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.

The Grand Canal

While the Great Wall of China is undoubtedly the nation’s most famous engineering feat, another ancient Chinese construction project was arguably just as impressive, and certainly more successful. While the Great Wall repeatedly failed to keep out invaders from the North, this ancient construction is still being used today. That project is the Grand Canal, an 1800 kilometre running from Beijing in the north to Hangzhou in the south. Completed in the Sui dynasty in the early seventh century, this fourteen hundred year old canal is still the longest manmade waterway in the world.

The earliest stage of the Grand Canal dates back to the Wu state, some 2500 years ago, when an ancient waterway was built from Yangzhou on the Yangtze River to the Huai River, 170 kilometres to the North. However, the great bulk of the construction can be attributed to the reign of the Sui Dynasty emperor, Emperor Yangdi. In 608 he ordered that the canal be extended to Beijing in the north and in 610 he demanded it be extended four hundred kilometres from Zhenjiang on the Yangtze River to the southern city of Hangzhou. This section of canal became known as the Jiangnan Canal. With the completion of this canal, Northern and Southern China were reliably linked in all seasons. The project cost at least tens of thousands of lives and the tax burden on the Chinese people was so huge it greatly aided in the collapse of the short-lived Sui Dynasty, but Yongdi’s great infrastructure project proved to have numerous benefits for the nation.

Bridges and barges on the Grand Canal

For one, it enabled troops to be transported quickly in the case of an attack on the Northern frontier, giving a boost to national defence. Second and crucially, it increased the economic interdependence of the North and South, giving a massive boost to the Chinese economy. Cheap and plentiful grain from the Yangtze River basin could be diverted north to the area around Beijing, increasing its food security. In Chinese the Grand Canal is known as the “Grain Transport River”, giving a hint at its crucial role in feeding the kingdom. Marco Polo also described its importance in his writings, noting, “Every year the southern provinces provide the king with everything wanted to needed to live well in the infertile province of Beijing, all of which must arrive on a fixed day, otherwise those who are paid to transport them are subject to a heavy fine”. For many centuries it was one of the busiest arteries of trade and commerce in the world, and it is noteworthy that most of the most prosperous cities in China and still located near this ancient waterway.

In 2005 China began the World Heritage listing process for the Grand Canal, saying of the waterway, “The canal is a manifestation of our country’s superiority over the world in water engineering and transport and it has been bequeathed to us as a rich legacy.” Despite its cultural and economic importance, it looks much the same as many smaller canals, so it has never been embraced as a tourist attraction. Nonetheless, for those interested in Chinese history, the Grand Canal is worth seeing. We got our best view of in in the Jiangsu city of Wuxi; in that part of Jiansgu, it is still regularly used by barges, which makes it more appealing as a sight. The Grand Canal passes about one kilometre to the west of the old town of Wuxi, and you can get a good view of it from Xihui Scenic Spot. There is even a barge harbour in town, which might be an interesting port of call (no pun intended) for those wanting to see canal life at its busiest.