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It was by chance that I fell in love with an ancient village in western Hunan Province after seeing it in pictures: Embraced by green mountains, the village appeared enveloped in morning fog, while houses were covered by grey tiles above white walls, lining both sides of a crystal clear brook that wound its way through the village. I was amazed by the simplicity and tranquility: “I must go and witness this with my own eyes!”
I grabbed a friend, rented a car, and took off on a journey. Yang, a local innkeeper, agreed to be our guide. He greeted us at the entrance to the village, eager to share the story of his hometown.
The village’s name, Gaoyi, means “tall armchair” in Chinese due to the mountains surrounding it on three sides resembling an old-fashioned armchair. It is relatively isolated due to its geography, which is likely the reason it remained simple and unsophisticated for so long.
The village’s overall layout is clearly greatly influenced by traditional Chinese feng shui: Five roads radiate from the center of the village - a temple next to a large pond - creating a maze of the Eight-Diagram flavor. The wooden dwellings along its roads feature Dong style and courtyards are typical of southern China. Strangers easily get lost due to a lack of landmark structures. “That’s why we were never attacked for centuries,” the locals grin.
Apparently, the density of buildings requires vigilant fire prevention. Ditches can be found along every street and lane, siphoning the brook to every house. Covered ditches send waste water to the ponds with lotus and other aquatic plants, which naturally purify the water.
The most famous are the Red and Black Ponds in the eastern end of the village. Built during the reign of Emperor Jiaqing of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the two square ponds are connected by a wooden bridge. One pond is home to red carp - dubbed Red Pond, and the other is filled with grass carp - Black Pond. They play a role in the village’s sophisticated system for pollutant discharge, water storage, and fire prevention.
The village takes pride in its well-preserved structures built during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties. Most houses within spacious courtyards are surrounded by tall brick walls. Traces of the ancient system of rural education, in which students studied part-time while continuing to perform farm work, is evidenced by many public buildings, such as temples, pavilions, and academies of classical learning.
The small lanes and old-fashioned buildings carried my imagination far back in history to the Ming and Qing dynasties. Our guide, Yang, was so enchanted that he exclaimed, “We are not done yet!” when his wife summoned us home for dinner.