Quanzhou Chongwu, the old walled town in Fujian has vibrant heart

Updated: 2013-08-24
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Local residents walk under the East Gate of Chongwu township in Quanzhou, a coastal city in eastern China's Fujian Province. Chongwu, meaning "advocating defense" in Chinese, served as a military base against invaders from sea, especially from Japan, since 1387 in Ming Dynasty (1386-1644).
Chongwu Old City takes visitors to its ancient zigzag streets back to a time when family temples, traditional marriage customs and veneration of past heroes and ancestors defined a lively happy life.

Chongwu, in southeast China's Fujian Province, is a small place compared with other cities famous for ancient walls like Xi'an and Pingyao.

It's unique, however, because it's the only complete city wall made with granite in China, and, being a structure to guard against invasion from the sea, it is splendidly situated with three sides facing the water.

Chongwu, meaning "advocating defense" in Chinese, served as a military base against invasion from Japan and other seafaring nations since the beginning of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It is a township-level division of Hui'an County of the prefecture-level city Quanzhou, a scenic city an hour ride away.

Chongwu's walls are 2,457 meters long, 3 meters tall and 3 meters wide on average. Chongwu Old City was listed as a national relic in 1988 by the State Council, China's cabinet.

My first impression of Chongwu Old City was that it looked too new - the walls looked bright yellow under morning sun with little grass or few trees growing on it. But that impression faded fast as we immersed ourselves in the life of the authentic old city.

Entering the city from its West Gate and walking along the narrow streets built of stone slabs, you cannot fail to notice all the houses are only one or two floors high and the building material is mostly thick stone.

We walked counterclockwise toward the south to see the main structure of the stone wall facing the sea. On the way, we saw people preparing lunch as dogs, cats and chickens wandered around. Through the open doors of some houses, you could see portraits of ancestors hung in good order on the wall. It was like looking across time seeing the old men and women in the drawings peering back at you.

Soon we found a door decorated with a bright-red-and-yellow balloon arch. We went up the small lane and saw two men placing firecrackers on the ground all the way from the street to their home at the foot of the stone wall.

The characters on the balloon archway in front of their house indicated the family's surname as Wang, and the father told us his son had gotten married that day. The new couple would return at noon to see the relatives.

We left with an invitation to come back and meet the new couple and continued our walk, soon arriving at the South Gate of the stone wall. Just inside the wall there is a temple, richly decorated with brightly colored patterns on the roof and red couplets on the front wall. (Couplets are a pair of lines of Chinese poetry often placed beside doors.) Throngs of women were busy cleaning the floors, walls and a life-size horse sculpture in front of the temple. We entered the temple and found more people busy cleaning the stone floors, stone columns and wooden furniture inside. They told us it was a Temple of Guan Yu, a famous general in Three Kingdoms period (AD 220-280) and widely revered for his loyalty and righteousness.

Leaving the temple, we suddenly heard loud fireworks from the north. We followed the sound and saw a line of people carrying new quilts and bags. At the front, a couple walked hand in hand. We followed them through zigzag streets, found out that the man's surname also was Wang, but not from the same group as the earlier residents we met. I asked where they would spend their honeymoon. They said they hadn't decided they'd never felt a need to visit anywhere outside of Quanzhou.

"You have everything here: beach, seafood, good weather. So you don't have to go anywhere else," I said.

We saw them through the East Gate and decided to go back under the stone wall and see the Wang family we met early in the morning.

Soon we found the balloon archway and strips of red paper where the firecrackers had been. We went up the zigzag road and walked into Wang's courtyard. Everyone looked busy, and we saw the new couple standing at the door with red couplets at their sides. It was a perfect photo of renewed life in the old town.

Along with others, we climbed to the top of the stone wall. From there, we could see clusters of stone houses inside the wall and brick four-to-five story buildings outside the wall, a sharp contrast of old and new.

We saw all the relatives of Wang gathered in the courtyard and began to eat a lunch that started with soup with fish balls.

Taking our leave, we walked toward the Temple of Guan Yu, and to its south, we entered a park with nice beach. There is a 10.8-meter-tall memorial statue of Qi Jiguang, a famous general in the Ming Dynasty who fought against invading Japanese pirates. We also found a lot of stone sculptures facing the sea and a pole marking the meteorological division of the East China and South China seas. The stone carvings show the excellency of Hui'an craftsmanship, which was listed as one of the first intangible cultural heritages of China in 2006.

The beach is a delight, with sand that is soft and white. Grilled meat is served on the beach in peak travel seasons in spring and autumn. Summer and winter are quiet and cozy instead.

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