Nowadays, other than seniors who have rented out their houses for commercial use and moved closer to their children in big cities, most residents have stayed on in the town. They have incentive to remain as tourism is bringing in solid incomes, and visitor numbers look set to increase.
The horsehead wall is a prominent feature of Hui architecture – walls in staircase-style jutting out from the roof gables. Most old towns in Anhui were densely populated. If a fire broke out at one residence, neighboring buildings would soon be affected. One clever magistrate of Huizhou Prefecture in the Ming Dynasty had an idea: increase the height of the gable walls of every fifth to tenth house to cut off the source of fire and prevent it from spreading. For this reason, horsehead walls are also knows as fire-sealing walls.
The horse is considered an auspicious animal in traditional Chinese culture. As local Hui merchants traveled around the country and rose to commercial prominence, horsehead walls became endowed with more meanings: the higher a building’s walls, the higher the social status of its residents. Also, as local men would often leave their hometown for business as teenagers, the horsehead walls were a material symbol of the wish for a family reunion .
Gazing at the beautiful contrast of dark grey roofs and crisp white walls, we were deeply impressed by the craftsmanship and creativity of the Hui architects. Horsehead walls brought the houses to life. Seen from afar, the horsehead walls reminded us of the classic Chinese painting 10,000 Galloping Horses, a symbol of prosperity of China.
The exterior facades of Hui-style residences are delicate and their interior designs often luxurious. They have an open space in the center surrounded by houses or high walls. This design reflects the desire to amass wealth. Local residents considered raindrops as a symbol of fortune, and believed fortunes would “pour in” if they collected the year’s rainfall. They hence set up a system of pipelines that at every corner of their yards to gather rainwater, channeled outside through sewerage. Such a concept signifies the bygone mentality: “Keep the benefits within the family.”
After the morning drizzle ceased, residents opened their doors and sat in front of their houses. Some were stirring malt sugar, others making handicrafts, and still others enjoying the sunshine.
Passing by one house, we noticed a beautiful red lantern inscribed with the Chinese character Qiao. The owner of the house, an elderly gentleman, smiled and told us it was his family name.
The tradition of hanging a lantern with the male owner’s surname in front of gate has lasted for over 1,000 years in Sanhe Town. It is said that lanterns hung in front of doors, in addition to being decorations for festivals, also convey family news. For example, a red candle in the lantern means the family is holding wedding. A white candle signifies a funeral. A slip of white paper on the surname means the death of a male.
Strolling around town, we walked down a number of extremely narrow alleyways, one of which I didn’t even notice at first glance. This was the “One Person Alley,” the oldest and most famous in the town. Two people walking side by side stand no chance of passing through here. We reached the end of it and arrived at the former residence of Chen Ning Yang, laureate of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1957. In 2001 he came back to revisit his former residence in this alley.
There are few riverside towns in central Anhui, and Sanhe Town is without a doubt the most beautiful among them. The Xiaonan River runs through the town from south to north to meet the Fengle and Hangbu rivers, which then flow on into Chaohu Lake. Since time immemorial the fate of Sanhe has been closely linked to its river system.
Roads and waterways were the major forms of transportation in ancient China, and the Xiaonan River was a heavily used route. This made Sanhe Town the most important commodity collection and distribution center in the region between the western bank of Chaohu Lake and the eastern edge of the Dabie Mountains. Everyday goods such as aquatic products, ceramics, rice, silk, bamboo and timber were transported from the upper reaches of the river to Sanhe Town. They were then sold on to towns of the river’s lower reaches. Daily use articles from Nanjing and Shanghai were also transported here for distribution in the region. At that time many merchants converged in Sanhe Town. Ships formed steady traffic through the town, making it the “commodity corridor” of central Anhui.
In the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties, locals developed the former flood plain around the town into croplands that extended several kilometers. It was after this cultivation that the town became known as a commercial port that shipped out large volumes of rice.
A rice granary from those times is still in good condition today. Its grand size featuring multiple courtyards is testament to the prosperity of the town in former times.
Owing to its location at the crux of three rivers, Sanhe has traditionally been a place of great strategic importance. To the town’s north lies Chaohu Lake and Hefei City, formerly known as Luzhou. The way to important towns further south, such as Anqing and Jiujiang, also passed through Sanhe, not far from Nanjing, a historic capital of China.