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Old walled town has vibrant heart
By Tom Qian

Chongwu, in southeast China’s Fujian Province, is a small place compared with other cities famous for ancient walls like Xi’an and Pingyao.

It’s unique, however, because it’s the only complete city wall made with granite in China, and, being a structure to guard against invasion from the sea, it is splendidly situated with three sides facing the water.

Chongwu, meaning “advocating defense” in Chinese, served as a military base against invasion from Japan and other seafaring nations since the beginning of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It is a township-level division of Hui’an County of the prefecture-level city Quanzhou, a scenic city an hour ride away.

Chongwu’s walls are 2,457 meters long, 3 meters tall and 3 meters wide on average. Chongwu Old City was listed as a national relic in 1988 by the State Council, China’s cabinet.

My first impression of Chongwu Old City was that it looked too new — the walls looked bright yellow under morning sun with little grass or few trees growing on it. But that impression faded fast as we immersed ourselves in the life of the authentic old city.

Entering the city from its West Gate and walking along the narrow streets built of stone slabs, you cannot fail to notice all the houses are only one or two floors high and the building material is mostly thick stone.

We walked counterclockwise toward the south to see the main structure of the stone wall facing the sea. On the way, we saw people preparing lunch as dogs, cats and chickens wandered around. Through the open doors of some houses, you could see portraits of ancestors hung in good order on the wall. It was like looking across time seeing the old men and women in the drawings peering back at you.

Soon we found a door decorated with a bright-red-and-yellow balloon arch. We went up the small lane and saw two men placing firecrackers on the ground all the way from the street to their home at the foot of the stone wall.

The characters on the balloon archway in front of their house indicated the family’s surname as Wang, and the father told us his son had gotten married that day. The new couple would return at noon to see the relatives.

We left with an invitation to come back and meet the new couple and continued our walk, soon arriving at the South Gate of the stone wall. Just inside the wall there is a temple, richly decorated with brightly colored patterns on the roof and red couplets on the front wall. (Couplets are a pair of lines of Chinese poetry often placed beside doors.) Throngs of women were busy cleaning the floors, walls and a life-size horse sculpture in front of the temple. We entered the temple and found more people busy cleaning the stone floors, stone columns and wooden furniture inside. They told us it was a Temple of Guan Yu, a famous general in Three Kingdoms period (AD 220-280) and widely revered for his loyalty and righteousness.

Leaving the temple, we suddenly heard loud fireworks from the north. We followed the sound and saw a line of people carrying new quilts and bags. At the front, a couple walked hand in hand. We followed them through zigzag streets, found out that the man’s surname also was Wang, but not from the same group as the earlier residents we met. I asked where they would spend their honeymoon. They said they hadn’t decided Ñ they’d never felt a need to visit anywhere outside of Quanzhou.

“You have everything here: beach, seafood, good weather. So you don’t have to go anywhere else,” I said.

We saw them through the East Gate and decided to go back under the stone wall and see the Wang family we met early in the morning.

Soon we found the balloon archway and strips of red paper where the firecrackers had been. We went up the zigzag road and walked into Wang’s courtyard. Everyone looked busy, and we saw the new couple standing at the door with red couplets at their sides. It was a perfect photo of renewed life in the old town.

Along with others, we climbed to the top of the stone wall. From there, we could see clusters of stone houses inside the wall and brick four-to-five story buildings outside the wall, a sharp contrast of old and new.

We saw all the relatives of Wang gathered in the courtyard and began to eat a lunch that started with soup with fish balls.

Taking our leave, we walked toward the Temple of Guan Yu, and to its south, we entered a park with nice beach. There is a 10.8-meter-tall memorial statue of Qi Jiguang, a famous general in the Ming Dynasty who fought against invading Japanese pirates. We also found a lot of stone sculptures facing the sea and a pole marking the meteorological division of the East China and South China seas. The stone carvings show the excellency of Hui’an craftsmanship, which was listed as one of the first intangible cultural heritages of China in 2006.

The beach is a delight, with sand that is soft and white. Grilled meat is served on the beach in peak travel seasons in spring and autumn. Summer and winter are quiet and cozy instead.

While we were in the park, people in white garments came out of the East Gate. They burned colorful paper houses as tall as 2 meters for their dead relatives. The red paper houses with golden decorations and flowers turned to ashes in an instant. The relatives kowtowed toward the East Gate.

Leaving the park, we headed toward the center of the town, where we found some small shops, a market and a cinema from the 1970s. There were several halls in memory of locals’ ancestors. It’s said there are over 100 ancestral temples in the old city, and among them, the hall of Wang’s family is the most impressive.

The front gate of Wang’s ancestral temple is elaborately decorated with golden couplets carved on stone gate frame. Entering the gate, we see paintings of two traditional door gods on another door to the inside of the temple. There is a list of all the ancestor’s names and pictures of recent generations on the wall.

On the other side of the wall, we saw a series of 10 stone carvings telling the story of how the family immigrated to Chongwu.

Their ancestors, three brothers surnamed Wang, came from Henan Province in central China on horseback during the late Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), a time of social unrest. They led an army and unified Fujian Province in 885.

In Chongwu Old City, Wang is still a big, prosperous family with three large groups settling in the north, south and east of the city. Covering an area of 400 square meters, Wang’s ancestral temple is one of the largest ancestral temples in Chongwu.

There are over 100 such large families in the city and each has an ancestral temple, a local resident told us.

Just beside Wang’s temple, we saw another temple with numerous couplets beside the door, some in red and some in black. In front of the open gate there were two white lanterns.

We entered and saw a funeral was going on, with a mourning hall inside with a paper structure in black and white. People in black clothes surrounded a young woman in the middle. The woman’s husband had been killed in an accident at age 36.

We saw a piece of paper on the wall in a corner, detailing the income and expenditure of the family temple in the past year.

It listed how many babies were born and how many family members died during the time. When a baby is born, the ancestral temple customarily receives money from family members, and when a man dies the temple spends money on the funeral service. Last year, the family temple had a balance of around 60,000 yuan (US$9,808).

Leaving Chongwu Old City, we looked back at the stone wall in the golden light of the sunset. Soon we were enveloped by busy buses, loud music, colorful billboards and throngs of people. Chongwu will stick in my mind as much more than a relic, but a livable and dynamic town of ancient stone walls with a heart that is beating in the marriages, mourning, values and family traditions we saw.

How to get there:

There are direct flights from Shanghai to Quanzhou City which takes about 1.5 hours. And to go from Quanzhou to Chongwu town, you can go to Quanzhou Passenger Transport Center at the crossing of Pingshan Road and Quanxiu Road. The trip takes about one hour and a ticket of 20 yuan (US$3.20). It takes 15 minutes to walk or three minutes via taxi to go from Chongwu bus station to Chongwu Old City.

Where to stay:

It’s easy to make a day trip to Chongwu town from Quanzhou, which serves a good base with all types of hotels and restaurants. However, if you want to dig deeper, motorbikes can take you to the seaside villages where you can find the famous Hui’an women still wearing traditional costumes and residents enjoying fresh seafood. Since those villages are not commercial travel destinations, only a few fishing families offer B&B service and the conditions can’t be compared to standard hotels.

What to eat:

As a town so close to the sea, seafood is usually the first choice. One of the snacks you can find everywhere on the street is Chongwu fish roll, which is made of minced fish meat. It can be fried or cooked in soup.

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