New Tales from Ancient Hakka Villages

By Cai Mengyao

In the 2016 Chinese animated movie Big Fish and Begonia, the traditional Hakka walled villages left a deep impression on viewers. The vernacular structures are also called Weiwu, and Longnan City in southern Jiangxi Province is renowned as the World Capital of Walled Villages. The characteristic walled villages are of varied types—each with unique stories of times long ago. 

Situated between the Yangtze River to the north and the Nanling Mountains to the south, mountain-enclosed Jiangxi Province is the birthplace of numerous mysterious religious and folk cultures.

Yanyi Walled House in Longnan, Jiangxi Province.

Gateway to Jiangxi

Longnan is known as the southern gateway to Jiangxi because of its position at the southern end of Jiangxi, bordering Guangdong Province. Along National Highway 105 stretching towards Wudang Township in Longnan are spectacular red cliffs known as the Danxia landform. The way they blend with the green mountains composes a spectacular scene.

A Chinese national tourist attraction, the Southern Wudang Mountain is Jiangxi’s first landscape to greet visitors coming from the south. While the highest peak reaches 864 meters above sea level, the most striking attraction is a pair of mountains standing perfectly parallel. Wudang Peak in the south and Jiangjun (General) Peak in the north appear like two giant elephants meeting in the air. The deep, narrow gorge between the two peaks is called Yixiantian, which literally means “a strip of the sky,” and it’s famous for spectacular echoes.

Reaching the summit requires a 40-minute climb up stone steps. Along the journey, visitors see many spectacular scenes such as the cool Qingfeng Pass, an iron ladder reaching up the cliffs, and a huge cave shaped like the mouth of a toad. Some climbers bring camping gear and spend the night on the campground at the top of the mountain to enjoy the starry sky.

Through the glass floor of a U-shaped gazebo built on a bulge of the mountain, visitors can clearly see billowing clouds and a panorama of the whole mountain. The high glass viewing belt featuring a corridor, a panoramic U-shaped gazebo, and an overpass, all with glass floors, is a must-see attraction for tourists obsessed with heights and an adrenaline rush.

A path hidden in bamboo groves leads to Wudang Temple atop the mountain. It is a Buddhist temple first built in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Tourism development in recent years has resulted in more visitors to the ancient structure. The quiet environment of mountains and forests makes Jiangxi an ideal place for many senior monks to live and engage in self-cultivation. As early as the Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) dynasties, the area had become a destination for Buddhism followers. “Those who pursue high official titles go to Chang’an, while those who worship Buddha head for Jiangxi,” went a saying from the time.

About 30 kilometers southwest of Southern Wudang Mountain is Jiulianshan National Nature Reserve. Its large area of primary ever-green broadleaf forest is home to a variety of birds, and is one of the two bird-observation bases established by the Institute of Zoology under Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The primary forest covers tens of thousands of hectares of land and has a small yet quiet town on its northeast side. The houses, built with rammed earth, blend in with broad bamboo groves and tea plantations. Visitors can experience tea-picking and oil manufacturing processes passed on across generations by locals. Seeing the town on foot is recommended because the twisting and steep paths are often serenaded by breezes blowing through the lush bamboo groves.

Hakka Houses

In ancient times, the beautiful mountains in Longnan received and protected many people who were forced to leave their original homes because of wars or disasters.

The Hakka is one of the eight major subgroups of the Han Chinese. Throughout history, southern Jiangxi experienced five large waves of immigration from northern China.

The local household registration system historically distinguished immigrants as “guest natives,” and newcomers were called the Hakka, which literally means “guest families.” The Hakka people eventually integrated into the ethnic groups of southern China and gradually developed a unique Hakka culture.

Longnan, an area of Hakka concentration, has Hakka roots dating back as early as the Tang and Song (960-1279) dynasties, during which time immigrants started building walled houses and villages. Longnan now boasts a total of 376 walled houses, all of which are key sites under national-level protection. In the past, the Hakka lived in seclusion in the mountains, but they built homes in concentrated clusters to prevent assaults by wild animals and bandits, a practice which evolved into construction of Hakka walled villages.

In the movie Big Fish and Begonia, walled houses appear in a round shape. In contrast, most walled houses in Longnan are square or rectangular. Such a compound generally has buildings with two to four stories on the four sides and watchtowers at the four corners. Resembling fortification architecture, Hakka walled houses in Longnan are also called “ancient Roman castles in the East.”

The Guanxi New Walled House is the best-preserved Hakka walled house in China with the most complete structure and function. It features a structural layout consisting of two layers of squares offering more than a hundred rooms in three-story buildings. The compound has gates on the east and west sides, while a big house anchors the middle of the courtyard. All buildings are connected.

