Monday, December 7, 2009

The Merchants of Hongcun


Anhui, a landlocked, mountainous province, is today one of the poorest areas in China. But this was not always the case. Because there was such limited land on which to grow rice and raise livestock, the people of Anhui turned to commerce for their livelihood. Harvesting bamboo, silk and tea locally, they used a complex system of river ways to bring their products to market in Hangzhou, some 200 miles away. They also made a lot of money in trading salt (very much like stock traders buying and selling pork bellies in today’s market) and in running pawnshops.

As they gained wealth they invested it in their homes. Traditionally, merchants were very low in the social hierarchy, below government officials, the literati and even farmers. Therefore, they built the outside of their homes with simple brick and plaster, so as not to upset the established social order by suggesting that they had more wealth or power than government official, even if they truly did. The outside also lacks windows (though there are numerous sky lights) and the walls are built taller than the roofs, to prevent robberies while away on business. However, once inside it is evident that the homes were anything but simple. Rooms are built with the finest teak wood. Every room is decorated with ornate carvings depicting the wishes of the owner—100 boys in the bedroom, the character for “longevity” in the in-laws quarters, famous quotes by great scholars in the study. Lavish courtyards are spread throughout the compound offering areas of leisure for the families.

The city of Hongcun, depicted in these pictures and used as the site of the opening scene of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, is 900 years old. It was moved to this location after a fire destroyed the previous city. Shortly after the move 2 more fires plagued the city. The city people decided to set up a system of canals that run through the city, so that fires can be easily extinguished. The houses are built in close proximity and the fact that they a made out of brick on the outside also helps prevent a fire spreading from one house to another. This small town is a reflection of the great wealth and prosperity that inhabited the valleys of Anhui in previous times.

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