1992 / 10月
Ventine Tsai /photos courtesy of Cheng Yuan-ching /tr. by Christopher Hughes
The traditional living space of the Chinese people has always been formed by the ho yuan courtyard building. However, following the erection of high-rise blocks, the kind of lifestyle it enabled has gradually moved further and further away.
Nanya village's Yuemeichih hamlet in changhua County is one of the few exceptions. Due to the binding of clan ties and the manpower required by farming, not only has it not been altered, but its original three-sided courtyard building has seen the addition of 13 auxiliary hu-lung (protective dragon) buildings at its sides, creating living space for a clan of some 200 families in two blocks. So what kind of life do they live?
Turning towards Yuanlin from Changhua, the irregular, European-style houses with names such as "Yuanlin World" and "Louvre Mansion" have replaced the courtyard complexes that used to be a common sight.
According to the directions given by Liu Ting-tsung, the headman of Yuemeichih and thrice mayor of Nanya village, you follow the road along the foot of the mountains in the direction of the Pakua range to arrive at his home. "It is signposted 'Yuemeichih' (crescent-moon pond) and there is a crescent-shaped pond by the road. You will see it when you come!"
In fact, looking over the pond from the highway, it is the Liu clan dwelling that strikes one's eye. The spiked bamboo groves surrounding the courtyard house on all sides and the pond at the front, with the addition of a temple guarding the entrance on the right, work together to form a natural "security system." As you turn from the highway down a lane a small dog starts to bark before you even enter the courtyard, alerting the residents that strangers have already invaded their home territory!
"The bamboo and crescent pond really make a big circle, so the sign over the main hall reads 'reunion hall,'" says Liu Ting-tsung, stressing that this perfect encirclement is not just a defense against bandits.
Sitting under the moon, surveying all about: By the pond, Liu Yung-ho -- of the eighth generation of the clan branch which occupies the third hall--is cutting grass to feed to the fish. The income made from the pond stock is put into a community chest and used to pay for the year's incense and festivals.
Apart from the pond being used for fishing, flood control and improving the atmosphere, some stone benches have also been placed under the bamboo groves on the banks of the pond. The men love to come here for the scenery, often congregating to rest in the afternoon and watch the cars on the highway and discuss the growth of the communal paddy-fields beyond. Meanwhile, chickens and ducks amble about in the main courtyard as toddlers in baby-walkers babble and enhance the scene even more.
Hsiao Sen-hsiung, whose road often passes Yuemeichih so that he gets invited in by the Liu family, says that at midnight on the banks of Yuemeichih, there are often two or three sleepless men drinking together, while on winter evenings the youngsters will light a fire and barbecue cuttlefish. "When the moon is reflected in the water and there is a gentle breeze, the fish cannot restrain themselves from leaping up and singing!" describes Hsiao, who is already a grandfather.
In the hamlet everybody prods 73-year-old Liu Wan-te to talk about Yuemeichih's past. The old man first points at the rows of hu-lung and tells of how, in the period of the Japanese occupation, the family had to dig deep in the fields for earth, mix in chopped rice straw, get a cow to trample it flat then put in a frame to make bricks; the stones for the foundations were collected from the mountain behind, and this then became a place on which to erect a building. "Although the earth and stone bricks were cool, they easily attracted mice, centipedes and spiders," he recalls. It was only after Taiwan's retrocession to China that they began to gradually change to real brick houses. Recently there have also been people using concrete and tiles. "The original dirt main courtyard was the same, sprouting grass and moss when it rained, and it got dirty when you dried rice husks under the sun. Now everyone has changed to using concrete!"
To his side is Liu Cheng-yueh, seven years Liu Wan-te's junior but one generation his senior, who says, "Drying under the sun! Now it is much easier to plant the fields, there is special equipment for putting in rice seedlings, harvesting and drying out the husks. Who needs to dry husks under the sun anymore!?"
