Over the last year or I’ve had a lot of time to stare at google maps, and a lot of time to think about walking. The two results of this are that (1) I’ve learned a lot about fortresses in China from looking at them via satellite, and (2) I’ve decided that I want to make the Trans-Asia Trek, to a large extent, about these fortresses, their history, the people and things inside them, and the process of getting from one to another on foot. To that end I want to try to give a bit of a visual introduction to Chinese Fortress-ology here, so that you can follow what I’m talking about, and also because I personally think it’s fascinating. A lot of these structural features that I’m about to enumerate (being square, cardinally oriented, opening to the south, the different types of temples) are true of walled Chinese cities generally, and I’ll talk about that in further posts, but here I’m going to talk particularly about the walled villages of Yu Xian. So without further ado:
THE FORTIFIED VILLAGES
OF YU XIAN:
To give you a general idea of the fortresses of Yu Xian, I’m going to invent a sort of ideal village here. Of course, every fortress has its own particulars, and some of the older fortresses are quite different from the one I’m about to describe here, but you could take the following as the general type of a mid-Ming Dynasty fortified village in Yu Xian. So, to begin with, our fortress is square. It’s oriented slightly west of true north. It has a gate in the south and a temple on a raised platform in the north. The streets are laid out in the shape of the Chinese character wang 王, which is to say, a grid with a central main street connecting the gate to the temple. There is also a small opera stage sitting opposite to the southern gate. Because this is the 21st century, a lot of the houses within this fortress are now abandoned, and a new, more modern village has sprung up outside the walls, spreading southward from the gate. The whole thing looks something like this:
(The actual name of the pictured village here is the West of the Water Middle Fortress, 水西中堡, a ways north-west of the Yu Xian county capitol)
So let’s go through the elements here:
1) The Main Gate:
Unlike the walls of the fortress, which are usually just mud, the gatehouses of the forts in Yu Xian are usually made of fired bricks. These gatehouses are public places for the villages to display their strength and wealth, so they are generally tale and richly adorned with brick and stone carving.
The Gate of the Bai Family Middle Fort (白中堡)
Locals outside the gate of Controlling the Army Fortress 统军皂
There will also be good-wishes printed on red paper, billboards with village work-details written on them, slogans about family planning, advertisements for mobile phone coverage, little colored flags hung up apparently by the government to prettify villages, and sometimes large and well-decorated shrine houses over the gates. In the darkness inside the gates, and hard to photograph, are the doors. These are kept permanently open now, but they are giant, studded pieces of wood reinforced with long strips of metal. If the village is built on a strict grid plan (which our ideal village is), then you can see through the arched gateway right down the main street to the temple at the far end of the fort.
The South Gate of the Greater Watering-Horses Springs Fort (大饮马泉堡)
There’s also usually an inscription over the door. This should say the name of the fort. This is usually but not always the same thing as the name of the village; one village might have multiple forts, or a fort might have been given a poetic name that’s different from the name of the village it encloses. Important to my research, there’s also often a smaller inscription to the side of the main one that gives more information. A lot of these gatehouses were built or rebuilt after the original founding of the village, in some cases quite recently. You’ll find very interesting plaques inscribed inside sometimes, which list the names and contributions of the villagers who paid to have the thing built, or listing the local families who provided labor.
This one, for instance, identifies the village as the Calm and Peaceful Fortress of Heavenly Omen Village. On either side are listed the names of those who contributed money to erect the gatehouse and wall. On the far right the date is given: The first day of the third month of the nineteenth year of the reign of the Jiajing Emperor, or in the western calendar, AD 1540. A lot of my research this March consisted of going around to fortresses and taking pictures of these signs and seeing what they said. This date also works very well with our ideal fortress, since by far the largest number of forts in Yu Xian were built between the Chenghua and the Jiajing reigns (1464-1567) of the Ming dynasty.
Up on top of the gates are hung loudspeakers, from which occasionally blare propaganda messages or advertising. China is one of those countries where everybody just learns to ignore loud, incessant noises; the locals seem to be used to it.
Speakers hung over the gate of the Bai Family Middle Fort (白中堡)
The open space outside the town gate also serves as a bit of a communal meeting place. A large percentage of the adult population of these forts has now gone off to the city to work, and the people who remain there tend to be either very young or very elderly. In the winter when there isn’t much work to be done, they sit outside the main gate and shoot the breeze as old Chinese people do, while workers pack crops onto wagons, itinerant tofu and balloon sellers pull up on bicycles or carts, and children play jump-rope under the fortress walls.
