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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

Huizhou, the country of the literati merchants

Anne Garrigue

Texte intégral

1February 2010

2The ancient province of Huizhou (徽州) is a mountainous enclave in the southern Anhui province, at the foot of the Yellow Mountains (Huangshan). The province is made up of six districts, Xiuning, Qimen, Shexian, Yixian, Jixi and Wuyuan, as well as the town of Tunxi. The Xin’an River flows through it. This major waterway was quickly made navigable and allowed the inhabitants of Huizhou to grow rich through trade and develop a refined culture despite their rural location. Builders and patrons, the cultivated neo-Confucian merchants of Huizhou (the Huishang, 徽商), encouraged education and craftsmanship. Today, the region had reduced in size, but dozens of picture-postcard villages, well preserved despite the scars of the Cultural Revolution and modernisation, bear witness to Huizhou’s illustrious past.

The literati merchants

3Trade expanded rapidly in Huizhou during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), and flourished until the Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864). The merchants initially left for survival reasons. They gradually made their fortune, first by selling local raw materials (wood, bamboo and tea), then taking by advantage of the salt monopoly granted by the emperor in exchange for services rendered. Some took on the role of bankers or pawnbrokers. They established leagues in all of China’s main cities and formed alliances with the Mandarins. Their wealth was such that in the middle of the Qing dynasty, it was often said, “there is no town without a Hui merchant” (无徽不成镇). These rich “emigrants”, having made their fortune, lived away from their families. They left their wives and children behind in their home villages, where they built splendid homes to house them. They returned there later in life to spend their retirement, like “leaves fallen at the foot of the tree” (落叶归根Ú, surrounded by splendour and respect, and acting as patrons and philanthropists in order to improve the destiny of their less enterprising neighbours.

A vernacular architecture

4The architecture of the mansions of Huizhou is very distinctive. They have high, whitewashed brick facades, which are rarely pierced by windows; roofs covered in flat, fish-scale tiles in a beautiful blue-grey colour and horse-head gable walls. They are looked after through the scanty means of the impoverished descendants who still live there and who have often kept the woodwork and certain ornaments exactly as they were. They are beginning to be better preserved, sometimes purchased by rich Chinese people, or even moved, beam by beam, to a different location.

5The first builders of Huizhou were aristocrats from the north fleeing the wars. Their houses, built from a structure of wooden pillars between which dry mud walls were erected, have not stood the test of time. Over time, the use of clay for walls, then brick and stone, have allowed houses to survive the centuries better. Even if only a handful of Yuan dwellings remain in Huizhou today, Ming and particularly Qing houses or those from the Republic years can be found in their thousands.

6The houses had two stories or even three during the Ming dynasty. They were set out in a fairly “archetypical” manner. There was a grand reception room at the entrance, behind a small courtyard open to the sky. On either side of the reception room, there were two smaller rooms for the wife and concubine. At the back were the quarters for the elderly. Young people were often housed upstairs, on the mezzanine level. The servants’ quarters and kitchens were to the side, along with the shuyuan, private libraries where the live-in private tutors taught.

7One of the characteristics of these sombre and inward-facing houses were sky wells (天井), which let in the light from above, meaning that breezes could be enjoyed and heat let out, and which also allowed rainwater to be collected for the house. A fear of fire meant that there was always a jar on hand for storing water, or other sources such as octagonal wells. Comfort was also provided by excellent water circuits in the form of pipe-work and storage tanks under the house, areas set aside for household rubbish, in addition to rounded corners on the outside walls in order to facilitate traffic circulation in the narrow streets.

Reflecting the Confucian value system

8The architecture was strongly influenced by the neo-Confucian value system, which was patriarchal and focused on clans. This is shown by the dui lian, which hang in the grand reception room. They are wood panels on which a pair of maxims was written, displaying the favourite moral precepts of the master of the house, for example, “Good should be done so that our descendants may be happy”, “Much should be read in order to know how to write”, or, “A fortune is made by spending a great deal of time on the details.”

9Neo-Confucian values were not only expressed in the decoration, but also in the layout of the rooms. The master of each house separated the men from the women and girls who were not allowed to leave the house. The design of the buildings respected a strict hierarchy. For example, the front of the house was superior to the back, the right superior to the left, and the ground floor superior to the upper floor.

10In the literati merchants’ choice of decoration, the finely sculpted wood panels, the importance of the symbolism evoked by the homophony of various characters cannot be underestimated. The majority of sounds in the Chinese language have several corresponding ideograms, each with a completely different meaning. This enabled not only numerous play on words, but also pearls of aesthetic creativity based on analogical thought. By choosing a fruit, animal, decoration or story and playing with the main meaning, literati merchants asked their talented craftsmen to express their wishes for happiness, prosperity, success or fertility in metaphors, whilst demonstrating their mastery of culture and classics.

