The Former Residence of Xue Fucheng

The Xue Fucheng Mansion was built in the second half of the 19th century, and such is its size that it was once known as “Half of Wuxi”. Fucheng got around restrictions on how big houses could be by building what is, in fact, a number of interconnected houses set around separate courtyards. Large as the complex is today, it was once three and a half times bigger. Scholar, writer, diplomat and businessman, this Jiangsu high-flyer built his home in the Jiangnan (south of the Yangtze) style which we find in the older Jiangsu towns like Nanjing, Suzhou or Yangzhou. Apart from anything else, it is a marvelous example of a Qing Dynasty mansion.

The first courtyard notably advertises the charms of the house. There is an open courtyard of grey cobblestones, which is surrounded by airy corridors and graced by Jiangsu garden touches. On one side there is an elegantly weathered boulder from Lake Taihu superimposed against a brilliantly white wall, and on the other side of is a bonsai gingko tree in a ceramic pot. Though the busy streets were only a few metres away, we had already left modern Wuxi behind and returned to its formal, scholarly past.

It was a rainy day when we visited the mansion, and a constant drizzle was falling in the courtyards. We then explored the rooms behind the first courtyard and these were a typically somber affair. There were rooms full of polished timber furniture, many of the chairs inlaid with marble. Other decorations included paintings and calligraphy on various scrolls, adding to the elegantly staid Confucian atmosphere. With only natural lighting, these were gloomy and unwelcoming, but they did give an authentic sense of “old China”. Yet on closer inspection, there were also European touches belying Fucheng’s diplomatic assignments. In one room there was an ornate clock on the mantelpiece, and on another there were panels of colored glass set among the woodwork.

At some point in wandering through the rooms and corridors, Cameron and I got separated. I ended up at the opera stage at the far end of long, narrow corridor. As luck would have it, there was a traditional opera performer on the stage, singing and performing a traditional dance to the accompaniment of a traditional stringed instrument. The woman, who was probably around 50 years old, had an aristocratic elegance as she performed her mournful song. The dramatic setting of the stage only added to the charm. In front of it was a deep, turquoise-colored pool with large, white or orange carp circling in the water. There were also elaborate rockeries and bamboo groves in the courtyard, completing the time-old Chinese ambience. Sadly, there was no one else but me in the audience, as it was an impressive performance.

Not far from the opera stage was a long, paved courtyard surrounded two-storied buildings with elaborate railings. Apart from the lacquered woodwork, there was an abundance of leafy shrubs, and even a smattering of lily-pads in pots filled with water. In another courtyard nearby, a pair of cycads grew from a pot on either side of a old stone and wood doorway, while black-tiled eaves sloped gently down on either side, creating airy porches. There were rooms and corridors everywhere, and it was impossible to imagine of how many people the household had once been comprised; whatever the answer, the enormous mansion felt deserted on that rainy afternoon.

After a look around there, I went in search of Cameron and found him looking at a historical exhibit about period costumes. Glass-panelled lanterns hung from the ceiling, with red tassels dangling at the bottom, and blue-and-whiteware stood about on side tables, adding an air of dignity. We walked up an old flight of wooden stairs to an upper storey, sometimes looking down into the courtyards on either side. At the back of this building there was a section which had been converted into a function centre of some kind, with tacky karaoke booths available for rent. The idea didn’t look like it had been a success and there was certainly no one on hand as we walked by, but it was possible that some of the rooms might have been rented out at night time. Still, at least they hadn’t materially damaged the structure itself; there had been no walls knocked out or garish decorations installed.

Our last stop was the garden area behind these buildings. Being a Jiangsu gentlemen of his day, Xue Fucheng had wanted a typical Jiangnan garden to show off his refined taste. At the rear of the complex is a large garden with shade trees, very large, sculptural rockeries and a greenish pond filled with pink water-lilies. Hiding behind a clump of foliage was the obligatory resting pavilion, with the eaves turned up sharply. This was all rather lovely and like all beautiful, old places in China it made us mindful of all the cultural heritage that had been lost.

In one corner of the garden is the most “Western” room in the whole complex: Xue Fucheng’s billiards room. Here we find not only a newfangled 19th century telephone, but also the first billiards table imported into China. Completing the Western appearance of the room is the colored glass and steel window-frame, both of which must have seemed remarkable novelties in 19th century Wuxi. This was the part of the mansion which wad designed to remind visitors of his European worldliness.

Xue Fucheng's billiards room

Xue Fucheng’s billiards room

But perhaps even more important and more revealing is the electrical silk machine (now in a sadly rusted condition) which is found in a nearby room. This is part of a small exhibit of the Fucheng family’s commercial activities as pioneers in the silk trade. They were the first family to import an electric silk weaving machine from Japan, which had been the first Asian country to industrialize. The Fucheng family amassed tremendous wealth from selling silk to both domestic and foreign markets. Both modernizers and part of a traditional Chinese ruling elite, the Fucheng family represented some of the social conflicts in late Qing Dynasty China. A visit to their mansion had proven unexpectedly illuminating.

