Hongzhong’s Villa

On our day off yesterday we visited the Gaoshiqi’s Villa, which is also called the Xixi Villa. On our way to the villa we stopped at a real Chinese fast-food restaurant.  Picture 1 shows the lunch we had. 

The lunch was a bowl with rice, cabbage and spicy pork; the large bowl in the foreground.  The pork was actually seasoned with a lot of cinnamon and not ‘spicy’ as most of us use the term. The three small bowls in the center were peanut sorbet (furthest away), peanut soup (left) and black rice (right).  They were dessert.

The bread you can see in the picture, to the left and in the background, comes with a story.  It is called ‘minister’s’ bread.  If you remember the story about the general trying to save the city of Hangzhou during the Song Dynasty (see the Song Dynasty Opera blog), and the fact that the general (and the Emperor) were betrayed by a minister.  Well, it seems that the minister and his wife were captured by the people after the fall of the city (and Empire), tried for treason and executed. 

The wife was convicted of treason as well.  The way they were executed was to be tied tightly together and then boiled in oil!  So, this bread is divisible into two pieces (you can see the indentation for where they split apart in the photograph), and it is deep fat fried.  The two pieces represent the minister and his wife. This dish has been served for almost 900 years.  Obviously the Chinese have long memories.

The bread is fairly bland, it is served with a savory (not sweet) fruit sauce (the small dish located between the bread and the peanut soup in the picture).  They had not told me the story about the minister’s bread until we had some to eat.

Thirty minutes for lunch and then back to the car and off to the villa.

This ‘house’ was built between 1657 and 1664. It is a classic example of architecture from the Qing (pronounced Ching) Dynasty. The villa is really a compound that consists of a series of separate buildings of which only a few still remain.

The villa was constructed on a wetlands and uses the river and water features as an integral part of the overall impression provided by the estate. The wetlands were formed as the river snaked back and forth across the plains creating a series of tightly formed horseshoes  (‘U’s in the river). This is an ancient lazy, slow moving, tributary of the river that runs through Hangzhou.

Originally the estate was out in the country, but it is now adjacent to the city of Hangzhou on the extreme west side of the city, about a 45 minute drive due west from the hotel, which is on the east side of the city. It is only about 3 miles from West Lake. The estate and thousands of acres of the land around it are all now a National Wetlands Park, the only wetlands in an urban area in China.

Only a small part of the estate has survived – some of the public buildings and a couple of the gardens associated with those buildings.

The true story about the person who built the estate is interesting.  It seems that Gaoshiqi (or Xixi) was a very learned man who could never pass the exams to become a minister for the country, and so had moved out to this ‘country estate’ to live his life in peaceful surroundings.  In many ways his estate mirrored the West Lake, on a much smaller scale.

The reason he could never pass the exams is because the Qing Dynasty Emperor, and all of his senior ministers, were Manchu (Manchurian), not Han. Therefore, no Han was allowed to pass the exams and Gaoshiqi was Han.

In 1664, while on a patrol of Southern China to inspect the country, the Emperor visited the estate.  The Emperor became entranced with the beauty of the estate as well as the character and honesty of Gaoshiqi.  During his visit the Emperor named one of the buildings – the ‘Bamboo Window’ (building) and arranged for Gaoshiqi to retake the exams under the direct supervision of the Minister of Education – a private exam.  He passed that exam and would eventually become the Emperor’s most trusted Senior Minister.

Becoming a minister meant that Gaoshiqi would have to move to Beijing, near the Forbidden City, and only be able to visit his country estate on the rare occasion of a ‘vacation’ from Beijing.  However, the Emperor would accompany Gaoshiqi on several subsequent visits to the estate.

Like all Chinese estates, this one is a grouping of buildings not a single ‘house.’ For example, buildings might include a ‘greeting room’, one for dining, one for afternoon naps, and so forth.  Each building functioned just as a individual room in a modern house would function.

Groups of rooms would form a compound surrounded by walls and several compounds formed the entire estate. This would also include very private compounds that guests never saw.  Having many individual buildings, and several walled compounds, would mean if someone attacked the villa they would have a very small chance of getting to the owner unless there was a traitor on the inside that could tell them exactly which building, in which compound, he was when they attacked.

Picture 2 is the ceremonial entrance to the estate.  This would be the gate where Gaoshiqi would have greeted the Emperor on his arrival.  There is a path you can see on the other side of the gate that actually leads to the entrance to the villa.

The entrance to the villa is a smaller, more discrete, stone gate leading to a path through a bamboo grove. The bamboo walls of the path are shown in picture 3.
The bamboo are on both sides of the walkway and keep you from seeing anything of the estate until you are practically at the front door; which is seen in picture 4.


Immediately behind this door can be found an entrance garden and the first building – the ‘first greeting building’, shown in picture 5.
There are many interesting things to see, some of them quite remarkable – such as the Chinese version of a Bonsai tree shown in picture 6, which is in a passage way between the first greeting building and the building behind it.  .
Servants would take the passage ways, the guests would enter the building, walk through it and exit through another set of doors opposite the entry doors.

There are a number of buildings in this first compound that are similar in design and shape to the one in picture 5.  As you move through several of them you reach the Bamboo Window building, which would be where the minister would actually greet visitors, onto a ‘back deck’ that opens up to the view seen in Pictures 7 and 8.

If you walk along the path to the bridge shown in picture 7 and look back to the Bamboo Window building you can see the entire Bamboo Window building, this is picture 9.

Let me spend a minute and explain the concept of naming buildings in China.  On an estate the owner would name, or have his close friends and advisors be given the honor of naming, each building.  If you were lucky your ‘boss’ would name a building. Having the Emperor name a building (whom you could never presume to ask to name a building) would indicate a very important person of the highest status. It was quite rare for the Emperor to name a building on someone’s estate.

As you continue on down the path you can see another group of buildings and another pond that is separate, but adjacent, to the pond beside the Bamboo Window building. See picture 10. You can see several lotus in bloom in this picture

Finally, on the opposite side of the ‘Bamboo Window’ building is another small public-private garden.  A public-private garden would be one for very special guests; it was in the public compound but a private garden. This is shown in picture 11. 

  The large rock in the center of the picture is called the ‘heart of the river’.  It is a large rock found in the river that was formed by the currents of the river over thousands of years – there are 4 or 5 similar rocks, but none this large, around the estate.

It was a beautiful estate, with remarkable gardens.

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