How Huangsiqiao, a historic town with China’s oldest city walls, came to molder in the jungle of western Hunan
Huangsiqiao (黄丝桥) was destined for so much, yet has achieved so little.
Half an hour’s drive from the ancient town of Fenghuang, one of Hunan province’s biggest tourist traps, and a stone’s throw from the border of Guizhou province, the small town claims to have the oldest intact city walls in China, and once aimed to be a valued historic site on part with its famous neighbor.
But it now sits crumbling and unknown.
As our car finally arrived at this special town (having gotten lost twice on small byroads) on a sweltering July day last year, we are greeted by the 1,000-year-old city walls from the Tang dynasty (618–907) that tower dramatically over us, dating back to 686 CE. They are heavy, bluish blocks of hard stone. It’s a no-nonsense fort, crenellated and adorned by battlements, and crowned with ornamental towers by ensuing dynasties. These swiftly earned Huangsiqiao a position on Hunan’s provincial key cultural relics lists (guaranteeing it protection, promotion, and funds) as early as 1983.
An old man leaning on a stick hurriedly hobbles out of the gatehouse and tells us admittance is 40 yuan. The cluster of elders sheltering on stools in the gatehouse’s shade are exactly as described by the few wanderers to the town on lifestyle app Xiaohongshu (RED)—who mostly expressed outrage that they had to pay for entry when there is nothing to do or see.
“Are there many tourists who come by here?” TWOC asks one of the old women, seated on a stool and slapping her calves. “Lots!” she replies, after overcoming the barriers of deafness and translation from Putonghua to the strong local dialect by one of her friends.
But that’s doubtful. The site barely registers on travel and review apps. There is no one in the parking lot beyond the city gate, and TWOC is the sole visitor that day.
Most tourists in the area, who seek historic towns to visit, end up in the heavily developed Fenghuang just up the road, the birthplace of famous 20th century writer Shen Congwen (沈从文), who wrote lyrically and at length about growing up in this part of the world where the Han and Miao people lived side-by-side, the latter as second-class citizens in his time. They also come for the picturesque “stilt houses (吊脚楼)” of the Miao ethnic group, which cling onto the misty banks of the Tuojiang River in Fenghuang’s old town.
By contrast, Huangsiqiao rose out of a military garrison originally intended to keep the Miao out. It is tiny, and would probably fit comfortably into one of the larger squares of the Forbidden City. Its walls boast spectacular views of the mountains beyond, but can be circled in about 10 minutes.
Once upon a time, this was one of the most dangerous places in China. Huangsiqiao was a town along the so-called “Southern Great Wall,” a massive earthen structure straddling the border of present-day Hunan and Guizhou. It was begun during the Tang, and strengthened by the Ming (1368 – 1644) and Qing (1616 – 1911) dynasties as their armies made their incursions south.
Like its counterpart to the North, the Southern Great Wall was intended to keep the barbarians out. But it was also meant to gradually reel them in. The Miao had refused to yield to the emperors, neither obeying their laws or paying their taxes, so they were to be kept out of any trading systems or assimilating processes. A map from the Qing dynasty leaves the area beyond Huangsiqiao as a gaping white hole, a lake of ungoverned oblivion.
But the Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong emperors of the Qing expanded their governance in western Hunan, or Xiangxi (湘西), and settlers arrived in greater number than before. The sinicization led to brutal massacres and counter-massacres, tit-for-tat violence that occasionally broke out into huge revolts. The greatest took more than 10 years to calm, between 1795 and 1806.
Punishments were ruthless—mass castrations of Miao males ensued. The Qing’s policies, and the resistance it created, “dyed every government road, every battlement, in red,” Shen wrote in his autobiography. Miao uprisings became so common that a timetable was jokingly set up to deal with them, as the emperor was to face “one small rebellion every 30 years, one major reaction every 60 years.”
Even during the Republican era (1912–1949), Xiangxi was known for its backwardness. A Beijing Review issue from 1986 saying it used to be called “hell on earth” due to the difficult mountain terrain, awash with bandits.
