A Trip to Hunan's Huaihua City

In terms of area, Huaihua is the biggest city in Hunan Province. Here, Han Chinese live harmoniously with 31 ethnic groups, including the Dong, Miao, Yao and Tujia. According to historical records, the history of Huaihua dates back 300,000 years to the Paleolithic age.

Slab-Paved Street and Hibiscus Tower

Hibiscus Tower is at the confluence of the Yuanjiang and Wushui rivers in Qiancheng Town. This was where the famous Tang-dynasty (618-907) poet, Wang Changling, held banquets for his guests and farewell parties for his friends, and has, over the past dynasties, been the ideal setting for scholars to compose poems and artists to create masterpieces.

The tower now standing was constructed during the reign of Emperor Daoguang in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) on the original site of Hibiscus Tower, which was razed during a period of war. The tower is a marvelous example of architectural complexity that combines the typical Qing-dynasty architectural design with the style popular in Hunan and Anhui provinces. As we walked up the steps leading to the top of the tower, we marveled at the unique gate that tilts forward, as if to welcome the arrival of visitors, hence, the name, Guest Greeting Gate. It is said that the gradient of this gate surpasses that of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The four Chinese characters, Longbiao (Mark of the Dragon) Shengji (Historic Site) above the gate command scrutiny, and the mural, depicting Wang Changling's Farewell Party for Guests, originates from local famous artists of the Qing Dynasty. In the garden, in the midst of other rare trees, stands an ancient pine, 30 meters tall, and with 2.8 meters circumference at its base. Its branches extend to cover an area of 25 square meters.

It was noontime when we arrived at Qiancheng Town, famous for its Hibiscus Tower, and a slab-paved street. The street was remarkably peaceful, as if all the normal city noise had been absorbed by its thick paving slabs. On either sides of the street are wooden houses, and it is commonplace for families to put tables in front of their houses to sell home-made snacks, pickles and some daily-use articles. In one small barber's shop, a haircut can be had for a mere two yuan, although the haircutting tools used here are no longer seen in big city barber's shops. On the inner walls of the houses hang portraits of Chairman Mao Zedong, among the family pictures. This reminded me of the days in the 1970s, when almost all families had a portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong on their wall. Local people here seem to seek neither fame nor personal gain, being happy to live a carefree life. I came across a group of elderly ladies, sitting in their courtyard, relaxing with a look of supreme contentment. Huaihua has, therefore, also been cited as the seat of longevity.

The Country Fair in Jingzhou

Jingzhou was made a county seat in the year 1103, during the 2nd year of the reign of Song Emperor Chongning. In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), its location, along the border where Hunan, Guizhou and Guangxi meet, made it a prominent town in the region. During the reign of Qing Emperor Qianlong, businesspeople from surrounding areas set up their shops in Jingzhou, which enjoyed a period of great prosperity.

In the evening, we took a walk through the city. We came upon a mall, lined on both sides with shops, small restaurants and places of recreation in the new city area. Here can be found several simply equipped karaoke bars, with cozy rooms big enough to accommodate a few sofas, a television set and fundamental items of furniture. The entrance to these bars is either through a sliding door or a maroon curtain draped over the doorway, where a pretty girl stands to greet incoming guests. At the end of the street is the Wangjiang (Overlooking the River) Tower, known as the first tower of southwest Hunan. The tower is brightly illuminated, and with the nearby musical fountain, provides the perfect setting for an evening stroll. On our way back, along one of the city's rivers, our enjoyment of the scenery was enhanced by small bridges spanning the river, a huge windmill in motion, and a few typical wooden Miao buildings.

The following morning, we went along to the opening ceremony of a country fair being held in the city. It seemed that all the citizens of the town were out that day. As soon as the opening signal was given, people flocked to the market center. In addition to sales of home-made snacks, farm products, and leather shoes, games of ring-toss and marbles attracted numerous punters, eager to spend their cash. Snake charmers also drew crowds, along with those selling Tibetan knives. The area where lottery tickets were being sold was awash with people. When the winning numbers of the lottery were announced over the loudspeaker, the lottery winners were so excited they could barely respond.

Wind-and-Rain Bridge and Drum Tower

The Dong is an ethnic group of China with a population of over one million. The Dong people live mainly along the border area of Hunan, Guizhou and Guangxi.

