China's Anhui Province, only a five-hour drive from Shanghai, is perhaps best known for the famed Yellow Mountain Scenic Area, with its lush forests, fleeting clouds, curious rock formations and tranquil hot springs.
To some extent, the scenery steals the thunder from the nearby city of Huangshan, which has the same name in Chinese as the mountain.
The city brims with the splendid culture of the Huizhou people. It has long been a center of that heritage, which is one of China’s most predominant regional cultures, along with Tibet and Dunhuang in Gansu Province.
In ancient times, merchants visited the city on well-trod trade routes. Some settled and created a commercial empire. According to historical archives, tea was No. 1 on the list of traded commodities.
Huangshan, both the mountain and the city, is shrouded with mist much of the year due to the terrain and a humid climate. It’s a fertile environment for tea cultivation, producing the local Qimen (祁门) and Maofeng (毛峰) tea varieties that are prized across China for their aromatic, gentle taste.
Dating to as far back as the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), Huizhou was a tea production center, dotted with prosperous markets. Merchants carried the tea to other provinces during the Song Dynasty (960-1279).
In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), local teas began to be shipped abroad, and the venerated local brand Xie Yuda was established. It is still considered among the best in the country and its products are often given as official gifts to visiting foreign dignitaries.
Today, the fifth generation of the Xie family runs the brand, adhering to the cultivation and processing methods developed by ancestors. Visitors can tour the plantation and a museum to see the whole process.
After tea, the specialties of the old Huizhou merchants were the “four treasures for a scholar’s study” — namely brushes, ink stick, ink stones and rice paper. Today, Huangshan still makes the first three, while rice paper production has largely moved to Xuancheng in southeastern Anhui.
Huizhou ink sticks are famous for their resistance to fading and moth infestation. They have a glossy texture and a mellow smell. Scholars grind the ink sticks over water until the right color and consistency are achieved.
Production today is mostly by machine because making ink sticks by hand is so time-consuming. Nonetheless, the Hu Kai Workshop in the Tunxi District of Huangshan, which was founded in the late Qing Dynasty, still makes them by hand.
Local pine is used for the best results. Craftsmen fire the wood, little by little, and then carefully collect the ashes, which go through 10 processes before emerging in stick form. Nowadays, these handmade ink sticks are considered artistic works worthy of collection.
The ink stone is another famous local specialty. It is a mortar for grinding and containing ink. The She stone produced in Huangshan’s She County has been called one of China’s “four famous ink stones.”
The Hu Kai Workshop employs skilled craftsmen to make these quality ink stones, which have smooth lines and elegant patterns. They are popular with art connoisseurs.
The business success of the Huizhou merchants resulted in the construction of splendid residences, ancestral halls, temples and memorial archways in the city, bearing testament to an elevated social status.
Huizhou-style architecture has deeply influenced Chinese traditional construction. Hongcun and Xidi are the best-preserved Huizhou-style villages in Huangshan. They have been the sets of many movie productions and are worth a visit.
The architecture features up-turned eaves, black-tiled roofs and painted rafters. Structures are built with careful attention to feng shuiand yin yang. Locations for prime feng shui treasure land and are built up against hills and beside rivers. Enclosed square patios are designed to collect rainfall and yang (warm or positive) energy.
The patterns and figurines carved on doors, eaves, windows and rafters epitomize the local culture. Common patterns include flowers, mythical creatures, auspicious clouds and legendary characters.
Through the centuries, Huangshan has also built up a reputation for its fine carving. Local artisans create brick, wood, stone and bamboo sculptures, following the traditions of their ancestors.
Zhu Hong is the 29th generation of Zhu Xi, a great philosopher from the Song Dynasty. But instead of following in the footsteps of philosophy, he became a master of bamboo and wooden sculpting.
Today, he is one of the premier sculptors in Huangshan and has established the Huizhou Carving Museum to display precious works and collections. The museum also offers experience courses to visitors if they want to try their hand at traditional folk art.
In the museum, the most eye-catching exhibit is the “One Hundred Horse Sculpture,” created by Zhu and his apprentices. The work took them more than a year to complete.
Smooth lines depict the movement and the expressions of the horses. The wood was carved at different depths to give a third dimension to the work.
Hu Kai Workshop
Opening hours: 9am-5pm
Address: No. 5 Laohu Hill, Tunxi District
Huizhou Carving Museum
Address: 88 Meilin Ave, Huangshan Economic Development Zone
Appointment is required for visit. Call (0559) 5297-269.
Driving: It takes five hours to drive the 400 kilometers from Shanghai to Huangshan.
From Shanghai, take the G60 Shanghai-Kunming Highway, the S2 Hangzhou-Ningbo Highway, the G2510 Hangzhou Ring Highway, the G25 Changchun-Shenzhen Highway, and the G56 Hangzhou-Ruian Highway. Exit at Tunxi South toll station in Huangshan.
By public transport: Bus service is available from Shanghai to Huangshan, departing from the Shanghai Bus Terminal and the Shanghai Long Distance South Bus Station. The buses end at the Huangshan Tunxi Bus Terminal.
There is also a daily high-speed train from Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station to Huangshan South Railway Station.