There is little sign today of the battles of old. The old man who sold us tickets, who identified himself as Mr. Tang, a farmer and local history enthusiast, says that there are currently 60 families in the town; 85 others have moved out, and all the young people have gone to work in the cities. “It’s a real shame.”
He tells us (in between complaining loudly about his back) that the county government originally had big plans for the town, and had invited 300 researchers from Peking and Tsinghua universities to tour it in 2003. He had the honor of showing them around.
When asked why the town wasn’t developed, Mr. Tang gets angry. “[The officials] put the money in their pockets,” he huffs. “They didn’t respect the place.”
According to an article on Hunanese travel site 97616.net, in 2001, the county government entrusted the city to Fenghuang Ancient City Tourism, a company tasked with converting several ancient towns (including Fenghuang) into tourist sites to bring revenue to the area.
Mr. Tang remembers those times. “In 2003 and 2004, there were about 80,000 people coming here a year,” gesturing to a few faded shop signs above doorways. “They gave me 400 kuai to give presentations to the people coming.”
But 97616.net says there were several attempts to remove all families from the town. Some clearly took up the offer (as attested to by a 2007 calendar rotting on the wall of one abandoned house). But, “due to some residents’ dissatisfaction with the compensation standard and insufficient funds, the relocation work was stopped,” says 97616.net.
This is borne out by the story told by a villager to another visitor in 2010, who wrote it up on their blog. An entrepreneur signed a 50-year contract with the county government to move all the local residents within three years, to be replaced (according to Mr. Tang) with out-of-town shopkeepers and hoteliers. The boss promised local residents compensation of 850 yuan per square meter. But after the compensation went through various hands, the locals were offered only 300 per square meter, so they didn’t move.
It’s common even today in rural areas for local governments or companies to try and pay less than promised in compensation when demolishing houses. Lawyers have posted hundreds of videos on Chinese social media explaining the issue for small-town residents, and give them tips on how to defend their rights.
97616.net goes on to say that Fenghuang Ancient City Tourism faced skyrocketing relocation costs. “They didn’t have any money [left], so weren’t able to take out another loan from the banks or the government,” asserts Mr. Tang. A representative of Fenghuang Ancient City Tourism said the company could not comment when we gave them a call. They said they no longer operate in Huangsiqiao, and that we should contact local officials for more information. Some local officials TWOC reached out to also declined to comment.
The representative also confirmed that Huangsiqiao had been upgraded to a National Level Cultural Relic in 2006, a designation also applied to the Forbidden City and the (Northern) Great Wall. But when one checks this list, Huangsiqiao does not appear.
Locals have thus been taking the site into their own protection—any payments made by tourists go toward upkeep.
Mr. Tang shows us around. “Kangxi and Qianlong, those emperors visited here,” he says as he hobbles through the streets, his walking stick echoing on the granite walls of the houses we amble past. Many of the older buildings, made of mud and stone, have long been abandoned. Vegetable patches grow in the shells of derelict homes, while others are well on their way to collapse.
Mr. Tang’s concern for his town is striking. By his own account, he managed to prevent the site from being submerged in the 1990s by a planned reservoir, writing to the local government and convincing them to flood another valley due to the town’s historical value.
We arrive at an overgrown rock garden outside the town dotted with wild strawberries and giant butterflies. Mr. Tang claims it is from the Tang dynasty, and was visited by Wu Zetian, China’s only female emperor. It’s Mr. Tang’s own restoration project, which began when he was given a small government grant in the 1990s. “This pond used to be full of trees,” he says, pointing to an abandoned pool strewn with weeds, “but once we cut them down, the garden appeared again.”
As we leave, we ask Mr. Tang how he feels about what has happened to his town. “The government comes here often, but I don’t give them a tour,” he says, evasively.
Additional Reporting by Yang Tingting (杨婷婷)
Photography by Alex Colville. Additional photos from VCG.