We followed a narrow cobblestone path winding through expansive green fields on both sides as we entered Nanping village in southwestern Yixian county in Anhui Province (famous travel place for last minute China travel deals). This is the filming location of two of the most internationally acclaimed Chinese movies - the Oscar-nominated "Ju Dou" by renowned director Zhang Yimou in 1990 and the Oscar-winning film "Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon" by Ang Lee in 2000.
Since then, tourists have flocked to this century old village, which they know only from the silver screen, to explore it with great interest and curiosity.
The vintage trees that perch on the grasslands at the entrance to the village appeared even greener and fresher after a rainfall. We unconsciously slowed our pace and became absorbed in the village's ambience.
We glimpsed residents washing things by a nearby stream, working in distant fields or chatting in narrow lanes as we passed through. The village contains 300 well-preserved ancient buildings with grey tiles and white walls, dating back to the Ming and Qing dynasties.
But our immediate sense of comfort gradually turned into unease as we walked along a mazelike network of 72 intertwining lanes and realized we could easily get lost. The lanes make for a grand view for visitors to the village, in addition to the ancestral halls, what Nanping is best known for so you should not miss it for your best tours of China. The buildings are a unique feature of ancient China's feudal society where the clan system dominated.
In those old days, there were about 1,000 inhabitants in 300 households, most of which belonged to the Ye clan. Smaller portions of the population belonged to the Cheng and Li clans.
The patriarchal system played a vital role in maintaining social order in feudal China, solidifying the masses and stabilizing clan development. A clan's ancestral hall such as Xuzhi Hall or Kuiguang Hall was the spiritual home of its members.
Xuzhi Hall, or Ye's Ancestral Hall, was the setting for the film "Ju Dou". Props from the film set still decorate the hall, including an overhead sign at the building's entrance which was altered to read "Yang's Dye-house."
We pushed open the door, and a magnificent sight came into view - a colorful meter-long cloth hung in the patio in the traditional three-hall-and-two-courtyard style house that conjured up images of the classic tragedy. The building constituted a sharp contrast with the grey tones of other structures. It seemed as if it was the personification of the contrast in the emotions of the characters in "Ju Dou".
The 1990 film, starring famous actors Gong Li, Li Baotian and Li Wei, was about a tragic romance that occurred in the dye-house in the 1920s. A woman named Ju Dou played by Gong Li was forced to marry the brutal, impotent and impoverished owner of a dye mill in a rural village. As the third wife, she was repeatedly mistreated and cruelly disciplined by her husband, Jin-shan, for failing to bear him an heir. The heroine later had an affair with her husband's nephew and conceived a boy who eventually killed his biological father under the unbreakable feudal traditions.
Luminous Gong Li became more famous after "Ju Dou", and still shots of the film hang on the walls of the hall, showing the unsophisticated look of the international star in her early days.
Ancestral halls were places where big occasions such as clan meetings, celebrations and sacrificial offerings were held. Only men were allowed to enter the halls on a regular basis, while women could enter through a lower level only once during their lifetime - on their wedding day.
After centuries of change, Xuzhi Hall now stands empty. The housekeeper locked the door when we left. As it suddenly startted to rain, some villagers could be seen quickly carrying items into their houses. Clothing hung outside was protected from the rain by the eaves of the roofs.
We then stopped at another ancestral hall of the Ye clan for popular China travel package, one of the best preserved halls of the Ming Dynasty and the filming site for Ang Lee's movie "Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon." Over a large fan-shaped screen inside the hall, we saw where actresses Zhang Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh fought in the movie.
Still photos show how the film was shot back then. Zhang Ziyi had tiny safety wire tied to her waist while she performed flying stunts over the bamboo forest with Chow Yun-fat.
Some old men chatting inside the building casually told us about when the movie was made a decade ago. They said they were pleased that the film had attracted many tourists and brought the villagers many tangible benefits.
The next stop, Bingling Pavilion, or Ice Slice Pavilion, was another beautiful old hall built about 200 years ago during the middle of the Qing Dynasty. Today it is a frequently visited inn in Nanping.
Peering out of the ancestral hall, I suddenly realized the other visitors had already moved on and I was left alone, lost in Nanping's maze of lanes.
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