Historical Value: A Chinese Town Appraises Its Past

In Bishan village, at the heart of the historic region of Huizhou in Central China, architectural heritage, once an afterthought, is now beginning to attract attention as a potential source of tourism development. The Shisanmen Hall, pictured here in a drawing by Bishan local Wang Shouchang whose forbears built it 280 years ago, is one of the three Wang family ancestral halls that remain in the village. Another 33 were lost to the ravages of war and neglect. Image by Leah Thompson. China, 2013.

Wang Shouchang, 67, is a 93rd-generation member of the Wang family that once dominated village life in Bishan. Wang devotes much of his private time to researching the kinship history of the region. In the past, people relied on ancestral halls and genealogies to keep the family records. Today, Wang is one of the few interested in village history. Image by Leah Thompson. China, 2013.

Despite its poor condition, the exterior wall of Mingxian Hall is a fine example of the distinctive architecture of the Huizhou region. The hall was built during the 18th century. The original stone carvings, murals, stele and the couplets that adorned its gates were stripped from the facade after it was confiscated by the government when the communists came to power in 1949. Image by Leah Thompson. China, 2013.

Wang Shouchang (right) looks out at the main courtyard of Mingxian Hall with its caretaker, Wang Changfa (center), 72, and his wife. Above the clutter, the elegant timbered roof beams remain intact. Wang Changfa began renting Mingxian hall from the government at 20 RMB per year in 1982. Since then, he and other villagers have gradually transformed the building into a communal storage space and barn for Wang Changfa’s pigs and chickens. “The government has long stopped charging me the rent,” Wang says, “but I still have the responsibility to keep [the hall] standing.” Image by Leah Thompson. China, 2013.

Fallen beams, window frames and forgotten furniture obstruct the passage between the back room and inner courtyard of Mingxian Hall. “In my lifetime, people have never performed any rituals in ancestral halls in our village,” says Wang Shouchang. He says the last he heard of these customs was from elderly relatives during his childhood, six decades ago. In the nearby towns of Xidi and Hongcun, ancestral halls and other historic buildings are largely intact and UNESCO heritage status has brought a lucrative stream of domestic tourists. Image by Leah Thompson. China, 2013.

Two wooden trestles, constructed and installed by the hall’s caretaker Wang Changfa, hold up the front corner of the damaged Mingxian Hall. Wang says he hopes “someone will take [the hall] away from me and repair it properly.” Image by Leah Thompson. China, 2013.

Wang Shouchang shares a historical map that he drew in 2010 of Bishan village with Ou Ning, an artist who moved to the village in 2013. Ou is one of the founders of the Bishan Project, whose aim is to revitalize the village’s culture and economy. Many sites on the map no longer exist. Image by Leah Thompson. China, 2013.

Renovation is underway at one of Bishan’s other historic ancestral halls, Qitai Hall, seen here. After some convincing by Ou Ning, co-founder of the Bishan Project, the owner of popular Nanjing-based bookstore Librairie Avant-Garde decided to open a Bishan branch in the hall. Ou hopes the adaptive reuse of traditional houses and ancestral halls may help Bishan prosper, even without the development of mass tourism. Renovation is ongoing and the bookstore is expected to open early this year. Image by Leah Thompson. China, 2013.

Another example of adaptive reuse, Pig’s Inn Number 3 is the most recent of a successful trio of high-end inns in the Huizhou region. The first two in Xidi and Bishan are renovated traditional Huizhou-style homes that have fallen out of favor with the locals, who prefer modern apartment-style living if they can afford it. This third inn is an erstwhile rapeseed oil factory on the outskirts of Bishan. It is not yet open to the public. The inns cater to an international clientele who eschew the region’s more popular modes of tourism. Image by Leah Thompson. China, 2013.

Renovation is still a distant goal for Mingxian Hall, where brush and lumber obscure a stack of coffins. In Huizhou, locals consider it auspicious to pre-order custom-made coffins in mid-life. Many of them are stored here. Image by Leah Thompson. China, 2013.

A carved lion perches in the corner of Mingxian Hall’s inner courtyard. During the Qing dynasty, when Mingxian Hall was built, the Huizhou region was known for its superior craftsmanship in stone, wood, brick and ink slab carving. Some elderly villagers still refer to Mingxian as “lion hall.” Image by Leah Thompson. China, 2013.

