Guiyang History II: The Six-holed Bridge
Upon me first arriving in Guiyang I often exercised my innate curiosity, trying to ask the locals about names of places and their connection to history. What I usually got as an answer was “it’s just a name, it means nothing” or, “it’s based on the phonetic sound of the characters, they are random”. I assume many people would just give up, but having my academic background and having dealt with similar responses in the past, I knew these were not the right answers. It is the case, on some occasions, that characters are chosen to fit the phonetic name of a place, but it is very rarely done randomly, and usually conveys a meaning; similarly, more often than not, names do have a connection with the past, and refer to a number of historical events or things that used to be. It might be I simply chose my interlocutors poorly, yet it made me persist in my search of meanings and led me to some interesting discoveries. This is one of them here, today.
The Six-holed Bridge Street is a rather tiny alley now leading from the corner of Zunyi Rd. and Zhongshan South Rd, towards Bo’ai Rd and the Nanming River. There’s a coffee shop there that some of my Readers may recognise, and recently a few stone tablets have been erected, reminding us briefly of the place’s history; looking from the riverside there is indeed a bridge, in place where now mostly underground canal breaks free and flows into Guiyang’s main river. It is not a canal, however, but Guancheng River, formerly a natural and clear water source, which used to flow in the middle of the Six-holed Bridge Street, back then known as the Moon Palace Rainbow Bridge. It was all the way back in the Daoguang Era of the Qing Dynasty (1821-1850), and that’s when it became one of the most famous areas of Guiyang.
Although it is now called a Six-hole Bridge, the name does not refer to one bridge, but to six separate, tiny bridges situated along the river, each of them small enough to have no bents, and therefore only one opening. Like this:
(Liu Dong Qiao early 20th Century (?), undated, Old Guiyang Photo Street Exhibition)
The Guiyang Provincial Chronicles (written between 1843-46), one of the oldest written sources on Guiyang and Guizhou history mention the six bridges, and the vicinity of few important places of worship, Yongxiang Temple, Yaowang Temple and Zangjia Grotto. It is not unimportant, as the whole area was considered significant and special in the eyes of the locals; here I will, again, rely on the words of the Guiyang poet, Liu Yun Liang - he compares the shape in which the Nanming River winds around the old Guiyang city walls in the south to the shape of the Taiji (what westerners usually know as the Ying and Yang symbol). This being imagined, the old Guancheng River would be in a middle, bending just like the middle line in the symbol, with six bridges lining neatly and harmoniously.
The number “6” itself, too, is by no means accidental. Six seems to bear magical powers both in indigenous Chinese folk religions, and in Taoism. There seem to be numerous references to it in one of the oldest Chinese classics, The Book of Changes (around 1000-750 BC), containing, among others, divination and magical formulas connected to numbers. Similarly, in the art of feng shui, sometimes called geomancy, there is a particular order of how things are to be built and placed in urban development - the Six Bridges adhere to these rules too, said to have been built to imitate the famous bridges on Hangzhou Lake, which in turn are a reference to the Six Rainbows of the Moon Palace (hence the Six-holed Bridge Street’s old name). Going deeper - the Moon Palace is a legendary estate of the goddess Chang’e, who had, according to legend, drank the elixir of immortality and ascended to the Moon. Having said all this, I feel it becomes clear that The Six-holed Bridge area was a place of deep spiritual and historical significance, and also of unprecedented beauty and harmony.
(Liu Dong Qiao today, 2021)
Unfortunately, neither the bridges nor any of the buildings surrounding the area have not survived the tooth of time. Perhaps this old bit of alleyway I captured here, and that will possibly be gone soon with construction going on all around it, conveys how the street could have looked in the past best.
The Six-holed Bridge Street is interesting in one more aspect: it was the birthplace of Zhang Zhi Dong (1837-1909), a famous politician and pro-westernisation activist of the late Qing.
The Dong 洞 character in his name is said to have been given to him by his father in honour of the beauty of the Six Bridges. He had shown remarkable talents in literary arts since an early age, and repeatedly scored top in consecutive examinations, leading him all the way to the top of his era. Among many titles he held, were those of the Governor of Shaanxi, and he is commonly known as being a keen advocate of modernisation of China: due to his efforts the Hanyan Iron Factory was opened, and he endorsed the construction of Guangdong-Hankou Railway, which began in 1900 and span for almost four decades.
The Six-holed Bridge might seem just a little, forgotten alley now, yet it feels unfair towards Guiyang, and towards the rich history of the region to forget about places like this, about it’s profound cultural significance and the connection to people who shaped modern China. So next time someone answers “it means nothing” to any of your queries it would be wise to treat it not as a disappointment, but as an invitation.
There is a beautiful poem from the Qing Dynasty depicting the beauty of the Six Bridges and I’m hoping to present it shortly, but working with poetry is no easy task. Until then, these few facts have to suffice.