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Flagpoles and Millstones


Text and photographs by Wang Ying

With the frantic pace of urbanization in China’s capital city, traditional siheyuan (residential quadrangles) and hutongs (narrow lanes) are becoming harder and harder to find in central Beijing. Many lovers of ancient architecture are now turning their eyes towards the suburbs, where some surrounding villages still preserve residences in the architectural style of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. Shuiyu Village in suburban Beijing Municipality’s Fangshan District is one particularly good example worth visiting.

In 2004, a field survey of historical relics across Beijing caused the once-secluded mountain village to reveal itself to the outside world. Historically, merchants from Shanxi Province stopped there to rest on business tours to the capital. Today, the village features more than 100 preserved quadrangle residences from the Ming and Qing dynasties, which total more than 600 rooms. The ancient structures are distributed in an orderly fashion across the mountainside. Along with its classical homes, the village is also noted for old millstones and traditional flagpole performances, both examples of folk heritage that has been passed down over generations. In 2004, it was dubbed a municipal-level folk tourist village of Beijing. This year, it was nominated as one of Beijing’s Most Beautiful Villages.

The village is laid out in a circular shape. A snaking, stone-paved road zigzags through the village, dividing it into two parts. Viewed from above, the whole village resembles the yin-yang symbol. At the entrance, a gate laid with stones holds a plaque carrying two Chinese characters “Ning Shui,” which literally mean “taming the flood.”

It was a sunny winter day when I visited Shuiyu Village. After passing the stone entry gate, I started wandering aimlessly down a stone-paved road. Millstones all around began attracting my attention. In total, the village preserves about 130 millstones, most of which come from the late Qing Dynasty. The oldest can be traced back to the reign of Emperor Daoguang (1821-1850), yet still finds use with locals. Despite centuries of weathering, the notches etched on the millstones still remain visible, reminding everyone of the village’s past glory. I imagined grinding newly harvested corn on the century-old millstones and then eating a hot bowl of porridge made from the powder.

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