Taohuatan, a pond in Jingxian County, Anhui Province, is the place where famout poet Li Bai of Tang Dynasty (618-907) bid farewell to his friend Wang Lun. In one of his poems, Li compared Wang's friendship with him to deep water in the pond (ZHENG LIANG)
Breakneck development and mass urbanization in China in the last 30 years have brought about massive transformation in the social fabric of the country. As China enters the "new normal" of an eco-friendly and sustainable development in an innovative and service-oriented economy, a slow return to traditions and to the charms of country life is now transforming villages.
Anhui is the archetype of this new trend. Once one of China's poorest provinces, it is now home to a thriving tourism sector and a source of inspiration for the multitudes in search of their ancestral roots and traditions.
Back to the countryside
If China's urbanites used to embrace all the trappings of the modern world, they are now increasingly eager to connect with rural life. Even foreigners are being enticed away from the cities. Better communication and transport infrastructure have accentuated this trend.
"A French family has moved here a few years ago and they are even raising chickens and growing vegetables," said a tour guide in Zhaji Village in Jingxian County, a quaint rural spot that has tapped into the huge potential of domestic tourism with great success for a decade.
Anhui Province, in east China, heeded the Central Government's advice before the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and has since made impressive strides in preserving its cultural heritage and developing a sustainable tourism sector. This turnaround in the province fortunes had two major implications: locals had an incentive to stay and make a decent living, while the prospects of a better future in an idyllic environment drew outsiders in droves to country life.
Historic villages and hamlets studded all over southern Anhui, which centuries ago made fortunes by trading timber, tea and salt before they sank into obscurity, are now being transformed for the better.
Longchuan in Jixi County is one of these villages blessed with an unusual bounty of fine architecture. Its Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) lavish Hu clan hall is hailed by tour guides as the finest example of its kind, while the Song Dynasty (960-1279) archway propped with rusty metal posts stands proudly at the entrance of the village as a reminder of its past glory. Crouched rustic locals wash the dishes or do the washing in the shallow stream snaking its way through the village.
Mr. Xu has been selling hand-made candy bars made of rice flour to tourists for nearly five years. The middle-aged from neighboring Zhejiang Province did odd construction jobs before setting up shop in Longchuan.
"We have tourists all year round, so we can make a decent living in a unique surrounding," he said as lines of cap-wearing pensioners and their tour guide walk past. Among them is Liu Fengyun, a spry 65 year-old from north China's Tianjin. She signed up along with 20 other retirees for a five-day whistle-stop trip in Anhui. "We were in the Huangshan Mountain yesterday and we want to enjoy Anhui's traditional culture as well as the beautiful scenery and the local specialties," she explained briskly. "Tomorrow, we'll visit another village in Jingxian County."
Some educated, well-off urbanites and artists even chose to settle down in rural areas. Their arrival has however contributed to the gentrification of some of these villages.
The statues depicting the farewell between poet Li Bai (right) and his friend Wang Lun (ZHENG LIANG)
Anhui has much more to offer for those who wish to immerse themselves into the traditional Chinese culture.
The province is famous for its Huangshan Mountain--named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990--and is renowned for its sprawling tea plantations producing some of the world's most reputable varieties, such as Maofeng green tea and Keemun Black tea in the Qimen County, in the eastern part of the province.
Besides this picture-postcard prettiness, Anhui has also contributed to the cultural magnificence of China's unique art of calligraphy with the Four Treasures of the Study, namely the brush, ink, paper and ink stone. Since the Song Dynasty (960-1279), generations of masters and craftsmen in Anhui have refined and passed down their techniques and sometimes, their secrets.
The digital age and disaffection in traditions have at one point threatened these ancient crafts. In the last two decades the authorities have however taken a series of measures designed to protect traditional skills and established institutes, workshops and research centers to perpetuate them.
Ma Lagen is a 60-year-old craftsman from Jingxian County. He has been making Xuan brushes for 40 years. Xuan brushes are one of China's most prized brushes, made of goat, black rabbit and yellow weasel hair. They were especially made to cater to the needs of emperors and mandarins in ancient China. In the nondescript workshop of the San Tu Xuan Bi Brushmaking Co. Ltd., in Jingxian County, he repeats tirelessly the same technique day after day.
"My family has been making brushes here for as long as I can remember," said Ma while giving the finishing touch to the tip of a brush. To make sure that it is both soft and flexible, he dipped it occasionally into a bowl of agar-agar, a jelly-like substance obtained from algae. "My son has also learned the craft, so the know-how will be passed down," he remarked.
She Zhengjun, a traditional Chinese paintbrush-making craftsman, works at a workshop in Jingxian County, Anhui Province (ZHENG LIANG)
She Zhengjun is the company's deputy general manager and director of the Xuan Brush Crafts Research Institute. "The new generation is being trained and the art of Xuan brushmaking will not be lost," he said. "Moreover, we get orders from all over the world, and our brushes are not only pieces of choice for calligraphers, but also prized, desirable gifts."
Jingxian County is also home to Xuan papermaking, a technique dating from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) using the bark of the indigenous blue sandalwood. Such is the quality of this hand-made paper that a block can fetch up to several hundred dollars.
Guardians of the traditions are keeping the old skills alive, and despite harsh working conditions and years of hard toil, social recognition is a great solace to them. A museum opened in April 2016 pays tribute to their dedication and recounts the thousand-year history of Xuan papermaking in the county.
Culture-wise, Anhui has much more for visitors to explore. The province is at the crossroads of philosophy and religion. It is the birthplace of Taoism, a doctrine that had a profound impact on philosophy, politics, art and literature in China while Qingyang County, in the southernmost tip of the province, boasts one of the country's four sacred mountains of Chinese Buddhism, the Jiuhuashan Mountain.
Finally, Anhui cuisine has also gained a solid reputation for its Hui cuisine, one of the eight culinary traditions of Chinese cuisine. One dish, the Li Hongzhang hodgepodge, has gained international recognition after this famous late Qing dynasty official baffled his foreign guests by seemingly cobbling together a variety of ingredients offhand but ending up creating the most delicate of recipes.
This could probably serve as a metaphor for the diversity of Anhui traditions and culture: a rich legacy and a never-ending quest for excellence.
Copyedited by Chris Surtees
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