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Guiyang History: The Oil Press Town (1/2)

Guiyang History IV: The Oil Press Town

If I were to say that there are places in Guiyang that are known to almost everybody who has ever lived here, I would mention the Oil Press Town among them with all certainty. Youzha Jie (or Youzha Gai in the local dialect, about this discrepancy - later), which name translates directly to Oil Press Street / Town, has always been one of those areas you simply must have visited at some point or other; or at the very least must have heard it mentioned. This is due to several reasons, the most obvious one that comes to mind being the so called Bird and Flower Market, one of the last few big marketplaces left in the city. Yet it is not exactly the reason why the name has become so firmly imprinted in every citizen’s mind as an inseparable part of Guiyang’s history and tradition.

I, for one, had always found the Oil Press Town to somehow come up in whatever I was doing over my years here, and felt that there was more to the story than just the market thing. Why is it called Oil Press Town in the first place? Why is the market called Yangming Market, not Youzhajie Market? Why is it associated with a lone stone arch standing no further than a mile away? Why do locals read the character jie (街)as gai? And talking of recent events, why is the newly built metro station which is the closest to the actual street called Guizhou Steel (贵钢)? I am hoping, in the course of the story, to answer all these questions, and identify this strange allure the Oil Press Town has always held for me.

It is only fitting to start at the very beginning, with the history of the area. Little topographical knowledge is enough to tell that it had not been within the city walls ofwhat would be called the Old Guiyang, yet conveniently situated in a gap between two mountains, that is now the route leading to the airport. It appears to had been an area of uncultivated wilderness and forests, up until the Song Dynasty (960-1279), which is also when the history of Guiyang seems to pick up pace. It was in 1201, the first year of a very short reign of the Southern Song Emperor Ningzong, that the lands of current Guizhou witnessed intense military clashes between the imperial forces and the local Yi people, who were refusing to subdue to the Song reign. The rebels were eventually defeated, and to ensure peace in the region a significant military forces were stationed in the settlement of Juzhou, which is now, of course, our beautiful Guiyang. Let’s imagine the Guizhou landscape back then - endless mountains covered in impenetrable forests, impassible ravines and gullies - conditions that clearly did not favour swift movement of big numbers of troops across the land still inhabited largely by defiant minorities. Another military outpost, east of Juzhou would be the New Stockade (Xintian), which is nothing else but - perhaps you guessed right - today’s Guiding. Looking at the map again now, it becomes clear that there had to be a route between these two, and that is exactly how the Oil Press Town came to be. As I have mentioned before, it would run through a natural pass between the Southern Mountain slopes and (what is now the Forest Park) Fanguo Mt. - you can clearly see it standing in the street and looking in the direction of the airport, that is east. The flat strip of land would serve as a road to transport soldiers and goods, and with them, the area would start to develop rapidly. The pass between the mountains themselves would also make for an strategic vantage point, securing access to the capital of Qian (Guizhou, back them). And so, where there are troops, there’s a need for food and drink, thus the number of roadside taverns opening, offering refreshments and respite. These slowly grew to become a street first, and then a bustling little town. And what is one thing that we can’t go without in the kitchen (and a Chinese one at that!)?

The answer is, of course, cooking oil. Theres an abundance of rapeseed in Guizhou even today, so it’s only natural that’s what was used in the ages past. Every inn or tavern would have their own little oil press workshop, and use their oil for cooking or trade it for other goods. It is unclear when, but the name Oil Press Town stuck to the whole high street, if we can call it so. Soon after the pass between mountains that was officially called the New Stockade Pass, was also renamed to the Oil Press Pass. It shows that this once uninhabited wilderness that wasn’t even in the city of Juzhou (Guiyang) itself, has developed beyond the initial plans, becoming not only a military vantage point, but also, more importantly, a bustling commercial hub, that facilitated a trade exchange crucial to the growth of the entire region.

You might, Dear Reader, find the name “the Oil Press Town” rather sweet, like I do, but it surely wasn’t how the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) officials saw it. It was deemed unrefined and common, and was consequently renamed to Tuning 图宁 Street / Pass, most likely due to the nature of the said characters, which presented themselves much better than oil and press. Similarly, there were efforts to change to name to Tuyun Pass in Qing Dynasty. How that ended, we now know, reading this in 2021 and still admiring the peculiar charm of the original name; if this serves as anything, it is as a reminder that certain things cannot be changed with decrees and orders.

Speaking of Qing - it was around that time (1644-1911) that twenty or more stone memorial arches were erected on the flat piece of land along the old Oil Press Town Road. I assume it must be them, in the following photography:

"Memorial Archways Extending at Tuyun Pass, South of the City", late Qing (end of 19th Century), Guiyang Archives via 贵阳老图片, 余吉花,贵州人民出版社,2003.

Who or what were these archways erected for? There is evidence suggesting that even around the Ming period there were over 80 such arches to be found in the city of Guiyang - the name paifang can refer to all sorts of memorial arches built to commemorate citizens that have gained renown one way or another - among them being the so called chastity arches, It is not unique to Chinese culture to present chastity (of women only, for course) as a virtue, and so since ancient times women who refused to re-marry becoming widows were put up as examples - some of them could even hope to have their own arch built to commemorate their sacrifice. The archway culture seems to have thrived in Ming and Qing especially, as most such arches found in China today date back to these two periods. It is not up to me to judge historical and cultural customs, yet personally I find it rather sad to think of all these women who “chose” the path of “virtue” over a chance to have a normal family life. Just to add - women widowed at a very young age were the most likely to get their own chastity arch. Quite benevolent, I must say.

But I digress. After the fall of the Qing Empire, many structures of ages gone fell to ruin, and all that remains of the Oil Press Town “Archway Avenue” is now just one lone arch. It was erected between 1841 and 1842, in memory of Mrs Gao, nee Zhang - who she was, or how her life went, I failed to find. Up until recently, the arch has been literally fused with a quarter of houses, built haphazardly in a typical Guiyang fashion - a sad fate for this lone reminder of strange habits of the past. However, fortune decided to smile upon Mrs Gao’s memorial - the whole quarter got demolished few years ago (I think I remember it still being there around 2017), and after a period of construction, it has now become a beautiful little garden, with the arch as a centrepiece, standing proudly in the sun as it should always have. We will probably never learn anything about Mrs Gao, and whether her life was a happy one or not, yet I am very happy to know that this small piece of the Oil Press Town’s history has found its own place in today’s Guiyang.

It was always my aim to keep these history notes short and interesting, and yet I’ve been writing and writing and only barely managed to answer all the questions posed at the very beginning. Therefore, I feel it’s only fitting to divide the Oil Press Town history-story into two parts - in the second instalment I shall continue to talk about more recent happenings, as well as proceed to answer the Youzha Gai linguistic question.

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