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.

Qingming Bridge District: Visiting Old Wuxi

Wuxi must have been transformed beyond recognition in recent decades. One Chinese website devoted to images of mid twentieth-century Wuxi reveals a whole street selling bamboo wares, a three-kilometre long rice market, a district of kilns for pottery-making and an incredible fifty major ferry docks for boats on the Grand Canal. It was a city of narrow alleyways of whitewashed houses, with intricate wooden latticework on the upper stories, a street where entertainment often took the form of traditional Chinese opera performed on a wooden stage. Very little of that city now remains; the modern city is an industrial powerhouse with rows of multi-storey apartment blocks housing the resident population. But if you want to a glimpse of the lost world of Old Wuxi, there are still a few traces along the arm of the Grand Canal which stretches from Nanchan Temple to the Qingming Bridge. This now-gentrified district is central Wuxi’s premier historical attraction.

The first attraction in this district is the Nanchan Temple, one of central Wuxi’s two remaining temples. Set in the heart of downtown Wuxi among the hubbub of traffic, it is a colourful addition to a city drowning in concrete. Attractive from outside and in, the outer walls are a striking mustard-yellow. Even more noticeable is Miaoguang Tower, the ancient bell-tower besides the temple. Dating back 900 years to the Sung Dynasty, this nine-storey, brick and timber tower was almost destroyed in the final years of the Cultural Revolution. Today it is hung with colorful prayer flags, a sign of the revival of religion in modern China. Inside the temple boasts massive incense burners and a large prayer hall featuring massive deities. Colorful altar cloths hang down from the ceiling, embroidered with dragons and phoenixes. Unless you want to climb the bell-tower, a visit to the temple is free, which makes a pleasant change from most tourist sights in China.

Nanchan Temple in downtown Wuxi

Nanchan Temple in downtown Wuxi

After visiting Nanchan Temple, the obvious next move is to wander down Nanchan Lu, the road which forms the core of Wuxi’s gentrified old town. Although much of the tourist literature on Wuxi will mention that it dates back 2500 years, what you see on display here is a restored neighborhood from the Qing Dynasty. Here you will former houses, wine taverns, artisan’s workshops and warehouses converted into cafes, restaurants and souvenir stalls. Authentic old stone and timber buildings are mixed with some concrete reproductions, but overall the effect is  pleasing, and this is one of the more attractive “old streets” in Jiangsu. Most people come here just to drink overpriced coffees and green teas, but for people looking for a more educational experience, about halfway along Nanchan Lu is the Silk Museum, housed in a handsome old stone building. Apart from this, you could always rent one of the boats for a ride along the stone-lined canals.

At the far end of the “old street” is the districts most celebrated attraction, the Ming Dynasty era Qingming Bridge. Dating to the late sixteenth century, it is the largest and best-preserved stone arch bridge in Wuxi. At over eight metres tall and over forty-three metres long, it is both impressive in its size and elegant in its design. It is named after the Qingming Festival, often translated in English as “Tomb-Sweeping Day”, but for Chinese tourists its name also recalls the most famous of all Chinese scroll paintings, the magnificent Along the River During the Qingming Festival by Sung Dynasty artist Zhang Zeduan. There is one particular panel of this five-metre long silk scroll which shows a teeming bridge scene. Everything about this panel- the barges in the canal, the bustling streets filled with merchant’s carts, and the graceful arch of the bridge itself- must have been similar to the scene in this part of Wuxi during the Ming Dynasty. Chinese travellers are said to be mindful of the scroll when gazing upon the Qingming Bridge here.

Cam at the Qingming Bridge, Wuxi

Cam at the Qingming Bridge, Wuxi