The Pan Clan Ancestral Hall of Jingping in Hunan
Everyone travelling between the ancient business town of Hongjiang and the infamous Fenghuang must change in Huaihua. Besides the regular bus, there is a fleet of illegal taxis waiting near the river to drive you north.
Before going to the most crowded and popular ancient town of China, I had set my mind to stop in Jingling (荆坪) on the way to Huaihua. Explaining to the driver where was that ancient village and negotiating the fare was burlesque and the driver finally gave me that ‘why that crazy foreigner wants to go this forsaken village I never heard of’.
Getting into Jingping
The driver pulled the car by the entrance of the village. Across the river, chimneys were sending plumes of black smoke in the air. This semi-industrial, semi-agricultural landscape of southwest Hunan province looked bleak and gloomy.
While I was making my way through the village which looked very common at first sight, an old man led me to the landmark of Jingping. Once in front of the Pan clan ancestral hall (潘氏祠), it took my mind and my eyes a while to adjust to with reality.
The Pan Clan Ancestral Hall
I had already seen a lot of ancestral halls, also called lineage temples (祠堂), but never anything like the Pan Clan Ancestral Hall (潘氏祠) in Jingping village.
The facade (which is actually an elaborated type of paifang or arched gateway) of this lineage temple built during the early years of emperor Hongwu (洪武) of the Ming dynasty is breathtaking.
Each side of the temple gate is flanked with meticulously carved dragons twisting around a column. Under the mythic reptiles, two kirin riding on stylised clouds solemnly guard the entrance. The kirin, or qilin (麒麟) in Chinese, is a mythological animal with the body of a tiger topped with the head of dragon. It appeared in the Chinese bestiary during the 5th century BC. In Chinese folk culture, it announces the arrival or passing of a brilliant ruler.
Four Characters and Eight Immortals
Between the tails of the dragons, the inscription “嗣徽越府” (si hui yue fu) – in ancient Chinese, people used to write from right to left – exhorts local people to look up to the Pan family ancestors (who were important local officials).
The character 嗣 stands for ‘sons and grandsons’ (i.e. the future generations – sorry ladies, Chinese culture is vehemently patriarchal), 徽 means ‘government official’, 越 is short for ‘超越’ i.e. ‘to surpass’ or ‘to transcend’ and finally the character 府 refers to the men of the Pan clan.
On each side of the “嗣徽越府” inscription, we find ancestors of the Pan clan. Under the inscription, the figurines of the ‘eight immortals who crossed the sea’ (八仙过海)’ are a popular element of Chinese folk culture and are a sign of prosperity and longevity.
Traditional Chinese scenery and the meaning of the three entrances
On top of this arched gateway, there are two miniature landscapes that are literally called ‘mountain and water’ [scenery] (山水 or shan-shui). The shan-shui has become a genre of traditional Chinese landscape painting. Here, the landscape represent the Jinding Mountain and the Baota Mountain in Henan province, where the first member of the Pan clan originally migrated from.
One access to the ancestral hall through a series of three doors (三道门 in Chinese). The occurrence of the number three is a direct reference to the chapter 42 of the Daodejing 道德经, a text which lays the foundation of Taoist philosophy : “道生一，一生二 ，二生三，三生万物” ( The Dao – i.e. the path – produced One, One produced Two, Two produced Three, Three produced All Things).
The hand of Mao
On the lower level of facade of the Pan clan ancestral hall the great chairman Mao Zedong was kind enough to add his touch (and deface the solemnity of the structure) by adding two revolutionary decaying slogans.
Only people well-versed in the Mao Zedong’s thought and geeks who have memorised ‘On the correct handling of contradictions among the people’ will have the pleasure to be able to read the full quote. Indeed, over the years, parts Mao’s message have vanished.
Entering the Pan Clan Ancestral Hall
Between the second and the third gate, there is an open courtyard with an ancient performance stage. Once you step through the third gate, you formally enter the ancestral hall.
The ancestral hall is vast and solemn, but it’s unlikely that it will send shivers down your spine (like the facade did to me). Beyond a large square sky-well, there are three different altars on which we find the stone tablets which record the name of all the Pan family ancestors.
Beyond the Pan ancestral hall
After looking for too long at every detail of the Pan clan ancestral hall, my eyes had already overdosed on excessive beauty and everything else seemed dull.
The two adjacent temples, the Guansheng and Wutong temple seemed uninteresting and after a walk in the quiet slab-stone streets of the historical core of Jingping village which are dotted with Ming and Qing era courtyard mansions that belonged to government officials of the Pan clan, I rushed back to the Pan clan ancestral hall.
Meanwhile, my driver had found a way through the village and parked the car on the square dominated by the temple. Bored, he was smoking a cigarette. “So, you foreigners like this type of buildings, uh? “ he asked later. “Yes of course, don’t you?” I replied. “To us Chinese people this is just old stuff … I don’t really care about” he added.
How to get there
The village of Jingping (荆平村) is located 15 km in Zhongfang Township (中方县) south of the city of Huaihua (怀化) in western Hunan province (湘西). In public transportation, honestly, I’m not sure where to take the bus (because I came from Hongjiang), but one thing is sure, you have to take a bus heading south towards Qianyang 黔阳 (also called Qiancheng 黔城). Since December 2013, there is a new highway linking Huaihua to the Qiancheng and Tongdao in the south. You must make sure that the bus takes the old road (老路), stop in Zhongfang.
Although Jingping is very small and that Pan Clan Ancestral Hall described in this article is pretty much the only thing to see in the village, it is a must-stop if you travel between Fenghuang and Hongjiang. This place is pretty much off the radar and very few travellers know about this place … even my driver who was a local guy had never heard about this village.
No entrance fee, no tourists and an amazing ancestral hall to visit. A real treat and one of my favorite discovery in Hunan.
Hi! My name is Gaetan aka 高天. I studied, conducted academic research and worked in China for the past 10+ years. I have traveled extensively throughout this continent-size country and I’m passionate about ancient villages. My favourite region is the southwest which is home to most of China’s ethnic minorities.
My blog Travel Cathay.com is dedicated to these historical villages and alternative travel destinations in China.