Burning old hay outside the gates of the Bai Family Middle Fort (白中堡)
Ladies outside of West-of-the-Water Second Village (水西二村)
It’s a very lively and communal place, where everybody knows each other.
Playing chess beneath the walls of Hengjian Fortress (横涧堡)
Random foreigners who turn up with cameras and books are objects of curiosity and kindly bemusement. Everyone goggles at you and shoots you questions in the thick Yu Xian dialect, which is close enough to Mandarin that you think you understand what people around you are saying but not so close that you actually do.
Locals inspecting my picture books about fortresses outside of Hengjian Fort (横涧堡)
2) The Main Street
So now leaving the crowd of old folks and children who’s assembled to pepper you with questions outside the main gate, you walk in through the archway and find yourself on the main street of the town. The main street is known in Yu Xian at least as the zheng lu 正路, the straight, correct, or properly oriented road. It runs straight from the main gate up to the temple in the north.
Children on the main road of the Western Fort of West-of-the-Water Village (水西村西堡)
Looking down over the main road of Controlling-the-Army Fort (统军皂), from the northern temple-tower.
Old folks on the main road of the East-of-the-River Bai Family Fort (白河东堡)
In principal all of the houses have their own gates facing south, opening onto the streets that run cross-ways to the main road (thus echoing the plan of the fortress overall), but in practice this is not always so. You can generally see right up the street to the temple looming at the end of it. Some of the wealthier villages have been at work fixing up their temples and paving their streets, but most of the streets are still muddy and the buildings delapidated.
Scenes on the streets of Hengjian Fort (横涧堡)
The temple and main-road of Little Watering-the-Horses Springs Fort (小饮马泉堡), which is now something of a ghost-town.
3) The Temple-Tower
And so walking north up the main street of our ideal town here you eventually reach the northern wall, and the temple that sits upon it. The idea of having a holy mound or mountain at the northern gate of a city is a very old one in the Chinese tradition; witness for instance Beijing’s Jing Shan, an artificial mountain which sits directly north of the Forbidden City. In the case of Yu Xian, you can see a definite conceptual progression from simply building large bastions in the northern part of the wall to increasingly elaborate and multi-leveled temples, which are accessed by a series of courtyards and staircases rising up to the top of the wall. (In one odd case, the temple had been torn down and replaced with a gigantic concrete slogan board which hung over the whole village like some kind of hideous idol. Unfortunately for the curious foreigner but I suppose fortunately for everybody else in China, the Cultural Revolution was now over and whatever it said was erased and I couldn’t find anyone to ask.) These temple-towers also presumably served as watchtowers for the north, as the main impetus for building these temples at all in Yu Xian had to do with Mongol raids coming across the mountains in the north.
A ‘Truly Martial Temple’ (真武庙) in Little Watering-the-Horses Spring Fort (小饮马泉堡)
The temple (I’m honestly not sure what type) built in the northern barbican of the Wang and Liang Families Village (王良家庄), with a seven year old girl for scale.
You can generally go into these temples. First if the temple is locked, which sometimes it is, you have to ask around until you find whichever villager has the key. These people are usually happy to let you in if you want to have a look. Other times the door is just open and you can go in, or the whole village is abandoned and you can do whatever you please. Once the door is open there’s various ways you might get up to the temple platform. Sometimes there’s narrow south-facing staircases that lead up, and let’s suppose this is the case in our ideal village, because it’s the most common. Some of these staircases in other villages can be extremely treacherous now, and some are totally impossible to climb and the temple is now cut off.
The Truly Martial Temple (真武庙) of West Chen Family Valley Fortress (西陈家涧堡)
In other cases you have to climb in through remarkably wee little tunnels to get into a barbican space behind the temple, and then climb up via the stairs there. Or you have to go up by the side or any number of other ingenious methods.
Staircase up to the top of the temple-tower of the Western Fort of West-of-the-Water Village (水西村西堡)
Once you get up to the top you have a good view over the village and the surrounds. On some of the temple-towers there are little turrets for bells and gongs to be mounted on either side of the main shrine room, to be rung during ceremonies or presumably during emergencies as well, where they could be heard throughout the village and the surrounding fields. In our village, you can see back down over the straight line of the main road and to the village gate in the south, and then beyond it across fields and farms to the snow-covered mountains.
