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September 11, 2019

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Following in the footsteps of Ningbo history

“Even the raindrops in Ningbo are so delicate and picturesque that they really fit the landscape of Zheng’s Seventeen Rooms. Absolutely stunning.”

British expat Lynda Worrall was waxing a bit poetic about one of Ningbo’s prime visitor sites as we painted lianpu, or Chinese opera facial masks, in a traditional Chinese courtyard house.

Worrall was one of the participants on an iDEALShanghai tour of Ningbo organized by Shanghai Daily to give expats an opportunity to experience traditional Chinese culture.

Ningbo is an ancient port city that has witnessed the rise and fall of many ancient dynasties. Despite being a thriving port, the city has managed to retain rustic natural beauty, with scenic spots like the Jiulong Lake and historical sites like Tianyi Pavilion and Zheng’s Seventeen Rooms.

We started the tour with a visit to one of the world’s oldest private libraries, the Tianyi Pavilion.

It was founded by Fan Qin, a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) scholar. He chose the library’s name to link it to a water element, believing that it would prevent future fire disasters from destroying a collection that once numbered 70,000 ancient books. Unfortunately, the current collection has dwindled to 30,000 volumes due to numerous wars and thievery.

In 1923-25, the Qin family built an ancestral hall in the compound of the pavilion to worship their ancestors. The ancestral hall is known for its intricate wood, stone and brick carvings, and it also has a theater for performances.

To many of the tour participants, the highlight of the trip was the chance to go back in time at Zheng’s Seventeen Rooms, also known as Shiqifang.

The historical site has been reconstructed as a hotel to give guests the opportunity to stay in traditional Chinese courtyard houses.

“It feels like history had come alive in the walls, the alleyways and the river that runs through Shiqifang,” said Astin Yam, a Singapore intern with Mapletree Investments Shanghai.

“It is really beautiful and romantic. It is no wonder that traditional Chinese poems were written so beautifully back then.”

The history of Zheng’s family can be traced back to AD 806, during a period of political turmoil during the Five Dynasties period (907-960). Because of the constant warfare, the Zheng family moved south and settled in the Zhenhai District of present-day Ningbo. The town that housed five generations of the family has come to be known as Shiqifang.

During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Shiqifang was home to about 335 households all living together.

Most of the structures in the compound were built during the Qing Dynasty. There are many different rooms and halls open to visitors, such as Hengdefang, Hengxiangfang, Dazhutang, Houtang Building and Laolujia.

The small town still also exudes a water village charm. It is one of the best-preserved historical structures dating back to the Ming and Qing dynasties.

As you stroll along the riverbank and through the labyrinth of alleyways, you can see intricate carvings of wooden horse heads on stone walls. It is also interesting to note how the side wing rooms are all interconnected by stone archways to the main halls, with beautiful courtyard gardens in the center, unifying all the hallways and rooms.

The small town has a population of 1,024 residents, with amenities like a school and a traditional pharmacy in the compound.

The residents of Shiqifang were strong advocates of education for women, which was at variance with prevailing opinion in the Qing Dynasty.

Aside from visiting historical sites, the tour provided participants with opportunities to immerse themselves in traditional Chinese art painting and music. We were invited by the Zhenhai Tourism Bureau to try our hand at traditional fan-art painting at the 2019 Ningbo Tourism Exhibition.

There, the director of the Red Peony Academy of Chinese Painting and Calligraphy taught us how to paint peonies on traditional fans, calling the flower the “ideal representation of the diversity in Chinese culture and society.”

Nobuhle Zwane, a South African expat teaching English in Shanghai, was delighted with the painting, saying it looked easy but was more challenging than expected to use all sides of a brush to create a flower.

Another hands-on activity was traditional opera mask painting. Each color in lianpu denotes different characteristics of performers. Red, for example, indicates valor; a white face shows deceitfulness, while the color green hints at lack of self-control.

Apart from traditional Chinese highbrow art, I was captivated by “farmer painting.”

A small workshop in Shiqifang is filled with artworks that depict villagers’ daily lives, such as catching fish.

Artist Gao Nieqi said these artworks are typically characterized by vivid colors.

“I don’t paint complicated things,” Gao told us.

“I am usually inspired by the water and the simplicity of the farmer lifestyle near the sea. Take this painting I am working on. It shows a net catching fish. There is a Chinese saying da hei chu e, which means ‘fight against evil.’ As you can see, the fish signify the evil forces, and I am using the net to catch them all.”

Gao also paints on ordinary items like umbrellas, bags and shoes to reflect the humbleness of ordinary village life.

British expat couple Lynda and Philip Worrall said their favorite part of the tour was being able to immerse themselves in traditional Chinese culture.

“It was great fun!” said Lynda. “Throughout this Ningbo trip, we got to experience the rich history and culture of an ancient Chinese town. We have learned a lot. And the room where we stayed overnight was traditional and authentic as well.”

Aside from its rich cultural history, Ningbo is home to scenic spots like Jiulong Lake. The lake, known for its diverse eco-system, hosts endangered plant species such as manglieta, a species of the magnolia family, and taxus trees. The lake site is also famous for colorful azaleas.


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