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Past Glory Shines in Ancient Village
The 2,000-year old ruins of a Han Dynasty city in east China's Fujian Province and a 1,000-year old village nearby bespeak deep traditions and a long past.

No busy traffic, no concrete blocks and no noise from bustling crowds of city dwellers -- the surroundings of the remains of an ancient city in east China's Fujian Province are as bleak and deserted as the ruins themselves.

But it is the vast stretches of deserted land covered with bushes and wild grass that bring visitors' imagination back more than 2,000 years to visualize the original setting of the remote kingdom.

Ancient Kingdom

Located by the Wuyi Mountains, the city was constructed under the auspices of Wu Zhu, the chieftain of the local Minyue ethnic group in the year 202 BC. Having helped Liu Bang -- first emperor of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) -- defeat Xiang Yu, king of the Chu Kingdom, Wu Zhu was granted the title of king of the Minyue kingdom.

However, when King Yu Shan, a descendent of Wu Zhu, took over the small kingdom, he decided to rebel against the Han Dynasty emperor. As a result, his kingdom was destroyed and the city was burnt down by Han Dynasty troops in 110 BC.

Gone were the days when the city enjoyed prosperity supported by a strong military force, which had helped its king defeat the neighboring ethnic groups. But King Yu Shan had overestimated the city's military might, which he thought might be strong enough to defeat the Han Dynasty. His mistake cost not only his own life but also the entire kingdom.

Today, a flag bearing the characters minyue, the kingdom's name, blows in the wind in an atmosphere of great tranquility and melancholy.

Beside the flag is a cobblestone road, which leads to the remains through the eastern gate. The gate itself is 5 meters wide, with 14-metre-thick walls supporting the gate tower on both sides.

There are altogether four gates in the four directions along the 2,896-metre-long city wall of rammed earth. The total area of the city is 480,000 square meters.

In the center are the remains of a palace of 20,000 square meters. This used to be where the king and his concubines lived. There are also the remains of other buildings within the city.

The city's eastern gate faces Chongyang Brook, where the water comes from the surrounding mountains. The city's western and northern sides face the mountains and this layout would have made the city a stronghold against enemy attack.

A canal more than 2,000 meters long was dug outside the city's northwest to divert water from Chongyang Brook into the city.

The 30-metre-wide canal was connected to another canal, which sent water back down to the lower reaches of the brook. This formed a water circulation and drainage system. Water came into the city from the brook so that residents got water and it went out of the city into the brook, with wastewater going into the brook's lower reaches.

The canal system also acted as a water route for the kingdom to transport construction materials and military materials into the city.

There used to be a dock outside the palace, where the king could board a boat to go on an inspection tour of his subject tribes.

Using their imagination, visitors can reconstruct the scenes of the ancient city in their mind with the help of the excavated arrows, swords, pottery drainage pipes and utensils displayed in a museum some 20 minutes' walk south of the city ruins.

Old Village

Leaving these ruins behind and going further north through the vast stretches of wilderness, you will reach a village named Chengcun that is some 1,000 years old. Its architecture and clan system are almost the same as they were several hundred years ago.

But the villagers are not descendants of the ancient kingdom's residents.

According to local historical records, the villagers' forefathers were from the lower and middle reaches of the Yellow River and are of the Han ethnic group.

Most of the 2,700 villagers, of 570 families, share three family names -- Li, Lin and Zhao. Each of the three most influential clans keeps a book of their family tree printed during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

What is interesting is that the ancestor of the Lin family, as recorded in the book of the Lin family tree, is Bi Gan, the prime minister to the last emperor of the Shang Dynasty (c. 16th century to 11th century BC).

The ancestor of the Li family is Li Yuan, the first emperor of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), and that of the Zhao family is Zhao Guangyi, the second emperor of the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

Walking near the village, what first comes into sight is a gate tower.

Altogether, the village has four gate towers facing the four compass points and they were built during the Qing Dynasty. In ancient times, the entire village was surrounded by fortified walls and the gate towers were used as fortifications against attack.

Not far away from the gate tower is a wooden archway constructed in 1617 in honor of the 100-year-old villager Zhao Xiyuan. The archway was a gift from Emperor Wanli of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and bears inscriptions from local officials.

The four characters on the western side are shengshi renrui, meaning "people are healthy in peaceful and prosperous times." In contrast, the four characters on the eastern side are sichao yilao, meaning "an old man passes through the reign of four emperors."

About 20 meters east of the archway is the ancestral hall of the Zhao family, which was placed under protection as a cultural relic by the local government in 1997.

The 270-square-metre hall, built in the early Qing Dynasty, has an L-shaped doorway, with its door facing north. The hall has a skylight in the centre. A table is placed against the northernmost wall, on which the paintings of several ancestors were hung for villagers surnamed Zhao to worship.

Zhao Shanzhong, 30, claims to be a 37th-generation descendent of the family. He said that the whole Zhao clan would usually hold ceremonies twice a year.

Each of the clan's 200 or so families would send a representative to the ceremony, during which the representatives pay homage to their ancestors by bowing to paintings of the ancestors and sweeping their tombs. The villagers hold a carnival to relax after the ceremony.

The activities are organized by a committee of 20 members elected by villagers of the same surname. The committee collects funds for scholarships for students studying at technical schools or universities, and it settles disputes among the villagers of the same surname.

A piece of red paper bearing the names of the 25 students who had received the scholarships still hung above the table. The highest scholarship was 200 yuan (US$24).

Zhao Shanzhong said that the money was collected from families with the same surname.

Apart from being granted as scholarships, the money collected is used to repair public facilities, such as the fengyu (rain and wind) pavilion, Zhao said.

The village has four such pavilions, one in the west, one in the main street, one in the east and one at the village entrance. But villagers say there used to be many more.

The pavilions are places where villagers get together and chat in their spare time after supper, quite similar to pubs in the West. But no beer or wine is provided there.

Once in a while, the noise of a motorcycle would disturb the atmosphere of deep quiet. On the table of the ancestral hall of the Zhao clan, a small TV set proves quite intrusive and out of harmony with what is left of the old days.

Modern lifestyles are invading the village in a quite subtle manner. Young people could be seen wearing jeans and fairly modern jackets.

Under the archway, several villagers were chatting. In a nearby temple, which was also a Qing Dynasty building that was being renovated, dozens of laid-back villagers smoked and chatted.

The eyes and faces of the elderly people under the archway and in the temple showed a certain serenity, which can hardly be detected in the faces of city dwellers.

(China Daily December 9, 2002)

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