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Old glory paves way for new adventure in Guangxi

Raymond Zhou and Huo Yan
Updated: Aug 19,2015 8:54 AM     China Daily

A camphor tree in Mochuan township is believed to be more than 1,000 years old.[Photo by Huo Yan/ China Daily]

Mochuan, a township nestled in the mountains of the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, has recently been “found” by tourists, looking to go beyond nearby Guilin.

Guilin is a must-see tourist destination for any serious traveler to China. But if you are a backpacker or in an adventurous mood, you may want Guilin’s scenery minus the crowds. That is when a side trip to the city’s outlying areas is called for-a place like Xing’an with its ancient canal, a roughly one-hour drive from downtown Guilin, or Mochuan, a township 30 kilometers from downtown Xing’an. While the drive from Guilin to Xing’an on a modern highway is a breeze, the drive from Xing’an to Mochuan has its own charms. The journey takes you along a calm, meandering river with views that in any other place would put it on the tourist map. Yet, locals seem to be oblivious to the oddly-shaped mountains or the riverbanks strewed with plants of all colors. They take it for granted, and proudly remind anyone who will listen that Mochuan was once a hub for trade and transportation.

Elderly villagers gather for a chat.[Photo by Huo Yan/ China Daily]

Some 500 years ago, Mochuan was a major town linking five neighboring counties to surrounding provinces like Hunan and Jiangxi. Apart from two so-called “official roads”, there were four paths paved with 70-80 centimeters of pebble, a major convenience for pedestrians and goods-carrying horses.

In 1887, a stone bridge was erected not far from the town center. Standing 12 meters tall, the bridge is 22 meters long and 5.5 meters wide, with a single arch spanning 18.6 meters. It may not look as gigantic as it did to those who built it and by today’s standards it may seem a little forlorn, with only the occasional vehicle traveling to a nearby village crossing it, but the bridge is a testament to the busy traffic that it once accommodated and is in itself, an aesthetic marvel.

Hualong Bridge, as it was officially called, not only facilitated transportation but also provided a venue for relaxation or even socializing. A slab that functions as a railing has a chessboard carved into it, a reminder that people were not in a hurry to cross the bridge, but would often linger on it.

A stone pathway with carved Chinese characters in Mochuan.[Photo by Huo Yan/ China Daily]

Nowadays, people travel to Hualong Bridge to take photos. In the dry season when the water level is low, you can trek down onto an islet and capture the structure as it towers over you.

One of the major financial backers of the bridge was the Chen family, who were the wealthiest people in the town at the time. The village of Bangshang has a building complex that used to be the Chen residence. It took 20 years to build and encompasses 30 structures, including two turrets used for defense. Unlike large homesteads in other parts of China, the Chen household was built on a slope, thus taking on an asymmetry that is unconventional in China. Though dilapidated in appearance and by no means grand or imposing by modern standards, the compound has retained many architectural details, elaborate cornices and wood carvings.

The first of the Chen lineage can be traced to Chen Jun, a guard who accompanied a prince to Guilin in the year 1370 and liked the place so much he decided to stay on after local riots were taken care of. Chen Jun’s mission was to ensure the safety of the ancient roads in Mochuan.

Thirteen generations later, Chen Jun’s descendant Chen Kechang grew to be the richest merchant of the area, selling local products such as tea, animal skin and Chinese wood oil. He invested in real estate, buying up 200 hectares of land.

Mochuan, a small township near Guilin, is little known to the outside world and preserves its centuries-old buildings.[Photo by Huo Yan/ China Daily]

That wealth is more evident in the man’s tomb than in the homestead. While the compound for the living is tucked away in a labyrinth with narrow walkways, the compound for the deceased looks more like a mausoleum, occupying an expanse of flat land and facing distant peaks to the south. Giant stone statues-of humans and animals-flank the wide entranceway. The burial mound itself is covered with memorial columns and carvings, befitting a local king.

Unsurprisingly, a structure of such grandeur was endorsed by the emperor when it was built in 1889. Otherwise it would have been seen as subversive or power hungry. The person who commissioned it was Chen Kechang’s grandson, who had risen up the ladder of officialdom through the imperial examination system. After his grandfather passed away, he gave up his position and applied to the imperial court for a posthumous title for his grandfather.

The grandson, Chen Bingyi, was one of three people from Mochuan who excelled in the national-level imperial exam. There were also 16 boys from the village who passed the province-level exam. The emphasis on education was so great that the name of the village was changed from Lotus Pond to Bangshang, meaning “to get on the list of successful candidates for the exam”. Mochuan was recently named among China’s historical and cultural towns and villages by the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development.

Older than the village and the tomb is a camphor tree with 14.65-meter-wide diameter, right at the entry of the village. It has a hole 12 meters wide that can fit a table seating 10 people for dinner. It’s estimated the tree is more than 1,000 years old.

Mochuan reached its peak in about 1810, its fortunes began to fall when the modern road system bypassed it. Changzhou, another village not far from Bangshang, was also a victim of modern transport systems. Around 200 years ago, the market in Changzhou would greet 2,000 people every day. Cloth, rice and charcoal were among the wide variety of merchandises that were traded. By 1949, the market was open only three days a week, drawing a mere 600 people.

Mochuan seems to be frozen in time, remnants of old streets and houses a gentle reminder of its erstwhile boom. Visitors who stop here may scratch their heads and wonder why a mountainous outpost once accommodated 80 restaurants on just one street. Nowadays, tourists may stumble upon the village by accident, drawn by its exceptional beauty, only discovering its fascinating history by chance. This is not a place to step off a tour bus and snap a few photos, but a museum, albeit not yet fully furnished, that contains many a lost tale of adventure and abundance.

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