ZHAO FORTRESS: LAST REFUGE OF SONG DYNASTY
– The Last Refuge of the Song Dynasty
After the Song Dynasty was destroyed by Mongols, its imperial family—the Zhao Clan found themselves a last refuge at Southeast China, and built the Zhao Fortress, hoping they can avoid the political storm for good.
In 1279 the Mongols were on the verge of finally defeating the Southern Song Dynasty. Lu Xiufu ( 1236– 1279), the last Prime Minister of the Song, together with General Zhang Shijie (?–1279) took the eight-year old child emperor Zhao Bing, and retreated with 1,000 battle ships to Yashan (now Yamen in Guangdong Province). The Mongols, who controlled the exit into the sea, promptly cut off the fresh water supply routes to the Song force. In the ensuing fierce battle that went on for several days, until, in February 1279, the Mongols finally broke through Song battle lines. Seeing the situation as hopeless, Lu Xiufu, with the child emperor strapped to his back, threw himself into the sea, thus breaking the lineage of the Song Dynasty. Zhang Shijie buried the Empress Dowager Yang, who had also thrown herself into the sea, on the seacoast, gathered his broken army and carried on fighting. But then a sudden typhoon totally annihilated his fleet.
The Song was eventually defeated, but the victorious Mongols have never suspected that, totally cut off, these indomitable soldiers, however, managed to keep the royal blood alive.
A Lost Empire
This is how Z hang pu county anna ls tells this story: Zhao Yun (the actual name of Southern Song Emperor Lizong, 1205– 1264) was childless, and so he placed Zhao Ruohe, descendant of the Prince Wei, Zhao Guangmei (947–984, the fourth youngest brother of Zhao Kuangyin, the founder of the Northern Song), in the royal palace at early age, as his future successor to the throne. Before the battle of Yashan was over, the Empress Dowager Yang, before she committed suicide, issued a special order to the courtier Huang Cai to preserve the royal lineage, Zhao Ruohe. Huang Cai was to take sixteen warships, break out of the harbor and head north to seek refuge in Fuzhou, Fujian Province, and preserve the Zhao court to rule again one day. This last force was hit by a typhoon on the way, and only four ships out of the sixteen survived. Zhao Ruohe and his men continued their escape on these surviving ships, but again encountered a typhoon, this time near the city of Longhai in Fujian. With provisions running out, and short of water, they had no choice but to
disembark at Puxi (in modern-day Fujian’s Zhangpu County), with the intention to continue their escape north by land to Fuzhou. However, fearing their true identity to be discovered on this long journey, the Zhao Clan settled instead in this small village on the seashore, and, as a precaution, changed their surnames from Zhao to Huang.
Zhao Ruohe realized that the situation was hopeless and that the Song Dynasty was gone, never to return. He eventually made his way to a village called Jimei, where he took a wife and had children, continuing the royal lineage, safely hidden from any threats from the newly established Yuan Dynasty.
The Yuan offered a generous reward to anyone who knew the whereabouts of the Zhao Clan, and Zhao Ruohe grew uneasy in his hiding place. Having taken a new name, he hid his true identity and that of his clan from the world, letting no outsider in on the secret. The years went by and eventually the Yuan were defeated by the following Ming Dynasty. The descendants of the Song royalty, who, despite having long abandoned any hope to return to rule, did not know what the reaction of the new dynasty might be, and so decided to keep the secret hidden for as long as it took. They had no idea that one single incident would bring everything to light.
Came the year 1385 and Huang Huiguan, a grandchild of Zhao Ruohe, wanted to marry a woman whose surname was also Huang. Marrying someone of the same surname was considered a crime, punished, according to Ming laws, by 60 strikes of cane followed by an enforced divorce. Huang Huiguan was denounced to the authorities by the villagers, and, left with no other way out, Huang Mingguang, the groom’s elder brother, revealed the truth about their original surname, providing the previously hidden family genea-
logical records. The official dealing with the case was surprised beyond measure, who would have thought that the descendants of Song royalty would be living in this village, in the middle of nowhere? The matter was then quickly reported to the Imperial Court of Ming. At that time Zhu Yuanzhang (1328–1398), the founder of Ming who took the title of Emperor Taizu, had overthrown the Yuan, and the power of the Great Ming was firmly established. The emperor, therefore, acted benevolently, granting the permission to restore the original surname of Zhao, and removing the need to keep the century-old secret.
