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Wang Grand Courtyard: the Grassroots "Forbidden City"

Number of visits: Date:Dec 16,2013

Many travelers have marveled at the magnificence of the Forbidden City in Beijing. Not far from the capital city, in central Shanxi Province, there is a grassroots "Forbidden City", the Wang family's Grand Courtyard, or Wang Jia Da Yuan. How can a civilian residence compare with the royal palace?


The five majestic castles of the Wang Grand Courtyard  Courtyard lay on a plain hillside in the village of Jingsheng in central Shanxi.


The buildings occupy a total area of 250,000 square meters. That is as large as one-third of the real "Forbidden City".


The ancestor of the Wang family, a farmer named Wang Shi, settled down in Jingsheng village 700 years ago.


Legend has it that besides cultivating the land, he also made a living making bean curd.


And his part-time job started a mercantile tradition in the family. The following centuries witnessed the Wang family expanding not only in population but in their business and social status.


More wealth gave family members a better education and paved their way to political power. During its heyday in the 18th century, the grand courtyard was home to over 1,000 male Wang offspring and their wives and children.


Among them, 12 were major government officials, 42 were honored with various official titles and many more were successful merchants.


Although the Wang family has long since declined along with China's feudal system, the grand courtyard has managed to survive and become a monument of the famous Shanxi merchants' past glory. Now, two castles of the courtyard are opened to visitors.


Located in the east of the grand courtyard is the Gaojiaya castle, built about 150 years ago and owned by two brothers from the 17th generation named Wang Rucong and Wang Rucheng.


The compound consists of two joint mansions and a shared recreational area, occupying about 20,000 square meters.


Gaojiaya adopts China's time-honored architectural style of "siheyuan", in which houses surround square courtyards in four horizontal directions.


But what distinguish Gaojiaya are the variety of carvings found on the brick, stone and wooden materials in the buildings.


Constructed during the most prosperous period of the Qing Dynasty, the Gaojiaya castle exhibits colorful, exuberant and detailed decorations. Vivid carvings and sculptures can be found everywhere: eaves, columns, walls, window frames, door heads, thresholds and staircases.


"This might be the most interesting stone carvings in the courtyard. It portrayed a fable from an ancient book - '24 Filial Piety Charts', meant to educate the newly-wed wives how to behave. On the chair an old lady is seated. She was toothless because of old age so she couldn't eat regular food. So her daughter-in-law breast-fed her. By her side was a baby boy. But his attention was drawn to a servant with a toy, so that his mother could save the breast milk for his grandmother. Plants with auspicious meanings were blooming all around them. It indicated that a family could prosper only when the housewife was virtuous and pious."


The local tour guide Wu Xiaoxu explains the meaning of a stone relief on the outside wall of a house. This piece illustrates the important role of the housewife in a big family like the Wang's, which is ironic because, at that time, women were not even counted as legitimate family members. Nevertheless, the Gaojiaya castle has dozens of such didactic decorations scattered all over the yard with the purpose of teaching the youth about traditional virtues like diligence, concord and filial piety(obedent). Other carvings convey all kinds of auspicious meanings so as to surround the residents with abundant domestic bliss.


Like many Shanxi merchants, the Wang family was also involved in business overseas. The traces can be found on a pair of exotic threshold decorations.


"The figures carved on the lower sides were Western laborers, because they had distinctive high nose bridges and deep eye sockets. It shows that the Wang family had already met the outside world and joined in the cultural exchange between East and West."


To the west of Gaojiaya is the square-shaped Hongmenbu, or the Red Gate Castle. Compared with the luxurious Gaojiaya, the Red Gate Castle was constructed half a century earlier and still followed the simple style of the previous Ming Dynasty.


The remarkableness of the Red Gate Castle lies in its ensemble. In total it has 88 suites with 716 rooms. With an overall area of 25000 square meters and surrounded by high ramparts, it even looks like a miniature version of the Forbidden City from afar.


Some houses in the grand courtyard have been turned into museums displaying the Wang's family tree as well as their cultural heritage. Antique furniture, ancient paintings and relics help visitors conjure up images of the family's prosperity during its apex. Among the exhibits, two items from the Qing Dynasty are particularly noteworthy. One is a genuine imperial edict, and the other is a large map that shows China's domain in the 18th century. Both pieces were royal gifts and showed the Wang family's privileged political status.


Among all the big ancient merchants' mansions in Shanxi, the Wang family's Grand Courtyard is the largest in scale. Its location, structure, architectural features and artistic carvings add to its uniqueness and charm. Over the past decade, it has attracted numerous researchers, photographers and tourists.


Cao Hua, the administrative director of the Wang family's Grand Courtyard, gave us some figures.


"We annually receive 600,000 tourists. The yearly income has reached 30 million yuan. And about one-sixth of visitors come from other countries."


Although the chilly weather in late October has ended the peak tourism season, there are still quite a few visitors strolling amidst the castles with an awed expression on their faces.


One man surnamed Li is from central China's Henan Province.


"The architecture is awesome and the style is unique. The carvings, no matter on the bricks, wood or stones, are all fantastic. It's a wonder that they are so well preserved. It is a precious treasure."


Among the visitors are quite a few foreigners, like Kathy Swanson from the United States.


"It's very impressive. It's huge. It's much bigger than I expected.. Really, really, beautifully designed and I think the little gardens inside are really impressive too."


There is still much to say about the Wang family's Grand Courtyard, but it'll be more fun to see it with your own eyes. As a slogan in the courtyard reads: "You need see no more mansions after seeing the Wang family's Grand Courtyard." Is it true? Come and decide for yourself!

TypeInfo: Compound news

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