The most popular ancient town of Hunan is really drawing a crowd these days as its name bleeps louder and louder on the tourist radar. In addition to a beautiful spread of creaky old wooden buildings and fine crafts being sold at every turn, Fenghuang is unique for its population of Miao and Tujia minorities.
Fenghuang is the Chinese word for phoenix, the mythical bird consumed by fire and reborn in flame, and it is said to bring good omens and longevity. The legend of Fenghuang Ancient Town tells of two phoenixes who flew over the town and just couldn’t tear themselves away from the beauty of the place.
Besides the unfortunate but ever present droves of tourists, Fenghuang is impressive for its splendid aura – with tiled roofs, stone foundations, and red lanterns hung along stone streets and pinched alleyways, the bucolic scenery is traced with brushes of green and yellow against the mountain slopes that jut into the sweeping blue sky. Even the Tuo River reflects an emerald shade of murky green, and the picturesque bridges and classic stilt houses along its banks create a scene evocative of traditional Chinese paintings, especially at dawn when a cool mist decsends on the town.
Beyond its scenery, Fenghuang was home to the famous Chinese writer Shěn Cóngwén (沈从文) (1902 – 1988), who contributed greatly to the development of modern Chinese literature. Venerated by the local residents, the one time home and the tomb of this famous writer have become top tourist attractions. You can see almost all of Fenghuang in one day, so it’s recommended to just meander around and do some exploring. Spend the morning on the north side of the river, then cross the bridge in the afternoon to scope out the south side, which has more attractions.
There are many hidden sites sprinkled all over Fenghuang, so definitely take the time to do some exploring on your own to see what you can find. Listed below are some of the highlights, but by all means the list is not complete.
Yang Family Home (Yángjiā Cítáng;杨家祠堂) – One of the top attractions in town, this well preserved courtyard house even has Maoist slogans from the Cultural Revolution scribbled on its walls. It’s located on Biaoying Jie (标营街) just west of the Hong Bridge (Hóng Qiáo; 虹桥).
City Wall- North of the Yang Family Home along Biaoying Jie lies the awesome old City Wall. Head to the East Gate Tower (Dōngmén Chénglóu;东门城楼) right next to Hong Bridge, then follow the wall up to the North Gate Tower (Běimén Chénglóu;北门城楼 ) to get the full experience.
Hong Bridge – Another top site in town, this elaborately decorated bridge also has a gallery upstairs.
Queen of Heaven Temple (Tiānhòu Gōng; 天后宫) – This simple temple on Dongzheng Jie (东正街) is dedicated to the seafaring deity.
Three Kings Temple (Sānwáng Miào; 三王庙) – Sitting off of Hongqiao Zhonglu, this hill-top temple has beautiful views of the city.
House of Shen Congwen (Shěncóngwén Gùjū;沈从文故居) – This former home of a famous Chinese author is also where his tomb is located.
Gucheng Museum (Fènghuáng Gǔchéng Bówùguǎn;凤凰古城博物馆) – The town’s principal history museum, on Dongzheng Jie.
Chaoyang Palace (Cháoyáng Gōng; 朝阳宫) – A little far from the center on Wenxing Jie (文星街), this palace has an old theater.
Confucian Temple (Wén Miào; 文庙) – The town’s only Confucian temple is just up the street on Wenxing Jie from Chaoyang Palace.
Yingxi Gate (Yíngxī Mén;迎曦门) – This small gate was built in 1807 and is located to the east of Hong Bridge along the river banks. To the north of the gate is Wanshou Temple (Wànshòu Sì;万寿寺) and to the south is Wanming Pagoda (Wànmíng Tǎ; 万名塔).
Tian Family House (Tiánjiā Cítáng; 田家祠堂) – Another ancient residence, it has seen better days and it’s a little rough on the edges, resembling a haunted house more than an antique mansion. It’s west of Hong Bridge.