It was drizzling and misty as we entered the historic remote land of Huizhou with quaint villages and structures of ubiquitous white walls, dark gray roof tiles and graceful upturned eaves.
We felt as if we were entering a poetic traditional Chinese ink-wash painting depicting life lived close to nature, as it existed centuries ago.
Here, in mountainous southern Anhui Province (part of the Huizhou region) there are many Hui-style old towns, some very well preserved. The famous ancient villages of Xidi and Hongcun are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Viewers of the 2000 film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" may remember dramatic scenes featuring Hui-style architecture, a major type of Chinese architecture.
The villages were built deep in mountain areas without good transport, but remote locations did not stand in the way of builders' dedication to harmonious planning, delicate, meticulous design and decoration.
Entering these villages, visitors cannot help but be struck by the wisdom, resourcefulness and skill of ancestors in creating such beautiful structures and working in difficult conditions.
The structures are well integrated into the landscape, frequently positioned near ponds and streams in auspicious locations reflecting the principles of feng shui.
One of the most distinctive features is the horse-head wall (ma tou qiang) in which a stone wall descends step-like along the angle of the roof. The horse is an auspicious animal and the upturned tiers of dark tiles are said to resemble horses' heads. The contrast with whitewashed walls is striking. The walls were originally built between wooden structures to prevent fires from spreading but wealthy merchants later built high horse-head walls of as many as five or even six tiers to symbolize their status.
In Chinese history, Huizhou was an administrative district and today represents a geographic area, a period of history and a style of architecture and culture. Today Huizhou mainly refers to the counties of Shexian, Jixi, Xiuning, Qimen, Yixian and Wuyuan with a common history, language and culture.
Huizhou is also the birthplace of the famous Hui merchants who dominated Chinese business for more than 500 years.
Xidi village: Reflections of lotus, mist
As we drove on a zigzag road through lush green hills, a lake full of lotus came into view. We heard the raindrops on lotus leaves and watched the mist and clouds winding among the trees and rising to mountains in the background.
Then we saw Xidi Village.
A stone bridge crossed the water and on one side were the famous white walls and black-tiled tiered roofs.
I expected crowds in this famous UNESCO World Heritage site, but when we arrived, there were few people in the tranquil setting. We could feel the peaceful life in the old town and the ambience of Confucian culture dating back 960 years. The number of visitors rises, however, in the peak season.
This cluster of Hui-style architecture in Yixian County is located in the southern part of famous Huangshan Mountain park. It was built in the Northern Song Dynasty (AD 960-1127), developed in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and reached its present form in the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
Legend has it that the son of Emperor Zhaozong in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) was chased by rebel forces and forced to flee the capital city of Chang'an (now Xi'an in Shaanxi Province) to this area near Huangshan. He settled down and lived in hiding under the name of Hu. His descendants lived in the area for generations, finally building the large village of Xidi.
In the Qing and Ming dynasties, many scholars in this area turned to business, such as the salt trade, and became very successful. Then brought money back to their home village, which they turned into a comfortable and stylish settlement. They built elaborate residences of multiple courtyards within white-walled compounds and erected memorial halls for their ancestors. They built stone bridges over the water and paved roads.
About half of the ancient architecture has been destroyed but around 300 buildings from the Ming and Qing dynasties remain.
Today Xidi Village is more open and modern, with many stylish boutiques, cafes, bookstores and hostels. But the spirit and ambience of the ancient village has remained through generations.
At the entrance to the village stands an imposing carved stone archway representing virtue and achievement. It was sculpted from valuable local stone and dedicated to Hu Wenguang, a Xidi native who became a high official of the Ming Dynasty.
The arch in bas-relief is a masterpiece measuring 12.3 meters high and 9.9 meters wide. The carvings depict Hu's achievements in his 32-year official career.
During the Ming and Qing dynasties, ancestral temples were important in folk culture. Hu's ancestral temple is a prime example, constructed with richly carved horizontal beams, rather than arches. The carvings depict vivid characters and scenes.
The residences are mostly two-story compounds built behind white horse-head walls in dark-tiled tiers. Most of the interior construction is wood and brick. Beams and pillars are elaborately carved and colorfully painted, depicting Chinese legends and scenes from daily life. Wooden window screens are delicately carved.
A winding waterway flows through the village, harmoniously integrating water elements and architecture.
Hongcun Village: Scene from a Chinese painting
Not far from Xidi Village, as we drove through green hills, we encountered Hongcun Village, famous for classical scenery that evokes traditional Chinese ink-wash painting. It also has a remarkable water system for climate control, fire fighting and irrigation.
Just 18 kilometers from Xidi Village, Hongcun Village is justly called the "Chinese village in a painting."
Built on South Lake, the 800-year-old village contains around 140 buildings from the Ming and Qing dynasties.
Photographs cannot do justice to the beauty of the harmonious setting. Rows of art students sit on the banks and try to capture the spirit and moment.
You must be there to breathe the fresh air, appreciate the reflections of the village in the water and watch children playing on the banks.
You must be there to taste the salty and spicy pickles, the braised chicken with pickled vegetables and chilled osmanthus-flavored rice wine.
You must be there to appreciate the traditional Hui-style architecture and intricate carvings of flowers, birds, animals, figures and scenes from local operas. They cover marble door frames, stonework, beams, pillars and windows. Villagers have kept the art of carving and decoration alive.
Along the waterways of the village are ancestral temples and academy buildings. Simple, elegant stone bridges cross the lake, pond, canals and streams.
The most outstanding building in Hongcun is Chengzhi Hall, built by salt dealers in the Qing Dynasty.
The ornate wood and brick structure covers more than 2,000 square meters. The carving is extensive and lavish, covering ceilings, arches and window frames. The carved figures wear vivid, lifelike expressions.
Apart from the architecture, the most amazing part of the village is its water system, built in the shape of an ox.
Leigang Hill is the "head," two huge trees on the hill are the "horns," the residences are the "body," the winding waterways are the "intestines," and the crescent pond in the center of the village is the "stomach."
This course purifies the water that then runs south to the lake outside the village.
The design of the entire village and the water system help villagers manage water usage and fight fires. It keeps the temperature balanced so the village remains relatively cool in summer.