Mingxian Hall is accessed through a side entrance in Wang Changfa’s home. He and his wife keep a pair of pigs and a gaggle of chickens in the inner courtyard. Image by Leah Thompson. China, 2013.

Temporary walls and overgrown greenery partially mask the outer gates and stone pillars of the Mingxian Hall. A villager examines the entryway, which is rarely opened. Four wooden pegs above the gate indicate this hall was built to honor an ancestor who served as a fourth-rank civil official in the Qing court. A pair of stone drums and lions that used to flank the front gate are missing. Image by Leah Thompson. China, 2013.

The stone carving of a tiger on an elaborate stone plinth peeking out from behind a wooden barricade is another sign the hall was built to honor a high-level official. With a burgeoning tourist industry, stone carving has again become a lucrative business. Image by Leah Thompson. China, 2013.

Wang Shouchang stands in the shade of a tree on the outskirts of Bishan. Below this patch of raised earth lie the unattended tombs of the Wang family. The family originated from the Lu state (today’s Shandong province) more than 2,600 years ago during the Spring and Autumn Period and first settled in Bishan during the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127). According to Wang, “These tombs likely belong to the 70th generation, but nobody knows for sure.” Image by Leah Thompson. China, 2013.

This article was also published in Mandarin in The New York Times Style section.

The once-grand entrance of the Mingxian Hall is locked and hidden behind splinted boards and overgrown greenery. Wang Shouchang, a 67-year-old farmer from Bishan village, leads us into the cramped kitchen of the farmhouse next door and heads through a passageway on the far wall. What stands before us is breathtaking: a soaring space whose ruined grandeur is only made more compelling by the way it has been packed to the rafters with the humblest of everyday junk. The hall was built in the late-Qing dynasty by the Wang family as a place to venerate a relative who served as a high-ranking civil official in the imperial court. Since the 1980s, the Mingxian Hall has been a makeshift communal storage space, littered with cast-off toys, aged farming equipment, and pre-ordered coffins, which compete for space with a pair of pigs and a flock of boisterous chickens.

Bishan, in the historic Huizhou region of Anhui province, once boasted 36 such Wang family halls. Today, two centuries and a revolution removed from its most flourishing period, only three halls remain. As China’s economy soars, an exodus from the countryside into nearby towns and cities hastens Huizhou’s detachment from its past.

Nearby villages better endowed with historic architecture were granted UNESCO world heritage status in 2000 and have been overrun with tourists and film crews ever since. Their success puts also-ran villages in the region, like Bishan, at once closer and further away from the fruits of China’s new prosperity. Tourists—at least the fast-moving tour-bus variety—can visit only so many places in a day.

But Bishan’s relative lack of touristically exploitable cultural heritage has recently given it a different kind of allure and possibly, a second chance at escaping obscurity. Ou Ning and Zuo Jing, two urban cultural figures, have settled in Bishan and are attempting to revitalize its economy and cultural heritage without resorting to mass tourism. Their Bishan Project, which we have been documenting for the past year, has brought more rarefied forms of development—an arts festival, high-end rustic-chic guesthouses and a branch of the Nanjing bookstore Librairie Avant Garde—to Bishan, all in an effort to explore routes to economic revitalization that don’t involve industrialization or mass tourism.

Unlike most villagers, Wang Shouchang maintains a deep connection to Bishan’s illustrious past. He devotes much of his private time to researching the kinship history of the region. Scenes he has drawn of Bishan and its surrounding mountains cover the walls of his home. When we visit his house, he unfurls a hand-drawn historical map of Bishan that shows the village before the ravages of the Taiping Rebellion and the Cultural Revolution stripped it of its most distinctive features. He has signed it, “Wang Shouchang, Wang Family 93rd Generation.” Wang knows that even if Mingxian Hall were fully restored, no one would use it for worship—the village’s traditions have crumbled faster than its buildings. But, a combination of local and family pride and dismay at the idea of letting the town’s rich “cultural deposits” go unmined has Wang hoping tourism will grow.

If that happens, Mingxian Hall will likely get a facelift, so that busloads of visitors can bask in the artificial glow of its imperial glory days. If Bishan’s urban immigrants repurpose it, perhaps it will take the village in a new direction. But so far, the hall remains in shambles—with its grandeur and the hardships it has weathered in plain view.