Friday, July 11, 2008

Dream Left on Covered Bridges 廊桥遗梦

by Maple Xu

(Note: Maple, an avid traveler and photographer, just sent me another interesting travelogue. It makes you wonder how many mysteries exist in Chinese cultural history, just like the Yuyuan Taiji Celestial Village she wrote about last time. – Xujun)

Immortal Resident Bridge, built in 1453

[In translation]

Many years ago I read 廊桥遗梦 ("a dream left on covered bridges" – the Chinese translation for The Bridges of Madison County). That little book touched me deeply, even today I still remember some of the words Robert said to Francesca.

I was young and couldn't understand why Francesca would choose to stay instead of go with Robert. I felt sad and dejected for Robert. I took the novel as a true story, and wanted to go look for that covered bridge with blooming butterfly flowers at its foot.

At the time I did not have any idea what a covered bridge was.

Wenzhong Bridge, 1745

Three years ago when I traveled to Nanxi River, two backpack travelers from Beijing told me there were over a hundred covered bridges in Taishun County (泰顺县), located on the border between Zhejiang and Fujian provinces. This information gave me palpitations; for a while I was speechless. I couldn't imagine what the landscape would look like with so many covered bridges scattered in the fields. Would there be butterfly flowers blooming by them? Would Robert's love be there waiting? Even though this is a different country, covered bridges are covered bridges, right? Their existence itself suggests romanticism more than utility.

Today I'm in Taishun. Traversing the quiet villages one after another, looking for the different charming bridges one after another, I am baffled. Why has this remote, rather poor countryside assembled the largest number of covered bridges in China? Who designed them? Who first got the idea? Who built them? Were they for practical use or for recreation?

Three Woods Bridge, originally from Tang Dynasty, rebuilt 1843. An ancient poem inked on it

Records show that, fleeing from disasters or war, bit by bit many historical figures and worthy people had migrated to Taishun, an unfrequented area with undulating mountains, a utopia. They created many pastoral local cultures, and the covered bridges are representative of those.

The Taishun Transportation Chronicle records that a total of 476 bridges built before 1949 still exist, including over 30 covered bridges made of wood or stone from the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Six of the covered wooden bridges hold important positions in world bridge history.

Here what amazes me the most are the flying wooden arch bridges built without pillars. They are constructed of relatively short pieces of wood, horizontally and vertically woven, with beams interpenetrating and pinned to shape the arch. The ingenious structure is simply marvelous!

I run into several old men sitting sunbathing on the stone steps of Yongqing Bridge. This bridge is unique in its beams carved with carp feelers.
Yongqing Bridge, 1797, including 12 bridge houses; carp feelers carved on beams

One of the old men, with an expression resembling a smile yet not smiling, asks me, "Is the bridge good to look at?" "Yes!" I answer. "Nothing that good," he says. I want to question more, but he turns his head and says nothing further.

I think he means NOW the bridges are no longer good. Long, long ago, when there was no highway, the air was clean and fresh, the mountains were bright, the water was beautiful, the woods were lush, and the meadows were green. It was to this other-worldly place the covered bridges added rosy color.
Perhaps the old man wanted to tell me the bridges were good to look at only then.

Now the covered bridges are beaten and mutilated. The branches of the old camphor tree at the bridgehead are wizened and the leaves sparse. The most sorrowful scene is the assortment of plastic garbage thrown in the river under the bridges, and the white ceramic tile walls of the cement houses surrounding them.
But all that seems no longer important. The important thing is the covered bridges are still here. Like Robert's love.

Sister Bridges – East Bridge, 400 years old

Sister Bridges – North Bridge, 300 years old

Liu House Bridge, 1405, the oldest "flat" wooden bridge

Wenxing Bridge, 1857, asymmetric structure, 51 meters long, 5 meters wide; the most well-kept

Yuwen Bridge, 1839, stone arch, wooden corridor; the most beautiful

Claiming Clouds Bridge, Ming Dynasty, Zhengde Reign

(Photo copyrights 2008 Maple Xu)


Alfonso said...

Very interesting post. It is an unexpected gem.
I find it fascinating.
Hope the place will not be eventually flooded with tourists in the future.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Alfonso. Yes, let's hope not every beautiful place in China becomes a tourist attraction.

Alfonso said...

They should applied for UNESCO heritage recognition. I feel the people there are not aware of what they have.

Anonymous said...

. . you don't think a UNESCO badge would be precisely the spur needed to bring in floods of tourists? Anonymity is a much better protector than anything that bodies such as the UN can offer.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Unfortunately, many local leaders in China are eager to apply for the world heritage badge exactly because they want to attract tourists, a major source of income. Money is a top concern for leaders, and also an important measurement of their achievement in office.

Also, if someplace is beautiful, shouldn't people get to see it? But if so many people see it does it not become ugly? This is the paradox of eden, is it not?

Alfonso said...

Sooner or later the place will be discovered for tourism anyway.

Unesco heritage recognition do provide some sort of protection.
Preventing a flood of tourist will depend on how tourism policies are applied. Some popular places, especially historical and natural places, have visitor restrictions. Reservations have to be made "well" in a price.

If officials there are clever they could aim for a high quality sort of wandering/ecological tourism.

Less people, but higher incomes.

Also some brownie points for officials for achieving development with environment protection.

I would address the German tourist market, lived there long time, they would love the place, and there is a lot of people there who would fit with that kind of ecofriendly/wandering tourism and willing to pay for good quality.

Anonymous said...

@ alfonso - Unfortunately, in China, the emphasis tends to be on quantity not quality. I cannot think of one historical site in China which has not been turned into a tourist honeypot, UNESCO badge or not. Everywhere I travelled was the same. Bedecked with paraphernalia which had little connection with the site and vendors everywhere selling useless trinkets.

I have seen several places which, if treated in a different way, would have been wonderful, but after a nation has spent 10 years destroying its heritage can you really trust the same people to reinvent and take care of it?

Alfonso said...


I have seen the same dynamics elsewhere. Even in my own country.
Eventually self awareness of the own legacy, that was usually regarded as just old things, is awakened in the local people.
It takes time, and much is lost until it occurs.
Hope that moment reach in time for that impressive place.

Anonymous said...

Very very nice.
You could make it into a screen saver slide show

Teacher Gord

Tom said...

Those interested in these structures might also like to look at Chinese Bridges - Ronald G. Knapp 2008
ISBN 978-0-8048-3884-9

Steve said...

I spent a week in Taishun County during the Chinese New Year. You can see my photo's here: