Daxu – Ancient Village

About 25 kilometers southeast of the city of Guilin lies Ancient Daxu (“Big Market”) Town. The city, situated on the east bank of the Li River, has been a busy center of trade ever since the Qin (BCE 221-207) Dynasty period, when, under the reign (BCE 246 – 210)* of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the Ling Canal, which connects the Xiang River of the Yangtze River watershed with the Li River of the Pearl River watershed, was dug.

Ancient Daxu’s strategic placement on the banks of a river that had “spokes” leading to the Yangtze River system as well as to the Pearl River system made it a natural transit hub for trade between merchants far away and the upland population within a very large radius of the city of Daxu, since, for these areas, there was little alternative to the prosperous city on the banks of the Li River. Thirteen of the old town’s shipping docks remain to this day, spread out along the city’s 2 1/2-kilometer-long main street, and they bear witness to the town’s former high degree of prosperity.

While photographing the Longevity Bridge in Daxu I met this interesting character who was obviously posing for the camera. He pulled out a magazine from inside his jacket and proudly showed me his photograph on a single page picture alongside all the Chinese astronauts. Not being able to communicate with him I was thinking perhaps he was an astronaut himself …. however as it turns out he is a local artist in Daxu who had won the calligraphy contest for the Chinese space mission logo. He also passed me his “business card with his name and address which is shown below.

By the time of the Northern Song (CE 960-1127) Dynasty, Daxu had achieved the status of the richest and most influential of ancient cities of what is present-day Guangxi Province, which was no mean achievement for the period. But it was during the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty that Daxu reached its pinnacle of commercial success; Wanshou Bridge, a handsome single-arched stone bridge that was built during the period, spans the Li River, while the streets of Ancient Daxu Town were – still are – paved with naturally-occurring dark-green limestone blocks, now worn to a shiny patina, thanks to centuries of use.

This local man invited me into his home to see the wonderful carved wood work. The house was a simple open arrangement with an open roof allowing the rain to fall and collect in the central depression. At the back of the house he kept his ducks and hens.

As is so often the case in general, Daxu’s particular “claim to fame” – its strategic location on the banks of a busy waterway, with “spokes” radiating out to China’s greatest centers of commerce, making Daxu a natural trade and traffic hub – has also proven to be the ancient city’s Achilles’ Heel, for during the 1930s, waterways ceded their position of prominence to railways and highways, and Daxu’s commerce declined rapidly thereafter. Just as many towns and villages along the Silk Road had rapidly blossomed into important centers of commerce, then shrank with almost equal rapidity when the overland Silk Road gave way to the “Silk Road” by sea route, the burgeoning ancient town of Daxu fell into decline once its trump card, as it were, had been played out.

But unlike the many former bustling cities along the overland Silk Road that were eventually reduced to dusty ghost towns, Ancient Daxu Town continued to thrive, albeit, in a down-sized mode. The nearby river was still useful, and though regional trade might have shifted to railroads and highways, local trade and traffic still depended to a large extent on the Li River. With the emergence of the New China – and especially after the opening of China to the West – Ancient Daxu Town has seen something of a revival as a tourist venue, thanks to the hardy folk who have, in the interim, kept the city and its customs alive down through the ages.

One of the most interesting shops in the main street of Daxu is the old Chinese Herbal medicine Store with its interesting arrays of jars, potions and herbs. The old “medicine man” still practices there and can also do the traditional cupping technique. Cupping therapy is an ancient Chinese form of alternative medicine in which a local suction is created on the skin; practitioners believe this mobilizes blood flow in order to promote healing. Suction is created using heat (fire) or mechanical devices (hand or electrical pumps).

Many of Daxu’s residents still ply their traditional handicrafts. Ancient Daxu Town is thus home to a number of cottage industries operated by women, such as rice-wine making and the manufacture of bamboo baskets, while Daxu men are renowned carpenters. Along the city’s riverfront stand many well-preserved traditional-style buildings that date from the Ming and Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasties. These sturdy wooden structures – built in a quintessentially Chinese style, i.e., with colorfully decorated eaves and elegantly carved doors and windows – still serve as home to many Daxu families. A leisurely stroll along Ancient Daxu Town’s main street offers an occasional glimpse into the traditional Chinese courtyard, where the sight of a grandmother surrounded by a knot of attentive children as she recounts a story about the past, or tells a fairytale, is a not uncommon sight.

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