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Ancient Towns of Yunnan - The Old Salt Capital of Heijing

Nestled in the valley along the Longgou River (龙沟河) between the lofty Chongshan (崇山) Mountain range, Heijing (黑井) was once a rich and prosperous town of central Yunnan province. Close to Kunming, geography contributes to make Heijing a well-preserved off-the-beaten path small-sized ancient town relatively difficult of access.

The story of the black ox

The name of Heijing, which literally means ‘Black Well’, comes from the legend of the fattest black ox of a native herdsman, Li Ah Zhao, that went missing. Following the prints, Li soon found his black ox licking salt near a well. Later, the black ox fell into the well and was transformed into a rock. Today, an epitaph topped by a giant stone statue of a black ox commemorate the story.

As salt was subject to a state monopoly, officials, merchants and caravans flocked to Heijing to deal in salt. Revenues in salt were crucial to the finances of the Nanzhao Kingdom (南诏王国). After parts of current Yunnan provinces were invaded and successfully anchored into the realm of the Chinese empire, the best salt from Heijing was sent as a tribute to the court of the emperor.

During the Ming and Qing dynasties, thousands of Han Chinese from eastern province ventured into the Southwestern borderland region, contributing to intensification of trade and radical change in the socio-economic landscape of Yunnan. Close to Kunming, Heijing was known as the ‘Salt Capital’ and was a thriving town until the mid-twentieth century when the Communist took over the power and banned trade.

Splendors of the past

Walking through the remaining slab-stones streets of Heijing, we find ancient temples, bridges and a few ancient dwellings that belonged to wealthy families, all involved in the trading of salt, the most important and the most impressive of which is the Wu Family Courtyard (武家大院). Built in the first half of the 19th century, it was designed to match the shape of the Chinese character for king (王). Although visitors can admire the unique shape of the mansion from the garden facing south, I really enjoy staying in the guesthouse right next to it where I got to wake up to a view of the gate.

The owner of my guesthouse, a native of Heijing, was confused by my presence in this remote town. When I asked what else Yunnan’s ancient salt capital had to offer to visitor, he scratched his head. “Well, there is the ancient Confucius temple right next door,… there are a few temples up on the hill, but I don’t know if they have been re-built. They were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, you know? he smiled, embarrassed.

Confucian Heritage

The entrance of the Confucius temple (文庙) is flanked by a slogan which says “教育要面向现代化,面向世界,面向未来” and that can be roughly translated by “education must face modernization, the world and the future”. I took it as an indication that we must part from the old Confucian ways. After climbing a flight of stone stairs, I faced a brand new guesthouse – empty. Inside, except the ancient stone arch and the gardens surroundings the geomantic pool, nothing remains of the Confucius temple; the main hall and the side wings have been transformed into offices.

I found another vestige of the influence of Confucianism in Heijing next to the Five Horses Bridge – or Wuma Bridge (五马桥), built in 1301 which indicates that salt and other goods made their way out of Heijing thus contributing to the prosperity of the town – where the delicate carvings of another stone arch were reminiscent of the style of the one I found at the Confucius Temple. Known as the 节孝总坊 (Jie Xiao Zong Fang) which can roughly be translated as “The Stone Arch of Chastity (节) and Filial Piety (孝)” it was built at the beginning of the 20th century to commemorate and honor the moral integrity of nearly 100 widow women of Heijing who remained chaste after the passing of their husband, as Confucian principles prescribed. Topped with phoenix, dragons and lions, the arch also marks the entrance of the lower part of the village.

Another less noticeable trace of the Confucian heritage (that we find in most ancient trading posts across Yunnan, by the way), is the layout of the slab-stones in the streets. There is usually a path in the middle of the alleys marked by vertical slab-stones and on the side coarse cobble-stones.

According to the Confucian hierarchy, scholars and officials who took the imperial exam walked in the path of the middle whereas merchants and commoners had to walk cobble stones on the side. In Heijing like elsewhere, the layout of the slab and cobble stones contributed to reinforce each and everyone’s place within society.

Buddhist temples

For unobstructed view of the town, climb the stairs next to the statue of the black ox to reach the renovated Dalong Temple (大龙寺) which features an imposing theater stage facing the main praying hall and the Fragrant Hill Temple (Xiangshan Si 香山寺), a Buddhist temple built on the hill slope in the 16th century. Inside, visitors will find a temple dedicated to Guanyin and another dedicated to Wenchang, the god of literature. The only inhabitant of the Xiangshan Si is a jovial nun who stopped everything she was doing to chat with me over a cup of tea.

Those who are into mountain hiking can follow the tracks up hills towards another Buddhist temple whose slatted roof can be seen from the bottom of the valley. In this temple, there are the graves and statues of monks and, I suppose, an incredible view on Heijing.

I did not got that far up.

Communist Heritage

From uphill, Heijing looks like any ugly remote town-ish village anywhere in China. We can see the concrete bridges that cut through the narrow valley and the ancient chimneys, no longer in use, of derelict factories, heritage of the Mao era. The few courtyard mansions, the quiet slab-stone streets lined with century-old historical buildings seemed to disappear under the ugliness of concrete of the square buildings.

In town, there are also a few noticeable slogans in red Chinese characters. Although they do not date back to the Mao era, they are symptomatic of how the Communist party reaches far into the countryside. Speeding up economic development, construction harmonious and civilized society, and improving the ‘quality’ of people are the main themes of these slogans.

Heijing was nonetheless an enjoyable experience. It’s an off-the-beaten path laid back town, off the radar to most Chinese tourists and that has retained an atmosphere of the past, but most important, a genuine rural vibe.

Although one has to pay a 30 RMB ticket to visit the Wu Family Courtyard Mansion, the Da Long Temple and two other sites I missed, Heijing is not a touristy place where it’s easy to find cheap (and basic) accommodations, enjoy local food from the restaurants or taste home-made alcohol in one of the shops that line the pedestrian street.

How to get there

Coming from the Dali – Xiaguan region, I took a bus to Chuxiong (around 2+ hours) where I changed to the East Bus station (东汽车站) for a bus to Heijing (3+ hours). From Chuxiong East, there is a bus every hour from 9 AM to 3 PM.

From Heijing, the first bus to Chuxiong leaves at 6 AM and the last one at 2.30 PM.

From Kunming, it is also possible to take a train to Yuanmou (元谋) and from there take a bus to Heijing. However, I do not have any information on buses between Yuanmou and Heijing.

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