With the rise of the number of ancient towns becoming tourist sites in China today, it is becoming harder for them to differentiate themselves as they all look pretty much alike - and often fake, too - with newly polished ancient-style buildings lining stone-paved streets where locals passionately peddle old traditional "handicrafts" that were actually produced on assembly lines.
Well, the ancient town of Anren in Southwest China's Sichuan Province is a bit different. Instead of trying to recreate the atmosphere of a China that existed several centuries ago, local sites related to the country's early 20th century revolutionary past are the town's hottest tourist attractions.
Surrounded by paddies and orchards, the Tang Dynasty (618-907) town is located in the western suburb of Chengdu, around an hour's drive from the city's airport. Aside from its ancient streets, the town is home to dozens of residences that once belonged to local landlords and WWII army leaders decades ago.
Strolling around the town, you can still find worn yet recognizable slogans from the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) painted on some of the buildings' pillars. Quotes from former Chinese leader Mao Zedong can also be seen on one of the walls at Liu's Manor, the town's most popular historical site.
Liu Wencai, the manor's former owner, is one of the town's most well-known historical figures.
Having five wives and owning some 800 hectares of land, Liu (1887-1949) was one of China's most infamous landlords. Close relatives of mine born during the 1960s once told me how their primary school textbooks depicted Liu as a cruel landlord who imposes heavy taxes on farmers. Local legends even depict Liu as a rapist and murderer.
Hoping to find out more about this controversial figure, I decided to go explore Liu's Manor, which was turned into a public museum in 1958. The admission fee is 40 yuan ($6). All signs are in both Chinese and English.
The traditional Sichuan-style buildings seated in the manor's main courtyard look lovely with their black tiles and blue bricks. Gardens inside the manor are well-maintained and look lively with green plants. Living rooms, guest rooms, ladies' chambers, Buddhist prayer rooms and the bedrooms of family members are arranged in complicated layout that strictly follows the rules of fengshui.
Strolling around such an elegant manor, it was hard to imagine that its owner has been a demonic autocrat.
In some corners of the house, there are dark and narrow alleys that lead to cold storage rooms that were once falsely believed to be the location of a water dungeon where Liu reportedly tortured disobedient farmers. The rooms have now been restored and a sign that read Opium Storage Room hangs by the entrance.
Walking through the storage rooms, you will soon come to one of the must-see spots in the manor - the display room of Rent Collection Courtyard, a series of controversial clay sculptures made in 1965 that depict how Liu and his underlings oppressed farmers and the poor.
A representative product of a time when class struggles were at their peak, the renowned artwork features more than 100 life-sized clay figures shown in a circular display case.
According to reports, thousands of visitors flooded the manor to see this display when it first debuted in 1965.
The artists who created the work said they created it based on interviews with local farmers concerning Liu's behavior, but years later some interviewees admitted that they exaggerated the landlord's cruelty.
Once the pride of the town, the work has now become a sensitive subject that the local government is reluctant to touch upon, according to Lü Peng, general curator of the local Anren Biennale, where Rent-Rent Collection Courtyard, a modern work from Chinese artist Li Zhanyang that was inspired by the 1965 original, is on display.
Despite this controversy, the work is still a big draw and remains unchanged.
In the room where Rent Collection Courtyard is displayed, slogans about class struggles can be seen on the wall. Nearby, a spacious room displays pictures of famous VIP visitors from home and abroad admiring the sculptures.
"Wicked man! Look how he oppressed poor people…" one middle-aged visitor said angrily to her companions as they walked around the sculptures.
Aside from Liu's Manor, the Jianchuan Museum Cluster, just a 10-minute walk from Liu's Manor, is also a popular attraction on Anren's revolutionary-themed itinerary.
Completed in 2006, the private museum area funded by local entrepreneur Fan Jianchuan hosts more than 30 museums focusing on World War II history and China's revolutionary past.
A tourist from Chengdu told me that the site has served as a patriotic education base for school students from major cities for years. She said she still remembers how her schools arranged for them to go on weekend education trips to the site.
It's easy to see the "revolutionary" flavor of the area even before you enter the site as the grey-blue outfits worn by the tollbooth workers at the gate look like the uniforms worn by Red Army soldiers during the 1930s.
Nostalgic signs and symbols can also be seen as you wander between museums.
A souvenir shop near the entry is decorated with revolutionary slogans such as "Rely on yourself to improve your life" and "Strive forward despite the difficult struggle."
The wall of a roadside house was painted with a stern-faced, Red Army soldier standing with his arms wide open - a classic posture often seen in model operas during the Cultural Revolution.
Moreover, there is even a revolutionary-themed hotel on site that claims to be the first place in China to provide a legitimate "Red Era" experience with rooms decorated with revolutionary posters from the 1930s through 1950s as well as quotes from Mao Zedong.
Since I didn't have that much time, I wasn't able to go through all the museums on site. But if you are interested in getting to know more about Chinese history during World War II, I definitely recommend you spend some time roaming these venues.
Another must-see spot is The Chinese Heroes Square. Featuring life-sized copper sculptures of 216 Chinese veterans and martyrs who fought in the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1931-45), the series of sculptures are known as one of the world's largest artworks dedicated to World War II history.
Aside from the two famed historical sites, you might also like to take a look at the residences where Liu's other family members and World War II army leaders once lived decades ago.
Instead of being located in a protected fenced in site, many of these houses sit right on the old streets along with stores and food stalls. A copper sign and a fancier gate gives some indication that a certain building is different from the rest. Sometimes, visitors have to push through heavy, ancient-style wooden gates themselves to get inside these old mansions.
Luckily, you usually don't have to pay to get in, as many of these residences are now museums open free to the public - but only during designated times.
Inside these buildings, exhibitions showcase the former owners' personal histories and belongings. You can also catch operas based on the story of their lives in some of these residences.
After the local Chengdu Anren Overseas Chinese Town took over the town's tourism projects around 2014, rare and special shows from abroad can also be enjoyed in the town.
The last time I visited one of these buildings in December, a number of cultural relics from The Museum of Nepal were on display. I was a bit surprised to find such a rare collection premiering in a small southwestern town instead of in Beijing, the country's cultural center and go-to place when treasures from overseas national museums make their China debut.
But I soon came to understand why this countryside museum was chosen - you might not be able to find a display room in Beijing that fits so well with the serene atmosphere of the relics on display. The sunlight shining through the ancient building's fissured wood structures made the Nepali Buddhist artifacts look even more sacred.
After a day of busy walking, you are going to want to sit down for a good meal. The town is known for xiewang - a local stew that mixes pig's intestines, coagulated pig's blood and vegetables with tons of local hot chilies. While the dish's ingredients might sound intimidating for first-timers, I assure you its taste will impress you if you're bold enough to take that first bite.
Like tofu, coagulated pig's blood has a very soft texture. Local chili and peppers added to the stew also help bring out the best flavors of the ingredients.
Other must-try local snacks include Langya potato chips - wavy-shaped potato chips fried with pepper, chili and cumin seeds - Hot and Sour Potato Noodles and Hongtang Ciba, a type of fried glutinous rice cake coated with melted brown sugar.
Rules of thumb:
Getting there: If you go, there are buses at the Jinsha Bus Station in Chengdu that will take you directly to the town. Ticket prices are around 10 yuan ($1.5) per person.
Where to stay: There are plenty of choices of hotels on the town, ranging from a five-star Sheraton to local home-run hotels.
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