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The Disappearance of an Ancient Town
In the deep hinterland of the Three Gorges, there is a small town called Dachang. The town is the only well-preserved ancient town in the Three Gorges area. Two years ago a red warning line along with the words "143 meter high submerged zone" were marked on the old city walls. The lines were indicative of the town's fate. When the on-going Three Gorges Project, the world's largest water conservation works, starts to store water in June 2003, Dachang will be submerged forever.

Dachang has a history of more than 1,700 years. The town still preserves its original semblance, even though it has been threatened by various wars over the years. Under the administration of Wushan County in Chongqing City, Dachang covers an area of nearly 100,000 square meters and has a population of 37,000 people. The ancient settlement town has two major streets: one is 150 meters long from north to south, and the other is 240 meters from east to west. When mentioning the town of Dachang, people always think of the old saying, 'One lamp lighting the whole town.' Dachang is the smallest among the cities and towns discovered along the Yangtze, so it is also called "Miniature Ancient Town."

The south gate is the town's main link to the outside world. The crystal clear Daning River, a branch of the Changjiang River, flows past the town, and there are dozens of steps paved with polished stone slabs that lead from the gate to the riverside. A several hundred-year-old scholar tree stands like a guard at the gate, its roots growing from the cracks of the archway. A damaged stone lion at the side of the gate silently faces the Daning River, looking desolate in the rays of the setting sun.

Traditional houses line both sides of the streets in Dachang. Mostly built during the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and the early years of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the houses are made of blue bricks and tiles, with wooden facades, upturned eaves, and carved and painted beams, all of which reflect the beauty of the old buildings.

In Dachang, the Wen Family Courtyard is the largest and the best preserved of these historical buildings. It was built in the early years of the Qing and covers an area of 320 square meters. The house is an old style Chinese structure, and can be divided into three parts: the entrance hall, the central hall, and the rear hall. All are supported by wooden beams and roofs. The wooden windows are decorated with exquisite engravings.

According to Wen Guanglin, the tenth-generation owner of the Wen Family Courtyard, the house was built by his ancestor, who was a governor during the Qing Dynasty. Nowadays, Wen Guanglin lives in the courtyard with one of his sons and a grandson. His other son has moved to Guangdong Province.

When talking about the move, Wen Guanglin shows his reluctance to leave his home. "The Three Gorges Project is a great thing for our country and people, and I must obey the decision of the government," he said. "I just hope that the Wen Family Courtyard will be rebuilt somewhere new, and that I will be permitted to live there for at least awhile. After all, several generations of my family have lived in this house."

At present, most of the Dachang residents have moved away. Between now and the second phase of the Three Gorges Project, in which water will begin to be stored, the last 1,000 residents will gradually move out of the ancient town.

In order to reproduce the original look of Dachang, the Department of the Preservation of Historical and Cultural Sites will invest a total of 30 million yuan. The completion of this project will represent an important milestone in the history of the preservation of ancient residential houses in China.

(China Pictorial February 9, 2003)

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