Living in hiding, struggling to make ends meet in the remote Jimei Village must have been extremely hard for the Zhao Clan. We can only imagine how heavily it weighed down on Zhao Ruohe, as he also felt the responsibility for the entire clan on his shoulders. Having lost the ancestral lands of the Zhao, Zhao Ruohe was reduced to surviving in a ravaged part of the country, which became home for the descendants of his once-glorious clan for several hundred years.
And so it continued until the year 1600 when Zhao Fan, a 10th generation descendant of Zhao Ruohe moved the Zhao Clan from Jimei Village to a location just below Shuogao Mountains, next to the Huxi Town, ten kilometers away. It was here that the Zhao started to build a stone fortress, later to be known as Zhao Fortress. This new ancestral home to the Zhao Clan was to become an embodiment of the Zhao’s hopeless dream of restoring their old glory.
The Throne without an Emperor
We were driving towards Zhao Fortress to see what the life of the descendants of the royalty is like now, to see if we could find traces of the former imperial splendor. Our vehicle made its way along the winding mountain roads, across undulating hills, and finally far away in the distance, Zhao Fortress appeared. Lost in the mountain wilderness, it was built to be as far out of reach of the authority of the Yuan Dynasty as possible.
A thousand years of history, going back all the way to the Song, now sat in front of us, basking in the slanting rays of the sun.
I had always thought that Zhao Fortress would
be a simple affair, comprising not more than three or four buildings, but in fact, it was a whole walled village. We went into through the East Gate to the sight of neatly lined up houses with tiled roofs. A woman was carrying a vegetable basket, on the way back from the market. Two roosters were following her, gobbling up the bits and leaves that would fall through the mesh of the basket. Several calves were ties to mulberry tree, swatting lazily with their tails at the flies…an old well with an octahedral mouth, radishes drying on a stone, pomegranate trees growing.
Our guide explained to us that Zhao Fortress is located at the foot of Shuogao Mountains. The area of the fortress was over 115 square kilometers, and its layout rectangular if seen from the air. The walls were two and a half meters thick and between three and four meters high, made out of stone slabs. A tower was constructed over each of the four gates. Walking west along a stone-layered road from the East Gate you can see how Zhao Fan laid out his fortress. The centerpiece of the fortress complex is a rectangular building, which now holds the office for the preservation and management of Zhao Clan’s cultural relics. There is a blue stone inlay over the main gate, of three characters in cursive script: “完璧楼” Wanbilou (Wanbi Mansion).
The top right section of the walled Wan Bi Lou is connected with the fortress outer wall. Built as a residential part, it now stands empty, abandoned. A gate in the outer wall surrounding the building leads you to the Three South Pavilions. This is the ancestral temple of the Zhao Clan, and the main part of it are the three pavilions—running from south to north they are called the Pavilion of Ideal, the Pavilion of Loyalty, and the Pavilion of Benevolence. Paintings and artifacts of the great men of the Zhao Clan are displayed here.
In the western part of the Pavilion of Benevolence are large stone stands with a three-character inscription “读书处” which reads Dushuchu or “Reading Area”. Behind it is the Jiqing Courtyard built by Zhao Yi, the son of Zhao Fan. A man of great learning, Zhao Yi, who extended the garden in the Zhao Fortress, made sure that there was a small area where he could pursue his intellectual endeavors, which is what the courtyards were traditionally used for during the Song era. The traditional hall in the courtyard has collapsed, and only a stone doorframe remains. The four characters on the inlay on the top beam read “辑卿小院” Jiqingxiaoyuan ( Jiqing Courtyard), which tells the modern day visitors that the owner of this place was an intellectual.
