Roaming a scenic village without rubbing elbows

Jul 12, 2017

ASIDE from fruit-pickers during harvest season, Luxiang Village on the outskirts of Suzhou tends to get overlooked. That’s a pity because it is said to be among the best-preserved small towns in China.

I went to the village on the shores of Taihu Lake in two hours from downtown. It was a Monday, under dark skies that threatened to erupt in rain at any moment. The village was almost empty. Walking along a small and not overly clean river, I reached the main area.

Luxiang is nothing like the commercialized ancient towns commonly on tourist routes. Instead of rows and rows of shops selling pretty much the same merchandise, I found small restaurants featuring countryside home cooking and some rather basic accommodation. But because there were hardly any visitors, most of the venues were closed.

Yu Xueying, a handicraft woman selling her olive-pit carving works, told me that the village is pretty busy on weekends, when the parking lot is full and every restaurant enjoys brisk business.

“They come all the way from Shanghai, just like you, to pick waxberries,” said Yu. “The village has been developing tourism for more than a decade, and actually, this is the peak season.”

I decided a low-key environment was better than a village crowded with fruit-pickers, so I strolled deeper into the village. The further I went, the more I realized what a hideaway treasure I was exploring.

The village has three large wooden memorial archways. The inscriptions suggested that they were built up during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Villagers said that the emperor bestowed the archways to the village because Wang Ao (1450-1524), an intellectual born and raised here, did so well in three successive exams.

He won the title “xie yuan,” or first place in the local exam; “hui yuan,” or first place in the provincial exam; and “tan hua,” the third place in the highest level of imperial examinations.

Wang later became a chancellor in the imperial court and was virtually the “king” of the village. Indeed, the current scenic attractions in the town were all once residences of Wang and his family, and even today, local residents love to tell stories and gossip about them.

The first site I visited was Huaide Hall, the residence of one of Wang’s descendants. According to information at the site, the current construction was a restoration done in 1822. It seems that the residence was never empty, even after Wang’s descendants left the village.

The entrance to the hall is now a snack bar, one of the few eateries I found open in the village that day. Inside the hall is the Luxiang Folk Museum, but its exhibits were poorly organized, with some just piled on the floor.

The portraits of ancient residents, mostly officials, hang on the wall next to a portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong and his quotes. I felt as if time and space had merged under one roof here.

Walking further down the narrow street, I reach Huaigu Hall, Huihe Hall and Suigao Hall. In ancient times, when ancestor worship was prevalent in China, every big family had a private temple to hold the memorial tablets of its ancestors. Huaigu Hall was for Wang’s family. Huihe Hall was a former residence of Wang himself, and Suigao Hall belonged to his younger brother, Wang Quan.

All the three venues were comprised of several houses and small gardens. They were a mix of original sites, preserved since the Ming Dynasty, and sites restored in later eras.

It was enchanting to visit such empty, quiet old residences. Despite the gloomy weather, the staff hadn’t bothered to turn on any indoor lighting. I was practically the only visitor. The resulting atmosphere was slightly eerie.

The only noise I heard was the tiny buzz of insects. The narrow staircases and dark rooms had a musty odor. I couldn’t tell if that was because of the weather or just the age of the buildings.

From written introductions at each residence, I managed to piece together a sketch of the Wang family.

Wang Ao was an ambitious but righteous official. As chancellor, he tried unsuccessfully to save the government of the day from Liu Jin, a power-crazy eunuch.

Wang, disappointed, retired from his post and returned to Huihe Hall, where he lived for 16 years before his death. The central government tried to entreat him several times to return to duty, but he steadfastly refused.

Wang was also a writer and poet. He was the teacher of artist Tang Yin (1470-1524), also known as Tang Bohu, whose name is widely known in China. It is believed that when Tang visited Huihe Hall for the first time at the age of 18, he developed a crush on Wang’s 16-year-old daughter, Wang Sulan.

The two dated in the back garden, but at that time, all marriages were arranged by parents and matchmakers. Tang didn’t dare propose marriage.

Tang faced many crises in his life, including a stint in jail. When he reemerged, he found Wang Sulan had married someone else.

Wang Ao’s brother, Wang Quan, had no interest in politics. Although he, too, did well in imperial examinations, he preferred to live the life of a hermit in Suigao Hall.

With these old stories swirling in my mind, I walked to Hangu Temple, which is believed to have been built in the Ming Dynasty. Located on the top of a hillock, the temple is about 10 minutes from the village. Upon stepping through the gate, I couldn’t stifle a small snort. It was the most unlikely temple I had ever seen.

The main hall, which contains the only construction in the temple, was built in the style of a more modern, two-story mansion — looking more like an office building or a residential apartment.

A dog lay lazily on a cushion provided for people who wanted to kneel in worship of the Buddha. Apparently, the original temple of the Ming Dynasty no longer existed.

The man selling joss sticks told me the temple had been rebuilt in 1998. I assumed that the building had been there already and local people just adapted it into a temple.

I didn’t linger inside long. From the top of the hill, I admired a panoramic view of the village. The white walls and dark gray tiles glistened after a light drizzle, looking like they had been there unchanged for hundreds of years.

If the village can resist modern-day commercialism, its allure will continue to charm visitors for a long time to come. I decided that’s how it should be.

If you go

• It takes only about 30 minutes from Shanghai to Suzhou by high-speed train. But Luxiang Town is quite far from downtown Suzhou, and there is no direct bus or Metro line to get you there. Driving from downtown takes an hour to 90 minutes. If you go by bus, you will need to transfer two or three times, and the trip will take nearly three hours.

• You may buy one ticket for entry to all tourism attractions in the town at the gate. It costs 65 yuan (US$9.50). If you plan to see only a few sites, you can buy tickets separately at each attraction.

• The town’s commercial amenities are pretty basic, so it’s a good idea to carry food and drink with you on a weekday visit.

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