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Hamlet of the ox

Life-giving water flows through the Unesco World Heritage site of Hongcun which looks like a black-and-white Chinese ink-wash painting.

NEARLY a decade ago, a Chinese wuxia (martial arts) movie directed by Taiwan's Ang Lee took the world by storm. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wohu Canglong) so captured the imagination of audiences and movie-makers in the West that Hollywood awarded it the Oscar for Best Foreign Film at the 2000 Academy Awards.

One of the most memorable moments of the movie was the fleeting night sequence where actress Zhang Ziyi, playing a Qing dynasty official's daughter, nimbly skips over the surface of a pond bordered by enigmatic houses with discoloured whitewash walls and dark roofs.

The setting looked so much like a Chinese ink-wash painting that one could easily be forgiven for thinking it was shot on a movie set. But no, Hongcun, where some of the movie's scenes were filmed, is exactly like that and even more picturesque when a soft shower ripples the tranquil lotus pond at the south gate.

From Huangshan the drive to Hongcun takes just 50 minutes through lovely green hills with groves of fern-like bamboo, carefully tended fields and patches of chrysanthemum with small, pale yellow flowers.
Hongcun is supposedly shaped like a water buffalo or an ox at rest and while much of what our guide said about a pair of trees representing the horns passed me by, it is evident the moment you set foot into the hamlet that the fengshui must be good. After all, it is backed bymisty hills to the north and looks out over a body of Intricately carved wo water to the south, erstwhile salt mercha At the heart of the settlement is a small reservoir known as Moon Pond, surrounded by white-walled houses with dark grey roofs typical of the vernacular "Huizhou" architecture of the region. And this, according to our guide, is where that famous scene of Zhang Ziyi's character fleeing over water was filmed.

It is said that the Moon Pond's shape represents the belly of the ox, while the channels carrying water along the sides of the houses are the ox's intestines. All this water flowing through the community naturally brings prosperity and good fortune which perhaps explains why, even now, 900 years after its founding, Hongcun remains a thriving community.

To top it off, the same year (2000) that Ang Lee's movie won the much-coveted Oscar, Hongcun was added to Unesco's list of World Cultural Heritage sites.

Some 140 old residences and clan halls dating back to the Ming and Qing periods form the backbone of the hamlet's heritage status. Chief among these are the houses of salt merchants whose wealth paid for elaborate carvings on the sturdy wood beams and columns of the interiors.

Judging by its sprawling parking lot, I should have guessed what to expect at Hongcun. All too soon, the tranquillity of the village was broken by hordes of tourists and guides with microphones turned to the maximum, There were so many people that it was impossible to cram into the merchants' homes or hear above the din.

When it began to pour shortly after our lunch at a quiet farmhouse surrounded by vegetable plots, we decided to cut short our visit. Battling through an army of umbrellas in the narrow lanes, we made our way across the lotus pond's slippery stone bridge and fled the over-popular heritage site.

A short distance away is Shexian, soul of the Huizhou region and best known for its memorial stone archways erected to honour individuals for virtues such as loyalty, filial piety, charity and, even chastity.
I remember Tangyue village's seven arches which I visited 10 years ago.

Raised between the 15th and 19th centuries to honour members of the Bao family, two of them were dedicated to virtuous widows.

According to our guide, Huizhou widows of old were expected to fast for nine days in mourning for their husbands, a practice which often led to their death. But those who survived and remained chaste for 30 years qualified for a memorial arch.

It seems Shexian used to have over a thousand memorial archways but most were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, leaving only about 80 today.

Arguably the most elaborate of these is the one constructed in 1584 for Xu Guo; tutor to princes and prime minister under three Ming emperors, he also served in the Board of Rites.

With two pillars on each of its four sides, Xu Guo's looming extravagant archway is covered with calligraphic inscriptions as well as a multitude of carved animals normally associated with the imperial court, namely dragons, phoenixes, cranes and deer.

As if that wasn't enough, 12 stone lions guard its pillars. The structure may lack grace and beauty but there can be no mistaking its message - Xu (;uo was the most exalted official of the Ming Empire.
Our visit to Anhui's Huizhou region was marred somewhat by the rain and as we headed east across a wonderfully scenic coun tryside of misty foothills and vegetable gardens dotted with neat grey and white houses, we hoped desperately for better weather.

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