Besides the courtyard, you can also see, and in far better condition, the administrative offices built by Zhao Fan. These offices consist of three lines of three interconnected buildings running north to south. The inexorable passage of time has taken its toll and
"The main building of the Zhao Fortress is the Wan Bi Lou. And there is a metaphor hidden in its name, carrying the dream that the Zhao Clan could once again revitalize their glory and empire."
now most of it lies in ruins, but one of the buildings has somehow survived well. As luck would have it, it is the center one of the three lines, and, according to the guide, it is the ancestral temple of the Zhao.
In the area between the offices and the northern fortress wall there is a pond where lotus flowers grow. The pond is separated by a long dyke, and there is a bridge, called Bianpai Bridge, spanning the half that is nearest to the offices. To the west of the bridge there is a hill that is made to looks resplendently wild by its verdant vegetation. Walking on the path leading to the mountain I would have missed an inconspicuous stone tablet had it not been for the guide pointing it out to me. Two characters were inscribed on the tablet—“墨池”— Mochi or “Ink Pond”. The inscription on the tablet said that during the reign of Emperor Wanli (1573–1620) of the Ming Dynasty when Zhao Fan was the local official in charge, he, while restoring the local facilities, discovered, by chance, a stone tablet buried deep underground. This tablet carried an inscription of two characters “墨池” and was the work of Mi Fu (1051–1107), a great cal- ligrapher of the Northern Song time. The tablet had been buried deep underground and it was by sheer chance that it saw the light of day again. Zhao Fan, driven by a blend of admiration of Mi Fu’s calligraphy and his cherished memories of the country, the Song, that was no longer, took rubbings of the carved calligraphy, which he then carefully preserved.
From Royals to Ordinaries
An outsider looking at Zhao Fortress might think it is just a countryside building like any other, but, in fact, a great deal of thinking and planning was put into its construction. According to Mr. Zhang Xiaoning of Nanjing Architecture Institute, the Record ofbuildingafortressatshuogaomountain , a work by Zhao Fan, explains the logic behind all the names given to different parts of the fortress, and also shows that Zhao Fan followed the principles of fengshui meticulously, during the selection of the location to build on, as well as during the building process itself.
Even though the fortunes of the Zhao Clan were
in irreversible decline, Zhao Fan remained faithful to the principles of fengshui deeply respected by his ancestors, and for this reason he chose the location which was extremely auspicious. The best orientation according to fengshui is for a building to have a mountain at the back and a body of water at the front. Zhao Fortress is situated back to Shuogao Mountains, facing the Guangtang Creek, thus perfectly corresponding to fengshui principles. The hillocks, thus, according to fengshui are the dragon line itself, protected by the forest. Also, if you carefully read the names of the different structures within the fortress you will realize that they are highly symbolic of the Song Dynasty. The bridge in the lotus flower pond is called Bianpai Bridge, which represents the Bian River, which was the lifeline of Bianliang (now Kaifang in Henan), the onetime capital of the Northern Song. Bianliang was famous for its arched bridges, which are also the bridges depicted on Alongtheriver duringtheqingmingfestival (a famous painting depicting the life of the Song capital Bianliang) by Zhang Zeduan.
A wooden Linggan Pagoda built in Bianliang was burnt down after a lightning strike in 1049, and was rebuilt again, using glazed bricks to avoid another disaster. The name was also changed, to Kaibao Pagoda. This octagonal, symmetrical pagoda is 13 storeys and 59 meters high, and it still stands on the outskirts of the modern-day Kaifeng. Coincidentally, there is a seven storeys pagoda in the hills west of Zhao Fortress, known as Jufo Pagoda. Its height also happens to be exactly one tenth of that in Kaifeng. But it might all be just a coincidence, of course, although it is hard to believe.