The gate to a Dong village features a unique architectural style. It has a wooden structure, constructed with mortise and tenon joints, so that not a single nail is used. Every Dong village has a gate where locals welcome and see off visitors and guests. According to the local custom, all visitors or guests are presented with a bowl of wine before entering the gate. Those who receive wine from a girl, singing in an antiphonal style, must return her greeting in song. Those who cannot sing, or who fail to respond, are obliged to drink more wine. It is only after drinking that visitors qualify to become good friends of the Dong people. Within the local customs, visitors should present a gift of sentimental value to the girls who give them wine, to express their sincere thanks, and as a memento of the occasion.

The Wind-and-Rain Bridge in the Dong village we visited was constructed during the reign of Qing Emperor Jiaqing. It displays a skillful combination of the railing-style structure popular in Dong villages, and the Han Chinese architectural style of bridge construction. It has a wooden corridor, three pavilion-style pagodas, under which stand three halls housing the local gods. On the pinnacle of the highest pagoda are four dragons which guard its inner treasures, signifying that the Dong village is well protected by its surrounding mountains.

Dong villages are usually constructed either on mountain slopes or on flatland. Four of the Dong villages in Huangdu Township are built on mountain slopes with a stream nearby. A legend says that during the reign of Ming Emperor Yongle, four brothers settled in the area as it is surrounded by mountains on four sides. The mountains resembled four great dragons guarding treasure. So, over time, the four brothers built four villages, naming them Dragon-head Village, Dragon-tail Village, Spiraling Dragon Village and New Village.

Drum towers are the hallmarks of Dong villages. A drum tower consists of either three or five stories, the tallest being over a dozen stories. The ground floor is square, and from the uppermost point hangs a huge hide drum, hence, its name. The drum tower is regarded as the headquarters of a Dong village, a place where meetings are held, village matters are discussed, and mediation on disputes among villagers takes place. It is also an ideal place for villagers to gather when the season of hard labor ends, and for their recreational pursuits of pipa playing, story telling and singing. On festive occasions, it is also the place where guests are welcomed and seen off, where contests in antiphonal singing and reed-pipe wind instrument playing are staged, and where the lion and dragon dances are held. The two drum towers we visited in Huangtu Township were also built on mountain slopes.

Dong villagers live in pile dwellings. These unique buildings are stable, durable and effective in preventing any possible occasional attacks of wild animals and reptiles, and feature spacious first floors. Apart from the roof tiles, the three-story wooden structure dwellings are crafted entirely using mortise and tenon joints. On the first floor, domestic fowls and draught animals are housed; the central room on the second floor is a sitting room where the family members retire to cool off in summer, and where the women do household chores and the girls weave. To the right is the kitchen, and to the left, the bedroom of the older family members. On the third floor are bedrooms for the younger family members, which is also used to store grain. There is generally one family to a building, although nowadays, it is also quite common for several buildings to be linked up by corridors.

The Bonfire Party

We were fortunate enough to be invited to a long-table banquet put on by locals, one of the type held only on festive occasions. There is a story celebrating this festive occasion. It is said that when the famous Dong hero Wu Mian passed through a Dong village with his rebel troops, many of the village girls, in the spirit of hospitality, invited the hero to have dinner with them and their family members. As the hero hesitated, reluctant to reject any of these kind offers, one bright girl proposed that a long table be set up, and that each family should bring over its best dish. Thus all the families could both treat their hero and have the honor of dining with him. This tradition has carried on through the generations.

In line with the local custom, we visitors were asked to sit with the locals along the table. Opposite us sat some Dong girls and one young man from the Huaihua area dressed in the costumes they wore as members of a cultural performance troupe. To start the party, we all stood up, and sang a wine song, holding hands with the people on either our side. Those who did not feel confident at singing could nevertheless barely restrain themselves from dancing to the rhythm of the song. Everyone then emptied their cup of its cool, sweet wine, and the girls poured wine to the visitors one by one, singing a local melody. Some visitors had no alternative but to drink seven cups, since they found it difficult to refuse the local hospitality. I met one visitor who, apparently having no liking for alcohol, sneaked away, and stood on the periphery, enjoying the revelry from a safe distance.

The most favored local dishes are salted meat and salted fish, and are particularly delicious as they are made according to local methods originating from the Song Dynasty. The salted meat and fish are prepared three or five years in advance, the longest period being 30 to 40 years. As the banquet drew to its close, the Dong girls and young men sang us a farewell song.

That evening, we went to watch song and dance performances on spacious open ground where a bonfire brightly burned. The performers were all young Dong girls and men, who, after attending specialized training schools, gave a highly professional performance. Their songs and dances left with us an unforgettable memory of our trip to Huaihua.

(China Today 05/2001)