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China: The Village of Hongcun, Guardian of Huizhou Culture

Updated: Mar 7

The village of Hongcun is located in Anhui province and represents a remarkable example of the region's traditional Chinese architecture. Founded during the Song dynasty, Hongcun has gained fame for its well-preserved ancient architecture and picturesque landscapes that attract visitors from around the world.


China: The Village of Hongcun, Guardian of Huizhou Culture

© O. Robert


The village is particularly famous for its "ox" shaped water system and unique water drainage system, designed to channel rainwater throughout the village in a network of canals.


The history of Hongcun is marked by its ability to preserve its cultural and architectural heritage in an ever-changing landscape. This village is not only a testament to the history of rural China but also a living example of Chinese tradition continuing through time.


The layout of the village and its buildings reflect the principles of Feng Shui, incorporating harmony between architecture and the surrounding nature. The houses are built of wood and brick, with beautiful wood carvings, whitewashed walls, and black tile roofs, characteristic of Huizhou architecture.


The village is distinguished not only by its architecture and history but also by its spectacular natural setting, surrounded by mountains and rivers. Hongcun has become a must-visit for those interested in Chinese history, traditional architecture, and natural beauty. But let's start from the beginning...


China: The Village of Hongcun, Guardian of Huizhou Culture

© O. Robert


Characteristics of Anhui Province

Anhui Province is a fascinating mix of natural beauty, historical and cultural wealth, and economic significance. Its iconic mountains, traditional architecture, and cultural heritage not only draw visitors but also have a profound influence on contemporary Chinese culture.


Here are some of its distinctive geographical and historical features that contribute to its identity within the country.


Geographical Features

1. Geographic location: Anhui is framed by the Yangtze River to the south, which plays a crucial role in the region's transportation and economy, and by the Huaihe River to the north. It is bordered by six other provinces, making it an important cultural and historical crossroads.


2. Topography: The province is characterized by a notable topographical diversity, with mountains such as the Huangshan Mountains in the south, famous for their scenic landscapes, twisted pines, rock formations, and sea of clouds. See my articles on Huangshan.


The north and central parts of the province are flatter and form a significant part of the East China Plain, which is conducive to agriculture.


3. Climate: Anhui has a humid subtropical monsoon climate, with hot and humid summers and relatively cold winters. Rainfall is abundant, especially in summer, affecting agriculture and daily life.


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Historical Features

1. Rich history: The history of Anhui Province goes back millennia, with evidence of civilization dating back to the Neolithic period. The region has played a significant role in Chinese history as a center of culture, politics, and economy at various times.


2. Cultural influence: Anhui is the birthplace of Huizhou culture, which was particularly influential in Chinese history and is known for its economic ethics, education, and traditional architecture. This culture has greatly influenced business practices, art, and architecture in China, especially during the Ming and Qing dynasties.


China: The Village of Hongcun, Guardian of Huizhou Culture

© O. Robert


3. Architectural heritage: The province is renowned for its ancient villages, such as Hongcun and Xidi, which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Huizhou architecture, with its curved roofs, intricate wood carvings, and inner courtyards, is a distinctive feature of Anhui.


4. Educational contributions: Anhui has produced many scholars, officials, and influential artists throughout China's history, significantly contributing to the development of literature, philosophy, and the arts.


5. Role in history: The province has also played a crucial role in numerous historical events, including various revolts and reform movements. It has been an important battlefield during conflicts such as the Taiping Rebellion and the Chinese civil war.


6. Traditional economy: Anhui's economy was primarily based on agriculture, with rice, wheat, and tea as the main crops. However, over the years, it has diversified to include industry and services.


China: The Village of Hongcun, Guardian of Huizhou Culture

© O. Robert


History of Hongcun Village

The history of Hongcun spans several centuries, reflecting significant periods of development, change, and preservation in rural China. Located in Eastern China, Hongcun Village is an exceptional example of traditional Chinese architecture and lifestyle, particularly well-preserved.


Foundation and Origins (11th century)

Hongcun was founded during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), with estimates of its creation dating back to the year 1131. It was established by the Wang family, who sought to escape the unrest in their region of origin.


Development (14th - 19th century)

Under the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, the village prospered through agriculture, trade, and education. It was during these periods that most of Hongcun's architectural structures were erected, showcasing the evolution of styles and construction techniques.


The unique layout of the village is designed to resemble an ox, a powerful Chinese symbol, with its water channels representing the "intestines" and the lake shaped like a "stomach." It is an outstanding example of urban planning adapted to the natural environment.


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Recognition and Conservation (20th Century - Present)

In 2000, Hongcun was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, along with another nearby village, Xidi, for their outstanding representation of the cultural region of southern Anhui, characterized by its picturesque landscapes and traditional architecture.


Since its UNESCO listing, significant efforts have been made to preserve Hongcun's historical architecture and its unique environmental setting. These efforts include the restoration of ancient buildings and the regulation of modern development to maintain the village's integrity.


China: The Village of Hongcun, Guardian of Huizhou Culture

© O. Robert


Events and Cultural Influence

- Cinema: The beauty and authenticity of Hongcun have attracted filmmakers, with the village serving as a backdrop for several Chinese and international films. The most famous of these is Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000), which has greatly contributed to its global fame.


- Tourism: The UNESCO listing and its appearance in films have made Hongcun a major tourist destination, attracting visitors eager to experience its unique architecture and natural setting.


It is a must-visit during any stay in the Huangshan mountains. Hongcun is easily accessible by road with a rental car. Ideally, being accompanied by a guide is an advantage that facilitates entry (ticket purchase) to the village and for the visit on site.