Villages influenced by feng shui

11It was customary for the inhabitants of Huizhou to live in clans, grouped together in villages where most of the inhabitants shared – and still share – the same patronymic and important ancestry and genealogy.

12At the heart of the very design of the Huizhou villages is feng shui, which had an exceptional impact in the region, even if this influence has more or less disappeared over the last few decades. To create a village, the first task was to find a suitable location. To select the right location, the feng shui masters used a specific compass (luopan), which is still made in Wan’an. A good site had to take the river’s meandering and the position of the mountains into account. It was recommended that the village be at the foot of a mountain and look out over flowing water or a stretch of water. When this was not possible, the elders did not hesitate to transform the environment artificially, as was the case in Hongcun, for example, where a small, crescent-shaped lake was dug, for village life to take place around it.

Clan temples

  • 1 92% of Chinese people today are officially considered to be Han.

13Their merchant life meant that the men of Huizhou took to the road right from adolescence. The sacrifice was particularly great because family life was at the centre of their social system, beliefs and rituals. Nothing shows the importance of ancestor worship in Han China1 better than a visit to Huizhou. The abundance of clan temples despite the destruction of many throughout the 20th century, the omnipresence of family trees, which have often been kept up to date despite the upheavals, and the intensity of rituals relating to the ancestors bear witness to the fundamental nature of the veneration of lineage and filial piety. Paradoxically, the large amount of travelling and the distance between the merchants and their families actually helped them to maintain very strong formal links within the clan. The task of scrupulously keeping the family tree up to date was one of the duties of filial piety, as well as showing solidarity with the clan, showing generosity towards it, continuing the lineage by producing sons and honouring previous generations. Throughout the history of the literati merchants, these duties were considered to be the basis of good social relationships, and a condition for preserving social harmony.

14All Huizhou village houses had at least one ancestral temple. During the Cultural Revolution, many were transformed into warehouses, granaries or factories. On the walls, there are still large characters written, reminding us of Confucian virtues including obedience (jie, 节), filial piety (xiao, 孝), honesty and integrity of the civil servant (lian, 廉) and faithfulness and loyalty (zhong, 忠). There are also ancestral portraits and tablets, which are often at the back of the temple, and the family rules that defined each member’s duties.

15These large temples had several purposes. They were not only used to commemorate the ancestors and introduce them to the younger generation, but also to house clan tribunals for judging and punishing disobedient descendants. Important decisions were made there, for example, the selection interviews to decide who would be the candidate to take the imperial examination in the name of the clan. It was also the place where funerals and marriages were celebrated and was the reception room for important guests.

16Since the Communists came to power, the temples are no longer used for family purposes. They have been systematically nationalised and often transformed into small museums, without the original families being able to regain possession of and use them. In some cases, however, the descendants of the original family act as caretakers.

Conserving this heritage

17Huizhou is not a museum. There are people living there, often descendants of the Huishang, who are today obliged to open their doors to tourists in exchange for money. They enable us to understand the upheavals of the 20th century including the fall of the imperial system, the disorder of the Republic and Kuomintang years, the destruction carried out during the Maoist revolutions and those caused today by the uncoordinated and sometimes destructive return of tourism and development.

18As for the future, the study of this small “Han” corner of southern Anhui, the one which has best preserved its architectural heritage, which was confirmed to the rest of the world when the villages of Xidi and Hongcun were declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2000, has enabled us to raise the issue of protecting China’s heritage in a concrete manner. This is an important question with much at stake in a China, which is becoming increasingly proud of its national identity.

19In Huizhou, there is something in the air that concerns everyone. It is the need to know where we come from that is as European as it is Chinese. Like in Europe, there is a question mark over the fate of the countryside after the rural flight, and of the villages, which are in decline because the only permanent inhabitants are the elderly, while city dwellers only return in search of their roots.

20These great grandchildren of the literati merchants, acting as caretakers in houses, who have never left, recall times of prosperity. They are unfortunately sometimes victims of the process of being turned into “exhibits” in “museum villages” with entry tickets, as a result of a policy whose strong desire is to promote local tourism and led by council officers who are keen to capitalise on tourism resources. Nevertheless, there are also Chinese people who are passionate about their region and who want to preserve it in a respectful and dynamic manner.


1 92% of Chinese people today are officially considered to be Han.

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