Not roasting husks but drying quilts: In the courtyard, although you cannot see crops, seven or eight small sedans are parked and children are learning how to ride curves on a motorbike. A peddler comes mornings and evenings to sell soya milk, fish, fruit and snacks. A housewife carrying a small child says with a smile, "This kind of life is more convenient than yours in the city!" It seems as though the productive function of the courtyard has been supplanted by leisure.
Liu Sen-pai, of the eleventh-generation of the Lius, remembers that when the eldest son of the headman got married there were more than 50 tables in the courtyard. And when his brother-in-law came to marry his younger sister, he brought cigarettes and toured every alley to pay his respects and thank the family and neighbors for looking after his wife.
Liu Mei-li, who has married and gone to live in a high-rise in Taichung, says that what she remembers most was drying cotton quilts under the sun in the courtyard. "Living in a high-rise, do not even talk about drying a quilt under the sun. Even when you air a few items of clothing, the arms and legs get stretched and you cannot go out in them anymore."
Stone flag holders make good back coolers: Going in from the main courtyard you come to a small, decorated, red-brick wall on which there is a hearth for the Tien Kung gods, which gives the inner courtyard a more reverential position than the outer. It's main door is thrown open for major festivals and offerings are spread into the inner courtyard.
The ancestral hall contains ancestral tablets for worshipping the Liu ancestors of the first four houses established by the Liu's who pioneered the opening up of Taiwan. Because it is the highest and most important center of the whole house, the light and ventilation are particularly good, in addition to which it also has a brick floor. In summer, children lark about and take afternoon naps here, while on rainy days they come to play cards. Only when there is a funeral and the coffin is placed inside for the wake does peace descend on the ancestral hall.
It is much the same with the two stone flagpole stands by the entrance to the courtyard, gifts from the imperial court to a distant ancestor who did well in the examinations. The old people often sit against these stones, the feeling of their cool surfaces against the back being just the thing to alleviate the summer heat. Children have another use for them, taking them as a base from which to let off fire-work rockets. Their reverential significance is still there, only in everyday life today it is now not quite so serious.
The hall of the gods as a meeting room: Behind the ancestral hall is the room for worshipping the gods. Against its sides are placed thirty or forty folded chairs. Every time there is an issue that should be discussed by the community, the village head gets a microphone and summons everybody to a meeting.
In autumn last year the ancestral hall's two 1.5 meter high shrines were stolen in the night, so the clan held a meeting in the hall of the gods. The headman lamented that a lot of people had moved out recently, and that it was only when nobody was living in the houses either side of the ancestral hall that thieves could steal the shrines without anyone realizing it. One housewife chipped in from the wings, "Our ancestors are also easily fooled. Why didn't they make the thieves trip up or make some noise, then everyone could have nabbed them. With the bamboo all round, where could they have run to!" Following the meeting it was decided that every household should give NT$1,000, but with everyone happy to make a donation, they surpassed what they aimed for and collected a total of NT$100,000, with which they ordered a new shrine to be made in Lukang.
These two halls lying on the central axis bustle with activities on festival days, and the surrounding thirteen hu-lung and their dividing alleys are all filled with life from morning to night.
Relatives in the courtyard, close neighbors in the alleys: At five or six in the morning the sounds of cooking fill the 1.5m-wide alleys, with eggs being fried on the gas stoves in the kitchens, while at the backs of the houses water, soup and rice gruel is boiled on wood stoves which send up spirals of smoke. The village head explains that the mountain at the back is full of longan trees, and there are a lot of dead branches and leaves which make convenient tinder. At cooking times in the mornings and evenings a cloud goes up over Yue-meichih and there is a mild smell of smoke.
The small stoves can boil water, while the big hearths inside the houses can be used for cooking cakes for New Year, steaming turnip cakes and provide a meeting place for housewives.
