JISHOU, HUNAN — It’s taken me a few days to internalize all that I saw while in Hefei. So, here are few reflections on the Chinese concept of “ancient cities.”

As tourist attractions, they are somewhat over-rated. Stand anywhere in China, pick up a rock and throw it as hard as you can. Chances are, you will hit an ancient city. I mean, China’s civilization is at least 5,000 years old, and people have lived here since the Stone Age, so of course there are going to be ancient cities helter-skelter all over the countryside.

Some are more or less in their original state, having changed little outwardly in hundreds of years. XiDi is one of those cities. Although people still live there, in buildings that are perhaps a thousand years old, it has not become a tourist trap. We walked around XiDi (and Sanhe and Shexian) free from the hawkers and street vendors that haunt places like the Great Wall at Badaling and the ancient city closest to Jishou, Fenghuang.

Each ancient city has its own architecture and history, which the attentive tourist can perhaps enjoy more than the casual observer, but as attractions they are definitely low-key. Dare I say, they can be boring.

Don’t get me wrong. I really enjoyed visiting the places our hosts took us. Since I’m interested in history and architecture, and in the way people lived long ago, I could appreciate the winding streets and alleys, ornately carved wooden structures in homes, the protective walls around some of the cities, and the general atmosphere of great antiquity in them.

But you have to approach these kind of cities with the right mindset. Don’t expect to be bowled over by their sheer wonderfulness. Just learn to appreciate walking along the same streets on the same stones that people have used for at least 500 years.

On the other end of the scale are places like Fenghuang and CiqiKou, the ancient quarter in Chongqing, that have been commercialized and homogenized to the point of losing much of their original flavor or appeal.

I am not really knocking Fenghuang, which I have visited about eight times now, or even CiqiKou. The old buildings and narrow, winding streets are still there, but on top of the ancient foundations are modern layers of kitsch, hucksterism, barkers, and cheesy, overpriced tourist merchandise. Everyone in these ancient quarters seems only to want make a quick buck off the hapless tourists, and it makes no difference if the tourists are from China, Korea, Japan or the USA. Visiting Fenghuang, and other touristy places, requires determination not to let the rampant commercialism spoil the visit.

People here of course ask me if I like Fenghuang, and say honestly that I do. At night, the ancient quarter changes character entirely. Instead of barkers and hucksters, you can hear music and karaoke (note these are not always the same thing) wafting from the riverside bars. People seem much calmer, more in repose, and not necessarily because they’ve had a few brews after dinner. The atmosphere at night encourages you to slow down and enjoy life.

Just be careful buying the trinkets they sell, because chances are the goods were made in a factory in Guangdong (or even in Vietnam). The colorful handbags, dresses and skirts, hats, cheap jewelry are about as authentic to city X or Y as any other piece of tourist junk made in China and sold in the USA. You can buy the same things in downtown Jishou for half the price of what they are in Fenghuang (or any other ancient town, it seems).

One popular tourist trinket is a stitched leather “cowboy” hat. I’ve seen the same style hat everywhere I have gone in China, from Beijing to Hainan. And I can’t think of a more impractical hat for summer in southern China. No ventilation. You might as well put a plastic bag on your head. It’s cute, though, but it sure advertises you’re a tourist.

(Me, I went with the eminently more practical straw cowboy hat while in Hainan. At least my scalp can breath. Felt cowboy hats, like the kind you can buy it most parts of the US West and South, are completely absent in China, though some are made here. I am the proud owner of a green felt “weekender” hat sold by Minnetonka, which I bought in the States before coming to China. The hat of course was made in China, along with half the other things I brought with me.)

One byproduct of visiting all these historic cities is that I am slowly getting a feel for Chinese history. Folks here rattle off, “this is from the Qing dynasty, and that’s from the Ming, and this is Tang,” as if everyone knows what the hell they mean. I’m still hazy on most of the dynastic sequence, but I can least judge that Ming is older than Qing, and Tang is really really old. Just don’t ask for the exact dates. (Although I do know that the Qing ended in 1911, with the establishment of the Chinese Republic.)

I guess the reason I liked touring the ancient places in Anhui is the lack of commercialism I have learned to identify with “ancient cities” in China. Anhui is less developed than Hunan, which is saying a lot, since they are both largely farming provinces. So, creeping commercialism has blessedly not found its way to XiDi, Sanhe and Shexian. They are really very peaceful.

Midway between these two poles are the ancient towns in Guizhou that I visited in May. Zhenyuan is a reconstructed ancient town, sort of like Fenghuang with more breathing space, with steep mountains right up next to it. It’s commercialized, but with less fervency than Fenghuang. Likewise, Xijiang, “the city of 10,000 Miao homes,” is a real Miao settlement that has been turned into a tourist attraction by adding a shopping street and scheduled (cheesy ethnic) performances*, such as we see in Dehang, the much smaller Miao village outside Jishou. For some reason, the sellers in both places seemed more low key than the ones in Fenghuang or CiqiKou, but they still jacked their prices up for the holiday tourists.

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* These shows give the audience a taste of Miao culture in much the same way Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows gave white audiences a taste of Native American life a hundred years ago. That is, the tastes are not so authentic. Though I can’t recall seeing any in the States, some Native American communities might package some cultural performances for tourists in a similar way as the Chinese Miao.

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