These obvious and not so obvious symbols were born of the Zhao Clan’s nostalgia for the glory of their vanquished homeland. They endowed Zhao Fortress with special significance, so much so, that
Zhao Fortress has been called a “miniature Bianliang”. According to Prof. Cao Chunping of the Xiamen University, during the Ming and the Qing the seaside walled fortresses in Fujian Province could be classified into two distinct categories—the permanent fortified ones and the temporary ones. The former were compact towns surrounded on four sides by protective walls, but the latter were small in scale, to be used as a temporary shelter. Their earthen buildings were not fit for daily habitation, but used as a refuge where one could save their life in the chaos of war. This is exactly what the Wan Bi Lou , is. It is four storeys high, and the first two comprise of 16 rooms, while the third is one continuous space. The Zhao would use this space to muster men for defense at the time of an enemy attack, taking advantage of its strategic commanding height. After the death of Zhao Fan, the bandits were a constant menace, but the population was living scattered outside the walls of Wan Bi Lou , which were not good for mounting a defense in an emergency. It was only in 1619 that the greater outer wall was added, hemming in all the structures and creating the characteristic two-tier fortress structure, this making the whole fortress easier to defend, and also an example of both permanent and temporary fortified fortresses.
Even though Zhao Fortress had the inner-outer walls structure, it was different from the Northern Song’s capital—bianliang, which had an innermost palace, and then the two concentric circles of walls. The architectural make- up of Zhao Fortress also has unmistakable signs of local Minnan architecture (Minnan is a region which roughly corresponds to the modern-day southern Fujian)—the offices at the center, the three main buildings with north- south orientation, with each flanked by two hucuo (side houses with east-west orientation), and a stone laid main square at the front. Such arrangement is very different from that found in the Central Plain of China. Zhao Fan, even though a proud descendant of the royals from the Central Plain, however, was unable to prevent the local, Minnan customs from seeping in. Moreover, when Zhao Fan and his children were building Zhao Fortress, the Bianliang had already been swallowed by the mud of the Yellow River, its glory gone. Alongtheriverduringtheqingming Festival , the famous painting depicting the bustling Bianliang, was also claimed by the Ming royalty and confined inside the palace walls, unable to serve as architectural reference for Zhao Fan.
In Zhao Fortress you do not find decorative stones and rockeries piled up to look like mountains, so popular in Chinese architecture and landscape design. Lacking the resources and prevented by caution from recreating the landscape customs of the Song, the only thing Zhao Fan could do was to blend the
"During the Qing Dynasty, a county off icial realized by chance that the layout of the Zhao Fortress had special hidden fengshui representing “the power of a royal family.” He then damaged the fengshui by destroying the flat land in the front of the fortress’s North Gate and filling up its moat with earth."
fortress into the natural landscape surrounding it, and renounce any desire to make the landscape garden in a royal style. His son Zhao Yi, a master gardener and landscaper artist, and a man of great learning, bowed to the nature and let it build the garden, incorporating the ubiquitous natural rock formations into his design, allowing himself to interfere by no more than adding an occasional carving, a slight adjustment here and there.
The landscape garden was the limit of what the memories of the royal glory could conjure. The former rulers, all their might gone, were left unable to subdue the nature around them, and the skills and techniques they once had were also belonged to the realm of the memories of the past. I imagine Zhao Ruohe, taking a walk in the garden, his steps unsteady, gaze filled with inner torment. He looks around, as if still failing to comprehend what had happened. He is overwhelmed with loss, shame and pain, and is touching the walls, as if searching for something, something never to be found.
Maybe this is why that, despite all the embellishments and decorations, there is something sad and lonesome about the fortress. It is as if this refuge of the survivors of dynastic changes has absorbed all the tragedy and the desperation of the people who built it. Even though some of these people remembered that they were, in fact, royalty, one must look hard to find any evidence of that now, like the in-
scriptions of a pair of dragon and phoenix on the side beams of the gates.
