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November 28, 2018

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Where tourists ‘enter villages but see no houses’

THOUSANDS of years ago, Chinese ancestors in what is today the city of Sanmenxia in Henan Province dug huge pits as dwellings. The exact reason for the dikengyuan, or “pit yards,” remains a mystery.

The custom was passed down through generations. There are now more than 12,000 pit yards in 200 villages in the Shanzhou District of the city. The oldest are more than 300 years old, and the most recent date back to the 1980s.

As pit yard owners moved into houses above ground, the Shanzhou local government began renovating some of them into a sightseeing zone to showcase the unique local culture.

In the zone, some 22 pit yards are linked by underground passages. Square or rectangular courtyards have 10-14 homes, with ceilings about 3 meters high.

They were listed as intangible cultural heritage by Chinese authorities in 2011.

Visitors can not only see how the rooms were laid out for families, but they can also enjoy folk art performances and local cuisine.

An online writer, whose screen name is “Deep Sea,” says a visit to the zone reminded him of his childhood because his grandfather once lived in such a pit yard and he often visited him during holidays.

“The caves — they did look like caves — were cool in the summer and warm in the winter,” the writer recalls. “I remember that everyone living in the pit yards got up earlier in winters than those living in houses because they didn’t feel the morning chill so much.”

The idea of pit yard dwellings can be traced back 6,000 years, when the Yangshao culture prevailed in the area. Archeological findings show that the aboriginal lived in pits with stairs. They also made tools like stone shovels and hoes that could be used for digging the pits.

The first written record of the pit yards was found in a book from 1139. Written by a Southern Song (1127-1279) official named Zheng Gangzhong, it told of Zheng’s business trips to Henan and Shaanxi provinces.

He wrote, “There were many mud mountains and people lived in pit... they dug the pits like one would dig a well and even raised stock in them.”

The pit yards, however, were not known to the wider world until the early 20th century, when Czech-American writer and architect Bernard Rudofsky (1905-88) introduced and explained the structures in his book “Architecture Without Architects.”

A photo in the book, said to have been taken by a German pilot from the air, gave the landscape the appearance of a chess board.

According to local people, visitors “see the trees but no villages, enter villages but see no houses, go into a house but see no doors, and hear voices but see no people.”

In the past four decades, remaining dwellers gradually moved out of pit yards and into houses. As the abandoned pits either collapsed or just occupied great swathes of land, people began filling them in for farming. By the mid-1990s, not many well-preserved yards were left.

The establishment of the sightseeing zone is a form of cultural protection. Along with the pit yards, Shanzhou folk arts performed there are being saved from extinction.

One of those arts is known as “grass-beating dyeing,” or chui cao yin hua, a skill that imprints the shape and veins of grass leaves and flower petals on cotton cloth.

Zhu Xiuyun, 68, is the only local resident still practicing the technique. In one of the pit yards, she shows visitors how it’s done. Grass leaves and flowers are placed on a piece of cloth, then beaten in with a wooden club for several minutes. When the plants are stripped off, the shape of leaves and petals remains vividly imprinted on the cloth by their natural juices. The work is finished after further color fixing.

“We use moss-rose purslane the most,” Zhu says. “The plant is very juicy, which makes it easier to imprint the color onto the cloth. I wanted to learn the technique because I wore clothes made of ‘grass beaten’ dyed cloth when I was a child. Later, they were not popular anymore, and I wondered where the technique had gone.”

Another pit yard displays the ancient wedding customs of the Shanzhou culture. Every weekend and on national holidays, a performing troupe enacts an entire wedding tradition that started in Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

The groom goes to the bride’s home to escort her to his house, where the ceremony is held. After the rite of three bows — honoring parents, heaven and earth and each other — the couple enters a bridal chamber and the ceremony is completed.

Visitors can see a typical Shanzhou bridal chamber. The most unique decorations are black papercut flowers pasted on the windows. In Shanzhou, black rather than traditional red is the color for festive occasions. It is believed that the custom dates back 4,000 years, to the Xia culture that regarded black the color of joy.

Visitors who have watched the performances say it was worth the trip, but many expressed disappointment that the restoration of pit yards in the sightseeing zone is too modern and lacks authenticity.

“I thought I could see the original look of the dwellings,” comments a visitor whose screen name was “BattleMage.” “But the restoration made it look like new construction with a commercial touch, which is a bit unnecessary in my opinion.”


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