The mountains in the south of Yu Xian seen from the temple-tower of North-of-the-Water Second Village (水北二村)
There’s a bunch of different types of temples. Our temple is a “Truly Martial Temple”, which is most common. The “Truly Martial Temples” (真武庙) glorify the “Truly Martial Great Emperor” (真武大帝). The Truly Martial Great Emperor, also know as the “Great Emperor of the Dark Heaven” (玄天大帝) is an obscure but ancient cult figure who is sort of an avatar or relation of a spirit animal called the “Dark and Martial”, (玄武), which is represented by a tortoise battling a snake. (I’m getting all this information from Baidu Baike, fyi.) The Dark and Martial is the lord of the north in the Daoist astrological system, which divides the sky into twenty eight seats (宿), which are arranged into four groups in the cardinal directions, of seven seats each. Each of these groups has a guardian animal (象), in the east the Green Dragon (苍龙), in the south the White Tiger (白虎), in the west the Vermillion Sparrow (朱雀), and in the north the “Dark and Martial” or the “Truly Martial Great Emperor”, who resides primarily in the Big Dipper. His dominion includes the judging of souls (司命), water, knives, butchers, and the north generally. This makes sense in a temple built on the north wall of village walls built primarily to defend against invasions from the north. The Truly Martial Great Emperor is also associated with the Yongle Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, who was enfeoffed with Beijing and its surrounds in the north of China, but rebelled and seized the throne from his nephew the Jianwen Emperor in Nanjing in the south.
Besides Temples of the Truly Martial there are a number of different types of temples to be found in the villages of Yu Xian. These include “Temples of Emperor Guan” (关帝庙), which worship the famous general Guanyu and his martial exploits. There are also “Temples of the Three Teachings” (三教庙), which have three icons side-by-side, representing Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. There are also some purely Buddhist temples, including small “Avalokiteshvara Shrines” (观音庙) that often sit below the main temple on the top of the wall. Then there are the remains of lots of smaller shrines built about the place, including some wee little ones for the “Gods of the Soil” (地神庙), in some of which you can still find little bowls of incense laid out as offerings.
A small Avalokiteshvara Shrine (观音庙) on the main street of the Gao and Li Families’ Temple Village (高利寺村)
Most of these temples were pretty comprehensively destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (as were most things in China). A few of them are relatively intact outwardly, although the insides have been vandalized. Some of them have also been renovated by the villagers, either for active use in worship or presumably just because they were falling in and had become an eyesore. Some of them are completely boarded or bricked up, and you have to peer through chinks in the boards to see red slogans about Chairman Mao scrawled over faded frescoes in the dust and gloom. Some of the temples are still abandoned.
The temple in the Greater Alcohol-Business Head Village (大酒务头堡); I never did work out why they call it that.
One of the most notable things about Yu Xian at all is the extraordinary amount, and extraordinary quality, of the frescoes inside of some of these temples. Of course, the vast majority have been destroyed either by vandals or by the weather, but the few bits and pieces that remain here and there on the walls of these village temples are breathtaking. A lot of them seem to be telling stories, almost like comic strips, with panels and captions.
There’s actually tons of little temples and monasteries sitting outside of the walls of these villages as well. Many of them are locked up, but a few of them have monks or priests in residence. Many of the villages in this area now profess Christianity, and one can see many fine churches in western and in Chinese style rising above the village roofs in some places. I was worried about being taken for a missionary and so never went into any, but the locals report that Christianity is growing quickly in Yu Xian.
Buddhist Temple outside the northern gate of the Western Fortress of West-of-the-Water Village (水西村西堡)
Another type of temple to be found in the fortresses of Yu Xian is an ancestral hall, of which I ran across only one, in one of the Bai Family forts. Two of the three walls were destroyed, but on the third was part of a what had once been a massive chart of the Bai family’s genealogical history. Inside were several fallen stele with more of the same. It seemed like a sad and beautiful place, set in a closed courtyard in the abandoned back part of a fortress, shaded by trees, and mostly destroyed.
In one village, I passed a house where a Buddhist ceremony was taking place, and men and women in gray robes were chanting in a courtyard. I wanted to stop in and inquire what was going on, but unfortunately I was waylaid by a gaggle of noisy children and realized I couldn’t lead them all in there without making a nuisance of myself. I ended up roping them into giving me a tour of the local temple, which was ruinous, but had extraordinary frescoes.
