Huangyao: A Millennial Ancient Town in Karst Mountains
Among the verdant mountains found throughout the karst landscapes of Guangxi, there is a secluded town that has stood for thousands of years. It is like a piece of raw jade, rustic and charming in its plainness. In a society where ancient architecture is growing scarcer, in this ancient town, called Huangyao, over 300 complete structures from the Ming and Qing dynasties can still be seen.
A Millennial Ancient Town in Karst Mountains
Among the verdant mountains found throughout the karst landscapes of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, there is a secluded town which has stood for thousands of years. It is not nearly as eminent as the ancient towns and villages of the Jiangnan region (south of the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River), nor does it stand out as much as those of Sichuan Province; it is instead like a piece of raw jade, yet to have been carved, rustic and charming in its plainness. In a society where ancient architecture is growing scarcer by the day, in this ancient town, called Huangyao, over 300 complete structures from the Ming and Qing dynasties can still be seen. he ancient town of Huangyao, located in Zhaoping County, Hezhou City, Guangxi, sits quietly among the Mengzhu Mountains, along an ancient transportation route dating back more than 2000 years. This area is where the Southern Mountains come to an end, the topography consisting of typical karst formations, featuring karst depressions alternating with mountain peaks.
Some say that Huangyao is like a collection of classical poetry, and must be savored at one’s leisure. Forgoing strenuous expansion throughout the surrounding barren terrain, and turmoil in turbulent days, when faced with the changes brought on by modern society the people of Huangyao instead decided to continue their lives in this tranquil mountain town which appears to be something straight out of a landscape painting. During the Spring Festival of 2013, after having read numerous volumes on the history of Huangyao, I was no longer able to hold back my curiosity, so I threw down my books and headed out to see this mysterious ancient town with my own eyes.
Huangyao: A Hidden Gem on an Ancient Trade Route
there are also about a dozen pavilions and towers, over 20 Buddhist and Taoist temples, and ancestral halls. The religious structures stand along the river, and all of them are quaint in their modest scale, most being open on three sides like pavilions, with slick carved stone slabs for the floors, and often filled with the aroma of freshly lit incense. The locals are also very fond of hanging doorway couplets, and over 100 ancient inscribed doorway tablets can be seen in the town.
Why would such a small town be home to such a large number of Ming and Qing structures? And what are the origins of the trade route?
About 2200 years ago, when the Qin (221–207 BC) Emperor united the Central Plains, the Qin forces spread through the Southern Mountains via five different routes. Among these, one route passed from Daoxian County to Jianghua County of Hunan Province, then after passing through the Mengzhu Mountains it split into two routes, one of which continued from Fuchuan County, Guangxi via the West River to Guangdong; while the other traveled southward, from Huangyao, also by water, to Wuzhou, going against the flow of the various tributaries of the West River, before finally arriving in several different locations of Guangxi.
According to the records found in Mapsofzhaoping county, by theQing Dynasty Huang ya oh ad already developed into Huangyao Port, which thrived on commerce. Southbound caravans, after traversing the Mengzhu Mountains to the north, would pass through Huangyao, the hooves of the horses clacking
Huangyao has an area of about four square kilometers, the roads are all made of flagstone, and there are about 300 old-fashioned homes of various styles, arranged in picturesque disorder. Aside from these Ming and Qing residential buildings, in the town
across the cobblestones to the rhythm of the village’s theater stage.
At the same time, commercial ships on the West River, after having stopped at Fengkai and Wuzhou, along the vast emerald waters, also arriving at Huangyao. After exchanges of goods were made on both land and water routes, each of the merchants would then make his own way home.
If beginning from 221 BC, when the Qin soldiers first began their journey southward through Huangyao, the ancient road has a history of over 2200 years. And Huangyao, due to the convenience of its location, became an important place of convergence for merchants, developing from a simple crossroads to a flourishing port town. The structures built during Huangyao’s heyday give us a glimpse of the prosperity and prominence that the town once enjoyed.
An Ideal Fengshui Arrangement
Some say that the layout of the buildings in Huangyao Ancient Town teems with the principles of fengshui . As an ardent lover of going out of my way to get to the bottom of things, I really wanted to see how, among these karst peaks and basins, to create a “Eight Trigrams city”.
Upon hearing that I wanted to see the layout of the town, our driver insisted on letting me know that the best way to get a bird’s eye view was from atop the Gejiang Mountain across the river on the south side of the town. After reaching the peak, I could see that numerous other mountains surrounded the town entirely, with nine peaks altogether, which the people of Huangyao proudly refer to as a “nine-dragon lair”. Among the nine peaks the most highly respected is
Zhenwu Mountain, located to the northeast, as the residents of Huangyao believe that only with the town’s back to the “dragon vein” could the people there be blessed with prosperity and fortune.
Huangyao is encircled on three sides by waterways, namely the Yaojiang, Baozhu and Xingning rivers, creating breathtaking scenery, and upon the land rising from the point where the three rivers meet, the people of ancient times built a town of which the streets were arranged like the pattern on a tortoise shell. The Yaojiang River, flowing from the east, draws from the waters of the Baozhu River then continues southward, creating an S-shaped channel running through the center of the town, which is where the notion of the town’s resemblance to the Taoist yin-yang trigram originates.
The teachings of fengshui say that water can col-
lect qi (“material energy”) and conglomerate wealth, and with the encirclement of the three rivers in a trigram pattern are certain to bring fortune to the town. Water systems that are looped or ringed in shape are known in fengshui as “coronary waterways”, and are among the most highly sought after layouts, as they represent infinity. In addition, if the exit of a waterway is in the southeast, it’s even luckier. From a scientific perspective, a curved river with slow moving water makes it convenient for the residents there to take water they need, as well as for transportation to and from multiple locations of the town.
As for the streets here, every 50 or 60 meters there will be a turn, blocking your line of sight, and there are virtually no straight paths which exceed 100 meters. Although this layout aesthetically creates a sense of mystery of the town, I was still curious, since in
some places it seemed there was no topographical reason for this, as if it was done intentionally…but why?
Later I read some books about fengshui in ancient China, and learned that in those times people believed that a path leading directly to the door of one’s home would result in qi being unable to remain in the house, instead surging wastefully into the streets, which was very ominous. For this reason, the streets of Huangyao are always twisting and turning, and the residences are all built to the side of the paths, or with their entrances placed after a bend in the road. There are none of the four-way intersections we are most familiar with, most of the roads splitting in T-shaped junctions, and by following any of the paths you will eventually reach a loop that will bring you back to the main axis road. To a visitor, getting around here is just like navigating a maze, but this also serves a protective purpose for the local residents.
This is the Yingxiu Street of Huangyao. The name of the street invokes the meaning of“greeting scholars who passed the imperial examination.”according to the Countyannalsofzhaoping , Huangyao cultivated 20 scholars and three officials who succeeded in the imperial examinations.
The streets and lanes of Huangyao are too narrow for cars to squeeze in so that this the town can maintain its ancient charm, simplicity and tranquility. On a 100 meters long lane, two local farmers are collecting their air-dried corns.
In Huangyao, residents have a long tradition of writing and hanging poetic couplets. Today in Huangyao, one can still find dozens of ancient couplets on the doorframes of many ancient pavilions, ancestral halls and temples.