their ancestors and other spirits. In my hometown, Guilin of Guangxi, the holiday is called the “Half of the 7th Month”; when this day approaches the adults do not allow children to go near water, scaring them by saying ghosts will come out of the water to look for new bodies, so as a result all the children are very frightened of this festival. But in Huangyao, on the day before the Ghost Festival they have a holiday called the Grapefruit Lantern Festival, when they will make festooned boats and grapefruit lanterns in worship of the River God .
How did the Huangyao Grapefruit Lantern Festival come to be? The elder hosting the lantern-making activity told me that, according to legend, since Huangyao is located in a basin of low elevation, every time there is a heavy rain or flood, much water will collect there. In ancient times, Huangyao was often plagued by floods, so in the town every year folks would offer human heads to the River God and vengeful spirits, then eventually the human heads were replaced with grapefruits.
For this year’s Grapefruit Lantern Festival, I made a special trip to the town just to experience it for myself. On the morning of the festival, the town residents were preparing to hang their lanterns. Outside Xingning Ancestral Hall, I saw a few town folks making frames with thin bamboo strips, which re-
minded me of those old-fashioned TV antennas that look like fish bones. They completed seven or eight frames about three or four meters in length, which, I was told, were to be hung with 108 grapefruit lanterns. In no time at all, several dozen grapefruits had been completely peeled, the white flesh of the fruit exposed. The able-handed locals skewered them on the bamboo strips in sets of three, then used a length of red nylon rope to fasten them together.
By the afternoon, each of the temples and shrines in the town were filled with the noises of festivity. Small groups of people who lived together under the same roof would carry an abundant collection of goods, which they would offer at each of the shrines in succession.
At some point the lanterns lining the streets were lit, and the locals flooded into the streets along with the evening darkness. The first people to grow boisterous were the children, who hurriedly put down their dinner bowls and chopsticks, and called to their friends as they ran to the riverside. At this time either side of the Yaojiang River was crowded with town people in worship. Drums, gongs and firecrackers signalled the beginning of the lantern release activity. Several youths placed a painted boat in the river, followed by the “grapefruit racks” trailing scores of meters long behind, each of the 108 lanterns now lit.
The team in the water departed from Baozhu Taoist Temple, and headed down the river to the bank just ahead of Xingning Ancestral Hall. An elder read some prayers, expressing the town people’s hopes that Huangyao would enjoy favorable weather, and that they would be healthy and happy. After the group worship ceremony had ended, the children rushed forward, plucking each and every one of the grapefruit lanterns from the water. The children who grasped a lantern in hand would raise their heads high, as if what they held was not a grapefruit, but a protective talisman of the River God.
On the 15th day of the 7th lunar month, residents of Huangyao have a unique Ghost Festival, praying for the happiness for the people and a good harvest that year.
The Dailong Bridge is a necessary crossing along the route of crowds participating in the sacrificial ceremony on the Ghost Festival. Such a traditional event remains unchanged and alive amongst the ancient streets and bridges of Huangyao.