It was drizzling when I entered an old village in Wuyuan, Jiangxi Province. The rain, like small fine needles, gently clung to my umbrella. White farmhouses, green camphor trees, and yellow rape flowers seemed fresh in the drizzle.
For a moment, I forgot I was in the 21st century. Time seemed to stand still. The houses and the trees had been standing there for hundreds of years. A small river flowed slowly through the village. A moss-covered bridge, the Tongji Bridge, was built in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Only the small rapids under the bridge broke the tranquility here.
Wuyuan, known as the "most beautiful countryside in China," has at least 50 old villages. Trekking in the old villages in March offers refreshing views of hills covered in rape, green farmland, exuberant camphor trees, creeks and small rapids. Villages lie along small rivers, trees stand on riverbanks, and old farmers leisurely drive ducks toward a pond, forming a typical Chinese countryside scene. Wuyuan is known not only for its natural scenery, but also for its glorious past. The remote county was home to some of China's top scholars, including Zhu Xi, a Confucius master in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), and Zhan Tianyou, China's first railway engineer. Thousands of Wuyuan people passed the civil imperial examinations -- examinations for selecting government officials in feudal dynasties, and climbed high in the official ladder. It also produced some of the country's richest merchants.
The county's glorious past can still be found in its houses, many of which are large ones bearing complicated carvings. Some have plates describing the ancestors' prominent political positions.
The most famous house is the temple of the Yu family, a splendid Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) structure. The family's wealth is displayed through the extremely complicated carvings of phoenixes, bridges, rivers, clouds and flowers on roofs, doors and windows. Names kept in the temple include two prominent family members, a Tang Dynasty (618-907) minister and a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) general.
Most of the residential houses, big or small, feature white walls, black roofs, elegant eaves, and dark green footstones. It's a unique building style of Huizhou, an ancient prefecture Wuyuan belonged to.
Merchants from Huizhou, together with those from Shanxi Provinces in North China, dominated China's business world for about 500 years until the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
Huizhou merchants attached importance to education. They were more proud of their education than their wealth, because in feudal dynasties, passing civil imperial examinations was the only way to enter the highest social stratum of government officials.
Huizhou had six counties, but the Huizhou relics are best kept in Wuyuan, partly because Wuyuan is remote, and partly because Wuyuan people tried hard to protect them. During the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s, the descendants of the Yu family protected their family temple from fanatic relic haters by covering the carvings with earth.
Step into a village house in Wuyuan, and you may find yourself at the residence of a prominent official hundreds of years ago. The experience is quite interesting, thinking that such a house must have been inaccessible to ordinary people in the official's time. But now the house's owner, a descendant of the official, is as hospitable as an ordinary farmer.
Following a cobble-stoned side street, I entered a house that turned out to be the ancestral home of Li Zhichen, winner of the imperial kung fu contest in the Southern Song Dynasty. A granny in her seventies now oversees the house. She smiled kindly when I entered the house, as if I was her relative.
Visitors from Shenzhen can first go to Jiujiang in Jiangxi Province by train and then transfer to Wuyuan by bus.
From Shenzhen to Jiujiang, take train 1540, which leaves Shenzhen Railway Station at 4:05 p.m. and arrives in Jiujiang at 7:52 a.m. the next day. Or take train T186, which leaves Shenzhen Railway Station at 9:13 p.m. and arrives in Jiujiang at 10:22 a.m. the next day.
Wuyuan features natural scenery and many historic relics. It takes two to three days for a general tour of the area.
The best time to visit is spring, when the hills and valleys are full of rape flowers.
The area is famous for its local fish, chicken and wild vegetables.