OUR research team was excited about visiting the canola fields in Wuyuan, Jiangxi, southeast China.
It was one day of rest between interviewing old church members and contacts and visiting old churches in the Yangtze.
Before reaching the ancient village of Likeng, we passed through many canola fields. How nice it was to be in the midst of fields of flowers! Our souls were refreshed, especially after a heathy meal of local fresh fish and lots of vegetables.
Furthermore, it was Ching Ming Day (Tomb-sweeping Day) and we were introduced to qingtuan, green dumplings made of glutinous rice and Chinese mugwort — very much like ‘ang koo kuih’ in Malaysia.
Traditionally, the Chinese would bring cold qingtuan to the tombs, and when they returned home, they would eat more qingtuan.
It was quite late in the afternoon when we arrived at Likeng, an antiquated Tang Dynasty village in Wuyuan. It had grown colder and was raining. The footpaths were wet and slippery. For about 20 minutes, we found it daunting walking from the entrance of the village to our homestay. One of our leaders was not able to walk very well.
Likeng Village is populated by the Li’s and made up of a cluster of houses, constructed along a small creek or brook. Small boats are gently propelled along the scenic waterway by local women, using a pole.
The brook is two to three metres wide, spanned at different points by makeshift bridges — some wooden, some concrete.
There are probably 300 Li households here. Many of the buildings are considered the best preserved ancient architecture in China, having been built in 740 during the Tang Dynasty.
We were happy to know that due to the remoteness of the village, these ancient buildings have been successfully preserved. Only small boats can ply the main brook. Motorbikes were recently introduced and if the riders could manoeuvre along the narrow paths, they could be more mobile in this compact area. Otherwise, the best way to go sightseeing or to move about in the village is on foot.
The village is in Wuyuan County in the northeast of Jiangxi Province, People’s Republic of China, bordering the provinces of Zhejiang to the east and Anhui to the north.
According to historical records, the Foochows did a lot of trading with the people of Jiangxi, particularly in porcelain. And Mawei was a port of export for the porcelain made in Jiangxi.
Interestingly, the locals spoke their Hui dialect at first but since they also spoke in Mandarin, it made things easier for us from Malaysia. Very few speak English.
Even as we walked past the shops, young girls and elderly women were still washing laundry in the late afternoon light. Probably, some of them had come back from tomb-sweeping and had to immediately wash their clothes. It was a good time for taking photos even though the light was fading. To make the best of the situation, we split into three groups, clicking away with our cameras to capture the idyllic scene.
Visit to shops
According to the tourist brochure, Likeng is the most scenic village of Wuyuan — with its unique buildings, peculiar narrow pathways and small bridges and picturesque surroundings.
Some people might feel queasy walking across the small bridges, and the pathways outside the shops are only two or three people deep.
So an unsupervised child or an unwary person could accidentally drop into the brook.
Actually, no big crowds should gather around the shops. The best thing is to walk into one in a small group of three or four — either to have a drink or look for a bargain.
Even then, it’s only when a tourist is really keen to buy that the shopkeeper will take him further into the premises for a look at the workshop and more display of goods. Otherwise, it’s just a ‘happy to see you, please move along to the next shop’ kind of body language.
One of our friends wanted to purchase a big scroll. After assuring he was serious about buying, he was brought by the owner, a young university graduate, no less, into the inner part of the shop where, while tagging along, we also got to see many more of the owner’s products and also listen to her detailed description of her artworks.
By the time our friend paid for the two-metre wooden scroll with hand-crafted Chinese characters, we had more or less become good friends with the owner.
In another shop further inland, a friend bought some camphor wood combs. The shop offered tourists a lot of camphor chests of different values.
Camphor chests are known to be very long lasting because the wood itself is an insect repellent. Clothes, kept in camphor chests, have a fragrant smell and do not get moldy.
The camphor wood carvings of the ancient sages — Buddha and Kwang Yin — are exquisite. The artists must be very famous to have such big orders from both locals and foreigners alike.
A few shops offered good snacks but we were hard pressed for time as we had booked dinner for the whole group at the homestay.
As more and more people gathered around the eateries, we realised it was dinner time. Firecrackers were let off. We were told when the villagers returned from sweeping the tombs, firecrackers were let off to announce their home-coming.
We were happy to try the Ching Ming kuih sold along the roadside at only two yuan apiece. Other street foods were also available. It was hard to resist all the temptations along the footpaths and shops.
Where we stayed, the rooms were heated and decorated with different themes. But moisture from the April showers had caused the rooms to become rather damp. We could feel the dampness on the panelled wooden walls and floors. So we opened the windows to let the air in, making the room less clammy and much better to stay in.
Soon, it was time for our dinner of over 15 dishes around a table for 16. The hot soup and spicey dishes helped to keep us a little warmer.
Beers and wines were introduced and we tried a little tipple to make the dinner a merry occasion. Our coach driver was friendly and chatty, chipping in with some jokes and anecdotes as we dined. The fellowship was friendly and warm and the dropping temperature didn’t seem to matter.
One interesting thing the manager told us was how they processed canola oil every year for home and family use.
The manager said her mother would bring the oil to Beijing or Shanghai where her siblings were working, adding: “We process enough oil for everyone and canola oil makes good gifts.”
The manager’s mother would usually travel once every two years or so during the slow tourist period while her siblings would return home once a year during the big holidays like the Double Ten or May Week.
The homestay is part of their grandparents’ home and land. They have been trying to renovate and improve it over the last 10 years with some government subsidies.
As we were the only guests at their homestay for the Ching Ming Holiday, they were happy that we, from a faraway land, had decided to book with them.
According to the manager, the locals will not travel during this period (Ching Ming). So we were quite happy there weren’t many people around as we did not have to share the homestay with others.
The dishes were delicious, especially for those of us who enjoyed the spicy food. We had pork knuckle and also Jiangxi’s most famous Anfuham, thinly sliced, and presented to us.
The vegetables were stir-fried or prepared with soybean sauce and garlic. We were told one of vegetables was a wild plant (li hao) from the riverside. It was a nice crunchy dish. Only the stalks were used and fried with pork. To me, it tasted like midin from Sarawak.
There was another delectable dish of tofu cooked with preserved beans.
In Jiangxi, tea oil is used almost exclusively for cooking — and the only other cooking oil is from rapeseed.
Many of the dishes were predominantly red as a lot of pounded chillies were used. In fact, a few of the shops in the village even demonstrated how the various types of chilli pastes were made. The original Three Cup Chicken actually originated from here and has become very popular in Taiwan and Malaysia, having been introduced to these places by the Hakkas.
According to folklore, Wen Tianxiang, a national hero and a native of Jiangxi during the Song Dynasty, was captured by the Yuan armies of Kublai Khan. Just before he was executed, a sympathetic warden cooked him this dish, using very limited resources.
Overall, it was a good visit, marked by a smooth road journey to an ancient village, and a lot of walking on slippery paths — quinessentially rustic mixed with some new trends.
Hopefully, this village will not become too commercialsed. It was hard to bid farewell to the boat women who had left a very deep impression on us all. Since it’s a remote village and off the tourist track, I wonder if I would ever come back for a second time.