By Xie Zongming
Black tiles and white walls are the typical impressions of Hui style architecture, which differs from other Northern buildings that use ebony or other timbers to highlight the red color. This simple and high-contrast color makes the Hui style buildings carry the sense of modernness, for which they attract countless domestic and foreign tourists. Along with the Hui style buildings, there exist a series of carving techniques known as the “Three Carving Techniques of Huizhou” (literally means Hui prefecture). These delicate carvings are used as decorations on the buildings, which have become another feature of such an area. Inside these decorations, the ancient people in Huizhou share their views on family.
One of the best-known merchant guilds in China
The regional identity of Huizhou originated in the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). Before that time, the place was called Shezhou, which consists of the capital She County and 5 other counties. Then, the region was renamed Huizhou in 1121. It was not until the last century that the region had been separated into two parts with one in Anhui Province and another in Jiangxi Province. Therefore, the place “Huizhou” can’t be found on a Chinese map now. However, people in this area still share the same culture, family tree, and vernacular, signifying the strong recognition of their regional identity. It was also this recognition that created one of the most well-known merchant guilds in China.
The trade in Huizhou started to grow in Song Dynasty because of a period of political unrest in the North that caused the refugees to flood to the South, and one of their destinations was Huizhou. However, the mountainous terrain was already harsh for the local people to feed themselves with agriculture, not to mention the refugees. Gradually, people in the region started to take craftsmanship and commerce as their livelihood. Luckily, the high-end writing utensils of ancient China like brushes, ink, paper, and inkstones, also known as the Four Treasures of the Study, were mainly produced in Huizhou, which gave the merchants a few hit products to start with. Later in Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Huizhou merchants monopolized the salt trade in Southern China, making them the most dominant merchant guild in the region and a considerable political force.
Huizhou was not only a place of trade but also a place of education. Zhu Xi, the founder of the Rationalistic School of Confucianism, was also born in Huizhou, thus the merchants followed the Confucian philosophy and highly valued education. Huizhou merchants would hire the best teacher affordable to teach their children so that they would later take over the family business with morality and knowledge. This was what made these merchants different from others.
Tips: The term “guild” here is not equivalent to the guilds in 11th-19th century Europe where merchants were organized under a strict regime. Chinese merchant guilds refer to groups of merchants loosely united according to their home region. The guilds hadn’t the agreed common authority, but rather acted like an intelligence and operation network connected by cultural identity.
Investment that brings extra gain
Because Huizhou merchants had such homeland recognition, they would invest in the local development by complementing the infrastructure, such as roads, residences, or even a whole new town after they achieved commercial success. The local construction and craftsmanship prospered along with the investment. Practical yet beautiful designs such as the horsehead wall and patio were adopted to respectively prevent fire hazards and adjust the illumination. As time went by, Huizhou architecture developed its own style. Villages of such style, the Hongcun and the Xidi Village for instance, are listed as World Heritages.
The Three Carving Techniques of Huizhou consists of wood, stone, and brick carving, which are used in different parts of a house. Because of the investment idea mention above, the development of these three carving techniques followed the development of the Huizhou trade, which grew in the Song Dynasty and prospered in the Ming and Qing Dynasty (1636-1912).
The building materials of Hui style architecture were bricks and timbers, for which the brick carving and wood carving are of the most significance when appreciating Hui style carving. The wood carving appears mainly at windows, folding screens, crossbeams, pillars, and furniture. For Huizhou merchants valued the education and morality of the family, the contents of the woodcarvings were usually traditional Chinese stories, operas, and legends that suggest certain virtues in Confucian value. The wood carving boasts a delicate depiction and often presents the scenery with tens of characters in a few feet of space.
The brick carving, on the other hand, is used in outdoor spaces like the gargoyle, main doors cover, and sidewalls. The carving requires special local black bricks to gain consistency in hardness. The gargoyle carvings are figures in Chinese mythology to pray for good health and luck. Carved bricks decorating the sidewalls and doors’ cover are usually in low-relief lucky patterns, with occasional exceptions like vivid figures and animals.
Unlike the former two carvings which were for residence, Hui style stone carvings were rather separated from the architecture itself. Sculptures of lion guards and other animals or mythic creatures were mostly placed outdoors, for example, bridges and towers. There are also stone carving works in solemn places like ancestral halls, memorial archways, and temples. The stone carving technique also differs from the other two in terms of delicacy.
For hundreds of years, the Huizhou merchants have spent their wealth in local infrastructure and education, passing the morality to their descendants as well as fostering a series of techniques. It was the money well spent.