Around Pingyao: Wang Family Courtyard

While Pingyao is well-known as one of China’s best-preserved ancient towns, there are also gems in the Shanxi countryside around Pingyao such as this: the huge sprawling complex of the Wang family courtyard.

This place gives the term multi-generational living a whole new meaning.  Imagine living, working and studying together with the entire clan, aunties, uncles, cousins – all sharing the same surname. I don’t know about you but I would find this extremely suffocating and it would not be unexpected to see the rise of petty squabbles, politics, family intrigues and the like as Zhang Yimou showed in his film Raise the Red Lantern. 

The Wang family courtyard is one of several residential complexes built in the Shanxi countryside by highly influential and wealthy merchants several hundred years ago. There are several of these large family compounds in Shanxi situated between Pingyao and the nearby big town of Taiyuan.

The Qiao family courtyard is among the more well-known ones having been the setting of the Zhang Yimou-Gong Li film Raise the Red Lantern. Many stop at there en route to either Pingyao or Taiyuan and while much smaller than the Wang family courtyard, it is more popular among tour groups.

The Wang courtyard, being a little out of the way and a bit more inaccessible, sees fewer visitors. But you will not regret making the journey there. This is such a massive complex that calling it a courtyard is like calling the Forbidden City a mere house. In fact so big is the Wang courtyard that some refer to this as the poor man’s Forbidden City.

Just look at the stats: more than 50 courtyards, some 1000 rooms including a school  and a fort on the premises, the huge walls that surround the place make it seem more like a mini-city than just someone’s home. The bridge below links one walled complex to the next.

After arriving at Pingyao early in the morning, we hired a car and driver to take us around to the Wang family courtyard and to the Zhangbi Underground Castle. It was a full day trip which costs RMB580 a day, not including lunch and admission fees.

Once at the Wang family courtyard, you could just wander around on your own or hire a guide. English signage is present but as usual, very brief. We decided to hire a guide. This was an additional RMB50 on top of the entrance fee which was a reasonable RMB35 per person compared to the whopping RMB150 per person we paid for Yungang grottoes in Datong.

Grinning cats on the eaves,  a sign of longevity.

Grinning cats are a sign of longevity.

The guide spoke only Mandarin. But without her, I don’t think we could have appreciated the place as much.

Chinese buildings are built according to fengshui, so there is a great deal of meaning attached to every architectural detail. Even the elaborate bas reliefs, sculptures, carvings on the eaves, the lintels etc are so rich in culture and meaning. It’s worth getting a guide who can point out and explain these details which would otherwise be missed.

We saw a group of foreigners walk through the complex without a guide. They went through it so quickly I wonder if they understood half of what they saw. In contrast we spent easily 2.5 hours here as the guide patiently took us through and explained everything, answering our questions very patiently. If you don’t speak Mandarin, be sure to bring along someone who can translate because it is so worth your time and money to get a guide.

My knowledge of Mandarin is rudimentary at best. But here, I realised that those agonising hours spent at Chinese tuition were actually paying off since I was surprisingly competent enough to not only understand what was being said but to translate for the kids.

The entrance to the complex started at the square shape of the first set of buildings. The wooden model below shows you where we started. The first section is where the patriarch and his sons and their families lived and entertained important guests. This section also included an academy for the Wang sons. In those days tutors resided in the school as well.

From here, we crossed the bridge to another huge rectangular compound. Across the bridge (extreme left of the picture), the other walled section comprised guest houses and the houses of lesser relatives.

Unlike courtyard houses in other parts of China, Shanxi courtyard houses are laid out in a rectangle not a square. This family being more wealthy than others, could have some sections built in two floors. Typically of good fengshui practices, the entire complex is built on a gradual slope facing south and is backed by a hill in the north. The top of the hill is a unique burial ground for members of the Wang clan.

Built during the Qing dynasty during the reigns of several Qing emperors, the Wang family was influential enough to hold some positions at the imperial court. Towards the end, when Cixi fled Beijing to escape the wrath of the foreigners, she spent a night here. By then the Wang fortunes were already in decline but even then the Wang residence presented a far superior choice to anything else in the area. This room and the bed draped in yellow (above) was where she slept.

As I mentioned, the detailing in the entire complex is rich in meaning. It was fascinating, even for me to hear about these and what it meant. In those days, much like why frescoes, stained glass and sculpture were predominant art forms in western churches, to remind the largely uneducated populace about the church’s teaching, so too was it in China where sculptures, lintels, reliefs, eaves and other ornamental architectural details held so much detail – to remind everyone about the values held by the family and by Chinese society. Here are some:

 

(L) detail of a pumpkin at a staircase in the quarters of the married sons, with the many seeds of the pumpkin denoting the wish for many offspring.

(R) monkeys signify that one holds a position of status and wealth.

 

(L) fish and the dragon gate, usually for scholars, denoting academic success, usually found in the academy

(R) wall relief showing a filial daughter-in-law nursing her sickly mother-in-law with breastmilk while the nanny distracts the toddler with a toy.

We commented how well-kept the whole complex is. The guide explained that during the Cultural Revolution, when landowners and the aristocratic were stripped of their wealth and wealth was ‘redistributed’, the Wang family had to leave the ancestral home. The entire complex was turned over to the villagers to live in instead. However the Wangs had been a benevolent landowner, building schools and infrastructure for the village. In gratitude, the villagers took care of the homestead, ensuring it was well looked after. At the end of the Cultural Revolution, the place was handed to the government and the villagers vacated the complex. So what you see today is pretty much exactly what it looked like when the Wangs were still living there.

Behind the complex, set into the hills are houses which are still occupied today. This is typical of Shanxi dwellings where people live in homes built into the hills as caves. Makes sense because the caves are usually cool in summer and are better able to maintain heat in winter. Apart from the occasional 20th century comfort such as water heaters, this scene has not changed much in years.

It was cold but we enjoyed the walk up to the ramparts of the wall which encircled the Wang compound like a fort. From here, we could look over the rooftops of the houses and beyond down to the village outside the walls.

It’s hard to imagine that all this belonged to one just one family. I don’t know how true this is but the guide told us that the descendents of the Wang family today number about 18,000 and are scattered throughout the world.

At the end of the visit, we wanted to give our guide a tip – partly because we understood this to be the accepted practice that came with all group tours. But mostly because she did such a fabulous job spending so much time with us, giving such thorough explanations and being patient in waiting while I translated and in answering all sorts of curious questions. She gave us tremendous insight into the world the Wangs lived in and the richness of Chinese folklore and culture.

However when we offered her the money, she refused it. She made it clear that this was her job, that she was already paid for her services and would not accept anything above that. That really left me very surprised – I had heard very different stories about Chinese guides and how being a tour guide in China has been so lucrative in the tips and kickbacks they receive that some even pay travel firms to be tour guides just so they earn these extras. We paid just RMB50 for our guide’s services. That’s not a lot of money for the work that went into it. So for her to firmly reject an extra tip left me really pleasantly surprised.

door details

door details

There are one billion people in China and meeting them one at a time gives you the opportunity to realise that stereotypes are just that – stereotypes. This guide bucked what I thought I knew of the mainland Chinese. Some do take pride in their work to share Chinese heritage and culture with visitors to their country. Next time you’re in the Pingyao neighbourhood, visit the Wang family courtyard, not just for the chance to walk through a family home that has not changed for the last 300 years but also to perhaps meet people on the ground who might well add a new dimension to your perceptions of your average everyday Chinese person. That’s really the beauty of travel isn’t it?

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