I have a bit of a problem with Chinese “ancient towns.” For one thing, the term is something of a misnomer. True, there is usually an authentic core of old, traditional buildings that offer a fascinating glimpse into social history and construction methods. Around this core, however, there is a Disneyfied fantasy land of brand-new “ancient” streets, designed to render the original town more interesting and tourist-worthy. Traditional log buildings are replicated in poured concrete, with rather inept wood-graining effects. The effect can be depressing, with the same souvenirs being sold in shops up and down each old or newly-minted street. Since I have an aversion to anything remotely “touristy,” I nonetheless try to appreciate such places for the small slice of China’s past which they have conserved.
In Huanglongxi Ancient Town, for instance, my student friends and I would have been perfectly happy with the two or three authentically ancient lanes winding among temple enclosures, and eating a tasty lunch in a restaurant overlooking the lazy river flowing past. The rest – endless vistas of new “old” construction – was overkill. Both Huanglonxi and Luodai, which I visited earlier this year, are also safely removed from the center of Chengdu, and thus their authentic buildings pose no threat to the development frenzy that has transformed the city and surgically removed its historic neighborhoods.
Apparently, such ancient towns are extremely successful, attracting visitors by the thousands every weekend. This seems to be their main function, and not simply the careful and methodical conservation of local architectural history. They also lack much believability, as their actual “lived-in” sections are carefully screened from visitors, sometimes with “no visitors beyond this point” kinds of signs.
That said, you can now join me on a walk down the streets of Huanlongxi and Luodai, which still offer a few glimpses into the past if you know how and where to look for them.
[There are a few more images of Huanglongxi in my October 10 post]: http://runningintomyself.blogspot.com/2007/10/some-images-for-wednesday.html
Riverside archway, Huanglongxi Ancient Town
(Real) ancient street, Huanglongxi Ancient Town
Another view of the same street
1000-year-old tree – Huanglongxi Ancient Town
John and William, my two student friends who were my guides, Huanglongxi Ancient Town
Luodai Ancient Town, entrance arch to the town
Detail of stone carving on water basin, Luodai Ancient Town
Main street in Luodai Ancient Town. The tall building is one of the ancient Guild Halls.
Tower, Luodai Ancient Town
Rooflines and wall details, Guild Hall in Luodai Ancient Town
Another roof detail, Luodai Ancient Town