The alleys are places where it is not easy for an outsider to enter. Cool and light, in the morning the men who manage the poultry farms on the mountainside sit under the eaves reading the newspaper, while everywhere children move about the hu-lung. The housewives like to sit here slowly preparing their vegetables and shelling beans, or doing the household chores.
One family's back alley is another's front yard, so housewives can do their housework as they chat. Preparing vegetables and washing clothes -- although these are only small corridors they are open to an endless number of uses. Visiting neighbors for a chat is also a natural pastime, and the conversation can last for as long as it takes to do the laundry, or could just be a call to ask about the price of vegetables, after which everyone will attend to their own affairs.
No toilets: Life might be simple, but it is not barren. An explanation of the living environment of the people of Yuemeichih is not something that modern apartment dwellers can easily understand.
At present there are nearly 70 families living there, and only four of them have modern sanitation. To go to the toilet you must use one of the public conveniences in the main courtyard or rush to the bamboo thickets. Bamboo thickets? "It is not so difficult!" says 25-year-old Liu Sen-lin. "It worse in winter. When you come back from the courtyard toilet your blanket is cold, but it is alright! It is only once a day!" he laughs.
The son and daughter-in-law of Liu Hu, who has spent his life laboring in the fields, say that the rooms are too hot in summer. In the bedroom and sitting room they have installed air conditioning out of consideration for their old father. However, apart from turning on the air conditioning for his grandchildren when he has his children as guests, Liu Hu usually does not use it. "If you are a field laborer and there is too much air conditioning, how can you stand to go out and work in the fields? In my view an electric fan is still the most natural!"
From earth and stone houses to concrete and tiles, the hu-lung expanded all round as the population increased. Following the flow of people leaving, there are now some empty houses. Some of the rooms have become store rooms and some are now the offices of a small printing works, while others are crammed with a mini textile factory. This vital use of space means that the courtyard is not only secure, but can also enjoy doing business.
Separated by an adjacent paddy-field, the original appearance of one empty house has been preserved and it has been turned into a clan museum. Inside have been placed the works and prizes of Liu Yung-fu, a gifted member of the Liu family in the period of the Japanese occupation, along with parental portraits; the original curved-back armchair and teapoy have also not been moved. Every time someone comes from outside, one of the clan members will open the weathered old door and go in to tirelessly trace back his roots.
This is my home: They work at sunrise and rest at sundown, which also marks the end of the day. The sunset in southern Taiwan seems to be par ticularly golden, and as it shines into the west-facing main hall it illuminates it with a fiery glow. A child riding home on his bicycle is pursued by the rays which stretch out his silhouette towards the inner courtyard. Perhaps, if the child does well in his future work, after he moves into a high-rise block the different atmospheres of morning and evening at Yuemeichih will at times come floating before his eyes.
Plan of the Liu Clan Hamlet of Yuehmeichih[Picture]
Source: Lai Chih-chang
Diag ram: Lee Su-ling
Home! Because the crescent moon shaped lake in front of the Liu dwelling has become a landmark, even the bus stop is called Yuemeichih.
(Right) Each year the descendants of a different house must take care of and manage the lake for fish farming as part of the "sacrifice to communal industry."
Past a red brick wall with an altar to Tien Kung, from the main courtyard and stepping into the ancestral hall, each place conjures up different associations.
The Lius made a point of using their ancestral portraits to introduce their clan history to us. Following the burglary of the ancestral hall, these antique pictures are now only hung there for New Year.
Longan trees are planted on the slope of the mountain behind the dwelling. With the coming of autumn, drying longans becomes part of life at Yuemeichih.
Eat some snacks! In the evening a noodle peddler's van comes to Yuemeichih's main courtyard and sells more than 30 bowls of food.
The benches under the bamboo grove on the bank of the lake are ideal for surveying the scene or chatting about domestic affairs.
Barbecued meat and longans on a blanket under the moon--What fun!
At the Mid-Autumn Festival children wearing fruit-skin hats wave sparkle rs in the alleys between the hu-lung.