The traditional non-urban settlements of China, which have to a very large extent disappeared during the twentieth century, are exceptionally well preserved in the villages of Xidi and Hongcun. The two villages are graphic illustrations of a type of human settlement created during a feudal period and based on a prosperous trading economy. In their buildings and their street patterns, they reflect the socio-economic structure of a long-lived settled period of Chinese history.
Ancient Villages in Southern Anhui – Xidi and HongcunXidi was originally called Xichuan (West River), because of the streams that pass through it. It owes its growth to the Hu family from Wuyuan (Xinan), who adopted a son of the Tang Emperor Zhaozong (888-904) after the Emperor was forced from his throne in 904, naming him Hu Changyi. One of his descendants moved his family from Wuyuan to Xidi in 1047. The construction of a number of important private and public buildings began at around that time. From the mid-17th century until around 1850, the Hu family was influential in both commerce and politics. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, members of the family became imperial officials, while many also became graduates of the Imperial College.
Xidi is located in an area surrounded by mountains. Streams enter from the north and east respectively, converging at the Huiyuan Bridge in the south of the village. The streets are all paved with granite from Yi County. Narrow alleys join the streets and there are small open spaces in front of the main public buildings, such as the Hall of Respect, the Hall of Reminiscence and the Memorial Archway of the Governor. The buildings, which are widely spaced, are timber-framed with brick walls and elegantly carved decoration. Most of them are built alongside the three streams, the Front Stream, the Back Stream and the Golden Stream, which give a special character to the village.
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The more grandiose residential buildings, dignified with the title of 'hall', have complex ground plans, but they are all variants of the basic pattern and conform to the characteristic use of materials and decoration. The outer walls have very small windows, for reasons of security, carved out of granite and decorated with floral and geometric motifs. Many have small private gardens, usually in the front courtyard, where ingenious use is made of limited space.
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Hongcun was founded in 1131 by Wang Wen, a Han dynasty general, and his kinsman Wang Yanji, who brought their families from Qisu village to the upper part of the stream near Leigang Mountain and built 13 houses there. The village knew two periods of great prosperity, 1401-1620 and 1796-1908. The Wang family became officials and merchants and accumulated enormous wealth, which they used to endow their home village with many fine buildings. Around 1405, on the advice of geomancers, a channel was dug to bring fresh water to the village from the West Stream.
Some 200 years later, the water supply system of the village was completed with the creation of the South Lake. The 19th and early 20th centuries saw the construction of a number of imposing public buildings, such as the South Lake Academy (1814), the Hall of Meritorious Deeds (1888), the Hall of Virtuousness (1890) and the Hall of Aspiration (1855, rebuilt 1911). Somewhat later than Xidi, Hongcun fell into decline with the birth of the Republic, but it still retains many of its fine buildings and its exceptional water system.
Hongcun lies at the foot of Leigang Mountain. The village faces south, with its central part lying at a point central to the flanking mountains and rivers. The open watercourse runs through all the houses in the entire village and forms two ponds, one in the centre (Moon Pond) and the other to the south of the village (South Lake). The chequerboard pattern of streets and lanes follow the watercourse, giving the village a unique overall appearance.