Longguang Walled House is another representative of Longnan walled houses. Its outer walls are made of stone bars arranged in an elegant yet coordinated style. Two streams embrace the house, functioning as moats, and a tract of terraced fields stretches to the foot of the mountains. Surrounded by mountains, rivers, and terraces, Longguang Walled House is now a retreat away from the modern world.

The interior decorations of the walled houses are usually exquisite, complicated, and magnificent to demonstrate the status and the cultural accomplishments of their owners. The beams of the houses are usually inscribed with patterns of bats, dragons, and pomegranates, representing people’s expectations for big families and good fortune.

Inside the walled house, the rooms, courtyard, cobblestone flooring, and dried food spread out in front of the gates complete an idyllic scene. Often, a granny in traditional Hakka clothes can be seen humming tunes while using an old loom to make textiles. The scene inspires visitors to slow down and enjoy their days in the house peacefully and happily.

The legendary walled houses in Longnan hosted myriad stories over their long histories. The Danzizhai Walled Stockade of Jinggang Village was the setting for a story from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). A group of bandits attempted to rob the stockade, but the walled houses coupled with a fierce defense from the villagers made the attack particularly difficult. The robbers blockaded the gate of the road to the water source. On the tenth day of the siege, the bandits realized that those inside were not short of water because some villagers were seen drying their washed clothes on bamboo poles. In fact, the clever villagers collected tea oil to soak fabric to fake the “washed and wet clothes” to fool the robbers. The conned bandits eventually gave up their attempt at robbery.

Traditional Hakka Food

In addition to myriad folk stories, the Hakka in Longnan also developed unique folk culture during the long days within the walls. During the Lantern Festival on the 15th day of the first lunar month, locals make fire dragons using straw and the joss sticks to pray for a good harvest and good luck. The Hakka people also make potato starch balls as an “entrée” of Hakka cuisine. After being stewed in soup-stock and seasoned with condiments and sesame oil, the balls appear like the “pearly eyes of phoenixes,” so the dish is called “Phoenix Eye Pearls.” It is often made to treat guests.

Many of the most unforgettable memories of Hakka people may involve sweet and mellow Hakka rice wine. In Yangcun Village of Longnan, rice wine brewing techniques were adopted from the Central Plains by ancient people who left their original home and immigrated to Longnan, where their brewing method became unique under the influence of local traditions.

In the past, the Hakka wine brewing techniques were fundamentally commanded by women, and almost every household in Longnan produced rice wine. The ancient method of making rice wine involved eight processes, and the rice wine made in Yangcun Village has a wonderful and strong aroma with a crystal clear but light yellow color.

Liao Wangdi is an inheritor of the techniques to make the Yangcun rice wine. She learned it from her mother when she was young and accumulated over four decades of experience in wine making. Many villagers ask for her guidance to make the wine.

Liao recalled that around the 1970s, rice wine was only served during the Spring Festival because of the shortage of rice, so she could not drink it as much as she wanted. In the 1980s, China began to practice the household contract responsibility system in rural areas which allowed farmers to manage their own arable land. It greatly activated farmers’ enthusiasm for cultivation and farming, and the supply of food increased significantly, facilitating production of rice wine. Local New Year celebrations gradually expanded alcohol consumption from a few meager kilograms to dozens of jars as locals stopped worrying about a shortage of wine.

By the late 1990s, many young people in Longnan were leaving home to work in big cities in the neighboring provinces. They spent their whole years working outside and only returned around Chinese New Year’s Eve. Consequently, young people seldom had time to make the rice wine and instead opted for Baijiu, a mainstream Chinese liquor, to celebrate the festival. Only local-based women like Liao maintain the habit of brewing several jars of rice wine. Therefore, the techniques to make it are risking extinction.

In 2014, the Yangcun rice wine brewing technique was named an intangible cultural heritage of Jiangxi Province. When Liao’s son heard the news, he became determined to inherit the technique from his mother to promote the traditional cultural heritage. Following the suggestions of experts, he applied modern technologies such as constant-temperature fermentation to traditional techniques to increase the efficiency of brewing. The integration and innovation revitalized traditional wine-making approaches, and he has since become a qualified inheritor.

Nowadays, “even good wine needs bush.” In the past, few knew the merit of traditional folk culture and handiwork from Longnan. In recent years, Longnan has organized the Hakka Rice Wine Festival to attract visitors to experience the characteristic rice wine culture of the Hakka people. Last year, the Jiangxi-Shenzhen High-speed Railway opened to traffic, providing even more “bush” for Longnan culture. At the Musical Festival of Longnan Walled Village held at the end of July 2022, traditional Hakka songs and dances were performed alongside modern music in the ancient walled houses. This year, the 32nd World Hakka Conference is scheduled to be held in Longnan. The old village is poised to become a world-famous Hakka city. Longnan, once isolated and hidden in the mountains, is telling its new stories and marching into the world.

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