The temple-tower of Xin Family Village Fort (新家庄堡)
4) Village Houses
There’s quite a lot of old architecture in the fortresses of Yu Xian, and while some of it is abandoned, other houses are inhabited and well kept-up. I am by no means an expert on Chinese architecture, and I only had the chance to visit the insides of a few of these houses while I was in Yu Xian, so I will stick with generalities about the traditional houses of northern China here. The northern Chinese are just as attached to their yards as suburban Americans, the difference being that in China the yards are courtyards inside the house, while in America they are grassy swards surrounding it. Thus your basic house in the forts of Yu Xian will have a wall around it, and an imposing gate hung with auspicious banners:
If you are invited inside, or if you just stick your head in, you will find a large, square courtyard inside, in which a car may be parked, or piles of corn, sometimes little gardens, caged birds, dogs on chains, children’s toys scattered about.
Courtyard in the upper part of the Northern Officials Fort (北官堡) of Nuanquan Township (暖泉镇)
Corn stacked up in the courtyard of a house in the Little Middle Fort (小中堡) of Nuanquan Township (暖泉镇)
The buildings themselves are built of brick and wood, and usually comprise three low, one-story buildings surrounding the courtyard. The main room is the one on the northern side, which receives the most sunlight. In the older and wealthier houses, there will be beautifully decorated windows made with glass and patterned wood slats.
House in the Bai Family Middle Fort (白中堡)
Sanitation clinic on the main street of Hengjian Fortress (横涧堡)
As for what it’s like inside of these houses, I don’t have all that many pictures. Inside are dark, warm rooms with big windows through which winter light comes shining. The newer houses are very white-tiled and modern inside, while the older ones are filled with cracked plaster and wooden beams. They are always brightly decorated inside, with lots of somewhat tacky posters and photographs of family members. This is not all that illustrative, but here’s He Fugui (何馥桂), a local antique dealer and historian of the He (何) and Fan (樊) families, in his living room, where he treated me to a very pleasant cup of tea and a very interesting account of the history of those two families.
There’s quite a lot of little, interesting details that one picks up out on the street. The roofing tiles on the older houses have decorated caps, with the faces of monsters on them.
There are also the occasional stone or fired-brick sculptures, often adorning the tiles of temples or the pillars on either side of doors.
The locals use spare roofing tiles to build pretty little ornamental walls that top the usual mud-brick ones.
Out on the street there’s quite a contrast between different places. The oldest fortresses are huge, low, mud-walled and quiet. You can wander through winding, narrow streets that don’t follow any plan, occasionally coming out into the courtyard of some ruined temple or silent threshing floors between the houses. These places seem like another world, silent, ancient, crumbling slowly into dust.
Two threshing floors in the Greater Stubborn Fort (大固城)
And yet the streets of the new villages outside the gates are loud, colorful, and full of life. Flocks of children run after passing foreigners, women stand in doorways listening to music from boomboxes, trucks and motorbikes chuff back and forth, shops sell candies, drinks, sundries. New, brightly-painted temples sit brightly among the brick and stone houses and the tangled telephone wires.
Two scenes on the street of the Royal City of Dai Township (代王城镇)
5) Opera Stages
One somewhat unexpected element of the fortresses of Yu Xian is that almost every fortresses cannot be without its own opera stage (戏台), either within it or just outside the gates. These are usually little three-sided buildings on a high stone platform, often decorated with bright scenes inside.
Opera House outside of East Fan Family Village (东樊庄)
Our opera house is probably outside of and opposite to the southern gate of the town, since this is the most common position. As to what was actually performed on these stages, I have to admit that I haven’t the faintest idea. Many of them are decorated with scenes from stories and plays, some of which are quite spectacular.
6) Outside the Walls
The walls of the smaller fort of the Eastern Fan Family Village (东樊庄)
Small shrine near the Royal City of Dai (代王城)
Outside the walls of the forts of Yu Xian is mostly empty farmland. In the winter the snow-covered Little Five-Peak Mountains (小五台山) hang over everything in a great wall that rises up on the southern edge of the valley.
The locals raise sheep, but what they mostly do is farm corn, which they sell, to whom I’m not sure. In early spring, most of the work that needs to get done seems to involve raking up and burning the old corn stalks, as well as packing and shipping off the corn that’s already been harvested.
Loading corn up to be burnt beneath the gates of the Bai Family Middle Fort (白中堡)
This is mostly what you see if you look out into the fields around Yu Xian at this point. People squatting out in the openness, warming their hands over big piles of burning corn. And that about concludes this general tour of the fortified villages of Yu Xian. Hopefully I’ll cover this whole area on foot next year, and then I hope to write more about it, and about other fortresses in other places, and more specifically. Until then!