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Where is China’s Downton Abbey?

The finest congregation of dynastic homes

Where is China’s Downton Abbey?

A British friend once asked me: “The UK has many beautiful stately homes, where are the Chinese stately homes? Where is China’s Downton Abbey?”

I couldn’t really give her an answer other than pointing to a couple of wangfus (王府 home of royal relatives) in Beijing. Fortunately, a recent trip to Shanxi – one of the poorer provinces on the Loess Plateau in the north – opened my eyes to some amazingly well-preserved “stately homes”, most of which were based in the historic town Pingyao, a UNESCO world heritage site since 1997.

I had heard about the once-famous jin shang (晋商 Shanxi tradesmen), who were lauded for their business acumen and professional discipline. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, due to over-population and limited agricultural land, many Shanxi people turned to trade and travelled all over China, often setting up shops in major cities like Beijing. The need to remit funds home created demand for banks, the first of which was founded in Pingyao in 1823 (with a headquarters staff of just 16 and 22 branches nationwide, historians estimate that it made Rmb12 billion in its 108 years of operation).

During the tour of Pingyao, I was pleasantly surprised with the beautifully built courtyard homes, shops and early banks. Elegant and ethereal, they represent the best of traditional Chinese architectural designs and craftsmanship. However, what impressed me the most was the grand Qiao Family Compound, situated about 30 kilometres northeast of Pingyao. This was where the famous 1991 movie Raise the Red Lantern was filmed (directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Gong Li). Largely built in the nineteenth century by one of China’s richest financiers, the compound is considered one of the finest remaining examples of northern China’s grandest private residences (see photo).

Different from grand Western homes like Downton Abbey, which tend to be multi-level mansions, the Qiao Family Estate is a walled compound that spreads over 8,700 square metres, with 313 rooms inside 6 large courtyards and 19 smaller courtyards.

Structured in the shape of the Chinese character meaning ‘double happiness’ 囍, the courtyards are similar in general design but each has unique features. Most are built in rectangular shape, with a slightly elevated gated entrance, two longer rows of single-storey rooms and a larger main hall, some in two levels, facing the entrance. The buildings were predominantly built in brick with tiled roofs and wooden beams and window frames. Hanging above the entrances are wooden tablets with beautiful calligraphy that reflect the mood/character of the building.

Truly reflecting the tradition of “four generations under one roof” and the Confucian emphasis on filial piety, the grandest and quietest courtyards were usually occupied by senior generations, whereas younger people lived in the smaller and simple ones. During the tour, I couldn’t help thinking that the residents in these rooms and courtyards must have been quite isolated, however. And also, due to low-ceilings and small windows, most of the rooms were both dark and cold. So if you ask me, I would probably rather live in Downton Abbey in England than in the Qiao Family Compound in northern China, simply for its greater openness, warmth and comfort.

Mei grew up in northeast China, attending an elite university in Beijing and graduate school in the US. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China in the media and at two investment banks. If you’d like to ask Mei a question email her at [email protected]

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