Published in Kerry Properties’ The Dress Circle June 2007
While walking through a maze of winding lanes toward the courtyard house in Cuandixia that was to be their home for the night, the Melcher children and their friends came across an old lady who had stopped for a rest next to a millstone. After a quick explanation about the workings of that “roller thing”, the kids gave it many an enthusiastic spin.
Cuandixia holds numerous little surprises for the modern day visitor, like this antiquated millstone for grinding corn. Located just 90 km west of downtown Beijing in the Mentougou District and nestled in a remote, steep valley between craggy mountains, the 500-year old Ming village is considered an important national heritage.
When it was discovered by architects and academics in the early 1990s, this ancient settlement that seems to have frozen in time was declared a “living museum”. It heads the list of culturally and historically famous villages that are protected from demolition and re-modelling by China’s Ministry of Construction and the State Bureau of Cultural Relics under the Ministry of Culture.
About 70 courtyard houses or siheyuans still stand in Cuandixia having survived the Japanese Occupation from 1937 to 1945 and the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, both of which seriously damaged part of the village.
Like the majority of dwellings in China, the Cuandixia village faces South and is sited in the North end of the valley, following the practical consideration that cold biting winds often blow in from the North.
The courtyard homes there are not perfect squares but bear shapes that adapt to the gradient of the terrain. Many of these siheyuans have their entrance in the Southeastern corner of the square so that passers-by are unable to gain a direct view of the courtyard inside. Some have a wall built in front of their main entrance for the same effect.
The wall serves the dual purpose of keeping out ghosts who, according to traditional Chinese folklore, can only travel in straight lines so will, therefore, be unable to negotiate the 90 degree turn that the wall would have required.
One account has it that the dwellings in Cuandixia were built by scholar-officials who fled to this remote village toward the end of the Ming dynasty. This is borne out, perhaps, by the trivia that the village has produced a remarkably high number of people who passed China’s imperial examinations.
Cuandixia lies on the Jingxi Post Road, an early trade route that linked Beijing with Shaanxi Province, Hebei Province and Inner Mongolia. In its heyday, the settlement was a postal station as well as a bustling stopover point for travelling merchants to recharge, before continuing on their arduous trek through the mountains.
During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the village supplied provisions to the capital and carts with the letter ‘Chuan’ were a frequent sight on the road to Beijing. However, with the development of new highways and railways in the 1950s, the old route lost its importance and Cuandixia’s fortunes declined.
The out-migration that followed, however, would turn out to be a blessing in disguise as the village and its ancient courtyard dwellings escaped the fate of alternation and destruction because people either moved away or were to poor to refurbish.
As a result, Cuandixia is one of China’s few surviving examples of a traditional Ming village. The vernacular architecture of the region is preserved in the homes’ original peaked roofs, patterned wooden windowpanes, eaves and unique rooms around central courtyards leading out to stone streets.
The picturesque and tranquil mountain setting with its terraced steps and meandering streams that surround Cuandixia are a great magnet not just for artists, poets and film crews seeking inspiration but also for tourists eager to experience life as it was during the days of the Ming Dynasty.
Village administration logs reveal that only 17 families and about 30 people remained in the settlement in the early 1990s. Two years ago, the population in Cuandixia had swelled to 35 households with nearly 200 people. Many had been lured back by the promise that the tourism business held.
Through a community tourism initiative, the villagers have managed to turn their fortunes around. All homes in Cuandixia now have running water and electricity, and many rooms have been furnished to receive overnight visitors.
Guests like the Melcher children take delight in the simple differences that they discover in Cuandixia. For them, the massive olden-style kang bed in their guest-house, a sleeping platform with an interior cavity that channels exhaust from a stove for warmth, doubled up as the perfect venue for a noisy pillow fight before bedtime.