The Innovations of Huizhou Architecture
Owing to the wetitleh accumulated by Huizhou tradesmen from the mid-Southern Song (1127-1279) to Emperor Qianlong's reign (1736-1796) in the Qing dynasty, an influential, regional architectural style was able to develop in Huizhou. Many features of this local style were incorporated in the architectural development of the south, in particular the canal towns of the Yangtze River delta. As you walk around Huizhou villages, you will want to watch out for the following details:
Individual House Features
Most visitors, by the time they visit Huizhou villages, will be familiar with the typical design of a courtyard home, therefore we will here dwell on Huizhou's deviations from this familiar pattern.
On passing through a doorframe, constructed of stone rather than wood, the visitor will enter a small courtyard flanked on three sides. The reason this courtyard is so-sized is to allow for adequate illumination and ventilation, while restricting possible rain and draughts. The sloped roofs above the courtyard are so designed as to collect the maximum amount of rainwater. This is done because geomantically-minded Huizhou merchants were reluctant to let any form of energy escape their control; they were interested in amassing and accumulating property rather than letting it disperse and escape. The collection of rain is symbolic of their accumulation of wetitleh.
Either side of the small courtyard, which sometimes features a garden, are two bedrooms. Straight ahead is the central meeting hall behind which is the dining and kitchen area. Unlike other courtyard homes, often Huizhou homes are two-storied, sometimes three storied. The upper floors, shaded from view, sport verandas, fitted with benches. Since Huizhou women were discouraged from meeting men from outside the family, these benches were placed for them to survey goings-on in the main courtyard beneath.
The house so-far described only has one courtyard. Many of the homes that you will see possess two or three courtyards. The number of courtyards a home had depended on the status its owner; to build a home with more courtyards than your rank permitted was a punishable offense. The most immediate way, therefore, for a Huizhou merchant to increase his prestige was by improving the fixtures within the house. Consequently, Huizhou homes boast some of the best stone, wood, brick and bamboo craftsmanship in China. Complex latticework adorns their windows. Beams, pillars and purling are gilded or painted. Brackets, eaves, arches, balustrades and shrines bear exquisite carvings.
Village Planning Features
A noticeable feature of Huizhou villages are the high, crenellated walls that separate neighboring buildings. Called fire-proof walls, or sometimes fire-wind walls, their purpose as conveyed by their names was importantly to prevent the spread of fire through the town from one building to the next. Their two further uses was to prevent draughts from entering the homes' courtyards, and also to discourage burglary.
Most streets in a Huizhou village line either a brook or a canal. Flagstones, paving the street, are on a gentle incline to drain water into the neighbouring channel. Further, the flagstones are often pitted so that in spite of their drainage function they are not slippery. Alongside the street, there are often steps leading down to the water's edge providing easy access to water for washing, cooking or bathing purposes.
Even if you do not reach Tangyue Arches Complex, you are likely to spot Memorial Arches as you drive around Shexian county, which with 94 arches has preserved over half of those chronicled in its county annals.
These arches memorialize three different categories of honor - scholarly, imperial and ethical. Scholarly honor arches celebrate family members passing the provincial or national level imperial exams. Imperial honor refers to an Emperor's decree ordering the erection of a memorial arch in recognition of the contribution of a local government official. Ethical honor describes arches put up to recognize the uncommon personal integrity of a particular individual or set of individuals. Traditional themes were righteousness, charity, chastity and filial piety. The Long-Lived Arch, for example, celebrates a loving couple, who lived to be 100 years old during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).
Usually, memorial arches were made of stone. Single-fronted they bear calligraphy, describing the reason for the memorial arch. Often two posted, some have four posts and others, especially if they are square, have eight supporting posts. Although most of the arches are double-tiered some can be as many as five-storied.
The Tangyue Arches are seven arches acknowledging the successful political career, filial piety, chastity and charity of continuing generations of the Bao family. Three of the arches were erected during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and four during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).