China: The Village of Hongcun, Guardian of Huizhou Culture

© O. Robert


Features of Anhui Architecture

The houses in Anhui Province embody a fusion of functionality, art, and tradition. They honorably represent both historical and contemporary rural Chinese life, emphasizing the importance of harmony between humans and nature.


These typical houses of the region, especially those found in historical villages like Hongcun and Xidi, have distinctive features that set them apart from other Chinese architectural styles. These characteristics reflect adaptation to the local environment, cultural traditions, and the functional requirements of their inhabitants. Here are some of the most notable features of Anhui houses:


1. Steeply Pitched Roofs

The houses are famous for their steeply pitched roofs, covered with glossy black tiles. This design better manages the heavy rainfall common in the region, facilitating rapid rainwater runoff and reducing accumulation on the roof.


2. Wooden Structures

The framework of the houses is primarily made of wood, with sophisticated construction techniques that allow the structures to withstand natural elements and the passage of time. The wooden beams, columns, and crossbeams are often richly decorated with carvings and engravings depicting traditional motifs, mythological scenes, or wishes for prosperity and happiness.


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3. Whitewashed Walls

The facades of the houses are generally whitewashed, giving the villages of Anhui their bright and clean appearance. The white of the walls contrasts with the black tiles of the roofs and the dark wood frames of doors and windows, creating a distinctive visual effect.


4. Patios and Inner Courtyards

Houses are often organized around one or more patios or inner courtyards, allowing natural light to enter and facilitating ventilation. These spaces serve as gathering places for the family, strengthening community and familial bonds.


5. Feng Shui Principles

The layout of houses and villages follows the principles of Feng Shui, seeking to harmonize the inhabitants with their environment by optimizing the orientation of buildings, the arrangement of interior spaces, and the relationship between water, mountains, and built structures.


6. Decoration and Artistic Motifs

In addition to wood carvings, houses may feature mural paintings, decorative ceramic tiles, and stucco. These decorative elements add a cultural and aesthetic layer, reflecting the beliefs, local stories, and aspirations of the inhabitants.


7. Adaptation to the Environment

Houses are designed to adapt to their mountainous and wooded environment. They use local materials and incorporate features such as water drainage systems adapted to the landscape's slope and abundant rainfall.


China: The Village of Hongcun, Guardian of Huizhou Culture

© O. Robert


Other Similar Villages

To ensure a comprehensive overview, it's beneficial to also mention other villages in the beautiful province of Anhui and around that share architectural and cultural significance. Each of these villages provides a glimpse into China's past, preserving traditional ways of life, historic architecture, and remarkable natural landscapes.


Here are some notable examples:


1. Xidi (西递)

Like Hongcun, Xidi is located in the southern region of Anhui and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Founded over 900 years ago, this village is renowned for its paved streets, well-preserved ancient residences with black-tiled roofs and whitewashed walls, and impressive wood, brick, and stone decorations.


2. Wuyuan (婺源)

Located in Jiangxi Province, Wuyuan is often described as the most picturesque village in China, famous for its blooming rapeseed fields in spring, ancient mansions, and covered bridges. Though more extensive and diverse than Hongcun, Wuyuan shares the traditional Huizhou architecture characteristic of the region.


3. Nanping (南屏)

Another village in the Anhui region, Nanping, is known for its eight ancient clans and over 300 historical buildings dating back to the Ming and Qing dynasties. Nanping offers a unique insight into traditional architecture and urban configurations typical of this period.


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4. Chengkan (呈坎)

This village is also located in Anhui Province and is famous for its complex urban planning, also based on Feng Shui principles. Chengkan harmoniously combines natural elements with residential structures and irrigation systems, reflecting once again the pursuit of balance between man and nature.


5. Pingshan (屏山)

Although less known, Pingshan also incorporates traditional Anhui architecture with well-preserved houses dating from the Qing dynasty. Situated in a beautiful natural setting, Pingshan is less frequented by tourists, offering a more tranquil experience for photography.


6. Lijiang (丽江)

Although the architecture in Lijiang, Yunnan Province, differs from that of Anhui, this town is notable for its exceptional old town, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Lijiang is also famous for its sophisticated irrigation systems, cobblestone streets, and traditional Naxi buildings, reflecting a unique cultural blend.


7. Fenghuang (凤凰)

Located in Hunan Province, Fenghuang is famous for its stilt houses along the Tuojiang River and its well-preserved Qing dynasty architecture. This town offers a fascinating glimpse into the culture and history of the Miao and Tujia ethnic minorities.


China: The Village of Hongcun, Guardian of Huizhou Culture

© O. Robert


The Final Word

Exploring the village of Hongcun and the province of Anhui through photography transcends the mere capture of images. It represents a profound quest for the intrinsic beauty and harmony that resides in the interaction of man with his environment.


In this creative act, the photographer does not merely immortalize scenes of tranquility and architectural beauty. They engage in a silent dialogue with the past, where each snapshot becomes a bridge between ages, a reflection on permanence within the transient.


Hongcun, with its reflective waters, ancient dwellings, and mist-enshrouded landscape, offers a window into the soul of Anhui, where minimalism and quietness blend to evoke a form of nostalgia for what is ephemeral and yet eternal.


Black and white photography, in particular, with its ability to distill the essence of contrasts and textures, reveals the subtle nuances of this interaction between light and shadow, materiality and spirituality, offering a visual meditation on the concept of passing time and enduring beauty.


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