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The Old Town of Mudu: Canals, Pearls and an Ancient Pine

The province of Jiangsu consists largely of alluvial plains around the mouth of the Yangtze River. This low-lying land is crossed by a vast network of canals and channels, many of which date back centuries. Today the province has been transformed into an industrial powerhouse, but traces of its former self can still be found in the so-called canal towns. Over the past decade or two, as Jiangsu has been strung with high-tension cables and paved over with concrete, these towns have become increasingly popular with Chinese tourists, nostalgic for the Jiangsu of yesteryear. As a result, many of them have now been reinvented as tourist towns, with entrance charges, restaurants for tour groups and rental gondolas cruising the canals of these “Venices of the East”.

One of the lesser-visited canal towns is Mudu, which we visited for a half-day excursion from Suzhou in April 2014. It is quite easy to reach as Mudu is now the final stop on Line 2 of the Suzhou Metro. The station is still around three kilometres from Mudu Ancient Town, so you can either walk it in about thirty minutes or take a taxi for 12 yuan, which is the minimum fare. When you get there, you will notice an old wooden corridor running besides a narrow canal in the direction of the old town. Follow this and you will soon end up on Shantang Street, which is the main thoroughfare of Old Mudu. It has now been thoroughly revamped for the tourist trade, with souvenir shops selling the usual variety of necklaces, amulets, Chinese teas and local delicacies. The main regional specialty is pearls from nearby Lake Taihu, the third largest freshwater lake in China, and Mudu’s reason-for-being. Apart from perusing the souvenir stalls, the main reason to come here is to soak up the “canal town” atmosphere. Willows droop over stone-lined canals, and tourists sit on the edge of old, stone bridges, peering down at the gondolas which go drifting by.

Sadly, most of the old town has been demolished in recent years, as Mudu has become eaten up by the suburban sprawl of Suzhou, a city of some four million people. Nonetheless, there are still a few streets worth of old houses remaining, with whitewashed facades and black-tiled roofs. Overall, however, to get the most out of Mudu you have to spring for an entrance ticket to the main sights. At the time of our visit, a combination ticket had gone up from 60 to 78 yuan. Having limited time, we bought single tickets for the Mountain Garden and Ancient Pine Villa instead, which totalled 60 yuan. The Ancient Pine Villa (20 yuan entrance) proved to be the highlight of our trip to Mudu. The front of the villa consists of a magnificent wooden building, sometimes referred to as “the tower”. If it hasn’t already been used a setting for Chinese historical drama, it should be, as this is a singularly atmospheric building. Every surface of this wooden building has been carved with phoenixes, birds, flowers and other propitious motifs; the entire structure is a work of art. The creaking floorboards and the garden views make the house a romantic reminder of old China.

In the eighteenth-century, Mudu was a prosperous town of merchants and scholars. It was famous for the high-quality of its metalwork. It was especially known for the quality of its pewter, but its silversmiths were also renowned. Connected with Taihu Lake by a series of canals, it could trade its fine metal products for other goods passing along the Grand Canal. The wealth from all this trade was reflected in the fine buildings and gardens which were created by the merchant elite during this period. As in nearby Suzhou, the wealthy liked to showcase their fine taste and intellect by the building of Taoist-inspired gardens. The Ancient Pine Villa had a beautiful example of a Suzhou-style garden. Here we found a stylized representation of the world of nature, with a pond, a towering rockery symbolising the mountains of China, a pagoda perched high above it all, and trees representing the vegetal world. A beautiful old gingko tree can be found on the grounds, as well as the eponymous pine tree. Said to be over five-hundred years old, the pine on the grounds of this villa is venerable and scaly-barked, adding to the old world charm.

From here we visited Hongyin Mountain Villa, often touted as the most impressive garden and residence in Mudu, costing 40 yuan for a single visit. It boasts two Ming Dynasty gardens, known as the Xiuye Garden and Xiaoyin Garden. While they are far more extensive than the gardens at Ancient Pine Villa, they have been less well-maintained, and overall we found this residence less satisfying than its smaller neighbour. It has a very large lily-pond but at the time of our visit the lilies had withered, giving the garden a rather forlorn look. Still, it is a very good place to see the pitted, limestone rocks for which the Suzhou gardens are famous. The rockeries at Hongyin Mountain Villa are especially dramatic- probably an attempt to create mountain ranges in miniature.

As we left this site, we saw a crowd of Chinese tourists gathering along the canal. A boat was approaching with people in traditional costumes. When the boat reached the landing, a group of servants in Qing Dynasty costumes all sank to their knees and bowed their heads. An important looking personage disembarked from the boat, surrounded by his entourage, and the servants kowtowed before him. This performance, we guessed, was a reenactment of the visit to Mudu of Emperor Qianlong, a Qing Dynasty emperor who had visited Mudu six times. It was a reminder that though Mudu had been swallowed up by modern Suzhou, an industrial city, it was a town with an ancient cultural heritage.

Rockery and pagoda at Ancient Pine Villa

Rockery and pagoda at Ancient Pine Villa