The old glory is gone forever, but the time can heal, smoothen and make vanish any scar of the past tragedy. Life is bustling at Zhao Fortress nowadays, with many houses dotted side by side, and people are busy working the land. The descendants of the Zhao Clan account for over a hundred households, and moreover, living here are also the descendants of the courtier Huang Cai, the man who broke through the Mongolian blockade. The Zhao and the Huang histories remain closely intertwined even now, and I heard that one Huang Pengying, 23rd generation from Huang Cai, even became the official guide to the Zhao Fortress.
The life in the village is boringly ordinary— smoke rises from the chimneys amongst patches of sugarcane and banana trees, and the children, four or five years old, that I came across while wandering around, had no idea about the fact that there was a direct link between them and the Song Dynasty, which vanished seven centuries ago. The older generation does have a vague idea, but they struggle to say how many generations they are from Zhao Ruohe. Zhao Fortress, in other worlds, has become an ordinary village, one of countless such villages and hamlets, scattered across South China.
Zhao Ruohe would not have thought that, in the 21st century, the northern dialect that the Zhao originally spoke would be replaced by the broadest Minnan one, that the one-time northern royalty would become the humblest of farmers, rooted firmly in the soil of South China, that the royal origins and the royal blood in their veins would become nothing but a legend. The time has erased the memories and the pain, and the burden and the torment that once haunted the Zhao has been dissolved in the waters of time river. Times have truly changed—half a dozen youngsters in the village have gone to university, but some traditions remain. The festival of flintlock shooting has survived. Targets are placed at 50, 100 and 150 meters and the first kid to hit the target takes home a 30 pound, turtle-shaped rice cake.
We don’t really know when this tradition started. The scholars claim that the demise of the Song Dynasty was brought about by their neglect of the military affairs, as the Song valued culture and learning above bellicose prowess. Perhaps for this reason, the Zhao learnt from that experience and now their descendants are not only versed in arts, but have to learn how to use arms, even though, as we know now, it is already much too late for that.
"Now, centuries later, the Zhao Fortress looks like an old man sitting quietly in his chair, bathing in the warmth of sunlight."
The central building of the Zhao Fortress is the Wan Bilou . Its name came from a Chinese idiom Wan
Biguizhao, meaning “return the Bi (a kind of fine jade artifact) intact to the Zhao State.” There is a metaphor hidden in the name of the building—the Zhao Clan hoped that one day they could return to their home in China’s Central Plain and revive their empire. The metaphor was extended when people discovered that the Zhao Clan deliberately missed a “point” when carving the character "璧" , making its bottom part a "王" (meaning king) rather than "玉" (meaning jade). Perhaps the family could not accept that the Zhao Clan, once a royal family, were hiding disgracefully and living difficult lives in the deep mountains of Fujian.
Wanbilou was constructed not only as a residential building, but also as a defense fortress. Its three-storey structure has hidden rooms and secret tunnels leading to hills outside the Zhao Fortress, in case enemies broke into the fortress. And the shooting windows on the walls of Wanbilou indicate that it was a building with strong defensibility.
Even though they hid themselves in the remote mountains, people of the Zhao Clan had a deep attachment to the Song Dynasty, their once prosperous empire. Besides the metaphors mentioned above, they also put their attachment secretly into the names of other constructions, like the Bianpai Bridge in the photo, a name which implies Bianliang, the former capital of the Northern Song.
We can speculate that at that time, they must have kept reminding themselves that they were not a common family, but the Zhao, once the most powerful family in China. We can see traces of this from the round stone pillars in the photo—even these common pillars were meticulously carved with couplets.
Through centuries, the Zhao Fortress has witnessed the tragedy of a fallen dynasty and protected the last of its royal descendants from political storms. It was once a place where the Zhao Clan worked through their grief and sought comfort in a rustic life, but now only a strong building that shelters its residents, who are now no different from other villagers in South China, from wind and rain. In the fortress, our photographer Zhu Qingfu met an elder. We failed to learn his name due to that he could hardly hear, but others told us that he is among the 31st to 36th generation of descendants of Zhao Guangmei (947984), the former Prince Wei of the Song Dynasty.