Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Shelter from the Wind and Rain

A Wind-and-Rain bridge in Xiajiang, Guizhou
By Beth Green

Our first problem was that the guidebook told us enough about the villages to make us want to go there—but neglected to include a map.

Our second problem was that it was Chinese New Year, and the whole city of Congjiang had literally shut down. Luckily, one hotel decided to let us stay in the room for the holiday, as long as we paid in advance and didn’t expect anyone to change the linens for a couple of days. But restaurants, shops, and—worst of all—bus companies had all joyfully locked up for the first three days of the festival.

Deprived of ways to spend our money, Dan and I started walking. We found the bus station (closed down). We found one open DVD store, and one open fireworks stall. We bought things in each. We found one shivering Uigyur man on a street corner trying to sell barbecued meat sticks to nonexistent pedestrians. He was Muslim, he told us, and didn’t celebrate Chinese New Year. Tired of eating instant noodles in our hotel room because all the restaurants were closed, we bought as many meat sticks as we could carry.

But mostly, we sat in our hotel room and pored over the guidebook, trying to plan the rest of our trip. I kept coming back to a section about the Dong minority villages near Congjiang. The Dong people traditionally build in wood, unlike in other parts of China which favor stone, tile, and brick homes. A not-to-be-missed feature of these nearby (or so the guidebook hinted) villages were their Wind-and-Rain bridges and their wooden drum towers.

By the third day of our sudden travel stoppage, we were determined to find those villages, despite the lack of buses. We went out to the deserted street, and, after more walking, found a lone taxi driver willing to drive us out of town—as long as we didn’t mind that his four-year-old daughter rode with us because he’d been tapped for baby-sitting duty. We didn’t mind.

A Wind-and-Rain bridge near Congjiang, Guizhou
After some guesswork on his part as to where we wanted to go (apparently “some Dong villages out of the city” is not specific enough instructions), we drove off over a bumpy, dirt road and into the terraced hills.

The Dong minority people live a rustic lifestyle in the hills of southern China and northern Vietnam. They cultivate glutinous rice and raise pigs, water buffalo, and fowl. Their food is famous for being spicy and sour, and they’re known for eating dog. But, within China at least, they’re most famous for their beautiful carpentry.

Every traditional Dong village has a series of towers—bell towers or drum towers—which prick the skyline of their slope-roofed villages. If the village is on a river, then they’re likely to also have a Wind-and-Rain bridge, a covered bridge that acts not only as a way to cross the river, but as shelter for farmers coming home for the fields, and—side benefit!—as a gallery for local artisans who carve and paint decorations into the bridge columns and eaves.
Colorful dragons dance around a drum tower near Congjiang

The tiny villages we managed to visit that day—we went to three—had great examples of the Dong artistry with wood. We were particularly pleased because they didn’t look like they’d been rebuilt recently. Fires and the Cultural Revolution had destroyed many of these structures. In one of the villages, while I was taking photos of a newer Wind-and-Rain bridge I had a chat with an old man coming back from fishing. He led us through the bridge, pointing at the paintings from the 70s and 80s. These paintings were like public service messages, showing what to do in case of a fire, and urging young people to fight for China in case of a war.

The older bridges, in contrast, featured paintings of mythical (or lucky) beasts to add luck to those who crossed into the village.

An approximate million photos later, Dan and I returned to the deserted hotel in silent Congjiang and ate our instant noodles, pleased with a day of exploring and happy that our unplanned stop in Congjiang had given us such an interesting side trip.


  1. Beth, the photos of the bridges are beautiful. Thank you for an interesting post.

  2. The Chinese know how to add beauty to architecture, don't they? These bridges remind me of the covered bridges I grew up with in Vermont, though they were not nearly as elegant.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Patricia and Heidi. I agree with you, Heidi, it's amazing how even normal, functional buildings like a wooden bridge get their little bit of pizzazz in Asian design.