Mr Li and I arrived at Shidong after a long trip on foot down the mountain from Bandeng, following a centuries-old trail. There had been a moment of excitement when we bumped into a woodcutter with two aggressive hunting dogs, and some fun banter with a party of Miao returning happily drunk from a funeral, who berated Mister Li for dragging me into the hills to endure hardships; what sort of friend was he? Eventually we reached a vehicle road and a village, but the sole minibus driver demanded a ridiculous fee, while cheaper motorbike taxis refused to take me: “Too much trouble if a foreigner fell off and were injured, I could lose my home”. It was late in the day before we reached Shidong.
Shidong is a small township on a shingle beach below a bend in the river. The valley here is broad and flat, but a spiky, bald range of peaks rises to the north, marking the border with Hunan province. We were looking for the former mansion of Su Yuanchun (苏元春), the Hunan Army general who had escaped from the massacre at Huangpiao and after the war spent several years at Shidong, enforcing the Chinese peace.
Shidong is not a large place, but the mansion was difficult to find. Having wandered around for a while, we questioned a man in the street, who told us emphatically that it had been demolished years ago. It turned out to be standing intact not fifty metres away, between an old school building and the river, surrounded by an imposing, 4m-high stone wall.
The mansion’s main entrances had been bricked up, but there was a locked gate at the rear. A caretaker appeared, did we want to see inside? The mansion had served as a women’s sterilisation centre during the 1970s, but had since been abandoned to cabbage plots and woodworm. We walked cautiously through three open-ended, single-storey wooden halls, past a large round latticework in the central wall forming a stylised symbol for “double happiness”. The rotten timber posts had stone footings carved with auspicious designs: a fish swimming upstream to become a dragon (symbolising hard work leading to achievement), a lion and elephant (representing wisdom and morality), a dragon and phoenix (imperial power). Mr Li took out his compass and discovered that the building’s feng shui was back to front, with a river and the main entrance to the north; possibly this was so that Su could greet important visitors who arrived by water.
The caretaker told us where to find the grave of Su’s first wife, which turned out to be a large mound by the roadside heading north out of town, with two tablets set into the front. One recorded her life story – her family name was Xie, she was young, quiet and elegant and died in 1872 – the other noting that she was married to an official of the first rank (in other words, Su).
Then we tried to locate wanren keng, the “Pit of Ten Thousand Men”, where remains of the Huangpiao dead were collected on Su’s orders and buried at Shidong around 1871. This wasn’t so easy. I can never understand how villagers spend their entire lives amongst historic sites and relics, and yet have seemingly no idea of their existence or location. Asking directions at a mechanic’s shop caused a huge discussion, arms and fingers pointing in all directions. In the end, the mass grave turned out to be off in the fields about 500m south of town, the entrance bricked up and the mound completely overgrown and neglected, but unmistakable for its size. In there somewhere are the bones of the impetuous giant Long Weishan and his men.
Su Yuanchun later took part in the Sino-French War of 1885, where the two countries were fighting for control of Tungking, northern Vietnam – a story for a later post, perhaps.