Mountain Villas Behind Historic Veils

Text by Xu Xun
An age-old villa survives the test of time.

In JiangxiProvince, sprawling alongside the Changjiang (Yangtze) River and near PoyangLake, the Mt. Lushan Scenic Zone is world-famous for its magnificence, steep hills and natural beauty. Scattered around the mountain are age-old Western-style villas, bearing witness to the ups and downs of Chinese history over the past century. Today, while various sorts of newly constructed modern villas in China’s developed regions gain in popularity among the wealthy, the more venerable villas on Mt.Lushan have once again become a special focus of attention.

A British Beginning

The Mt.Lushan villas came to be primarily due to the inceptive efforts of Edward Selby Little, a British businessman and missionary.

During the period from the reign of Qing Emperor Kangxi (1662-1722) to the reign of Emperor Guangxu (1875-1908), a great number of Westerners came to the Mt.Lushan area. There they engaged in business, missionary work, cultural and educational work, scientific research, and the operation of hospitals.

In 1886, Edward Selby Little, then 22, came to China carrying a map of the world and a guidebook to China compiled by a British missionary. His first leg was JiujiangCity on the bank of the ChangjiangRiver.

The middle and lower reaches of the Changjiang, ranging from Shanghai to Nanjing, Jiujiang, and Hankou, are extremely hot in summer. Many Westerners could not bear the fervent heat, so they searched around for a cool haven in which they could escape the summer heat. Finally, they found Mt.Lushan, and in 1870 their first villa was constructed in LotusCave on the northern slope of the mountain.

On a chilly winter day in 1894, Edward Selby Little arrived at the foot of Mt.Lushan. After a long mountain trek, he reached the luxuriant eastern valley of Guniuling and was excited to find that the place would serve well as a cooler refuge. He set about by all means at his disposal to contact local squires and finally convinced them to rent him the land that was this beautiful valley.

In consideration of both the Chinese name of this town, Guniuling, and an implication of “cooling,” Little gave this place a new name - “Kuling.” He founded Kuling Company, divided this valley area into small patches, and sold those to expats from different nations. Just within a few years, all the land of Kuling was sold to foreigners.

With geological and topographical conditions favorable for architecture and inhabitation, in the following 33 years Kuling witnessed the extensive construction of villas in various foreign styles. Gradually formed here was an “architectural sphere” with European architecture as the mainstream. Made use of were rugged spires, open or closed cloisters, delicate dormer windows and chimneys, solid stone walls, red metal-tile roofs, and low surrounding walls. By the 1920s, Lushan was already home to more than 800 villas representing the architectural styles of 20 nations, including the United States, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, and Sweden. Kuling thus became one of the most beautiful spots in contemporary China, and the villas as a whole are considered an important architectural site of modern times.

Meilu Villa, in tranquil seclusion.

A Nobel Prize Laureate

One of the buyers of the land on Mt.Lushan was Absalom Sydenstricker, a missionary from the US. After purchasing a patch from Little in 1897, Sydenstricker built a small villa for use during summer holidays. This one-story stone structure, with an opening exterior corridor and traditional European dormer windows, is elegant, simple, but functional. It has been well preserved to today.

The American missionary was the father of Pearl S. Buck (Chinese name Sai Zhenzhu), winner of the 1938 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Each June, when seedlings were transplanted from dry farmland to paddy fields, it was the time to visit Kuling, according to Buck’s memory of her childhood. “Not far from my home was a crystalline spring flowing down from the mountain summit, and the water was drinkable, relished by us as a favorite beverage,” she recalled.

Buck returned to the United States at the age of 18, but after graduating from university she returned to China. In the summer of 1922, taking along her children and younger sister, she came to Mt.Lushan. Even at noontime the air in the mountain valley was refreshing. Partly because of the cool environment on that August afternoon, she declared her decision to write a book beginning on that day.

It was in her father’s villa that Buck, wearing a blue silk gown and using a small typewriter, composed the novel, The Good Earth, which won her a Nobel Prize in 1938.

A supplementary house at Meilu Villa, carpeted by trumpet vine planted by Soong Mei-ling.

An Impressive Villa

A century has passed since Little hawked the “cool land” on Mt.Lushan. To the Chinese people, the most famous is “Meilu,” the only villa to have hosted the top leaders of both CPC (Communist Party of China) and Kuomintang.

Spanning an area of some 1,000 square meters on the bank of the ChangchongRiver in eastern Kuling, “Meilu” was constructed in 1903 by a British madame, and was later presented by the lady as a gift to her friend Soong Mei-ling, wife of Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the then central government. Impressed by the beautiful surroundings of this villa and considering that his wife’s name contained the word “Mei,” Chiang named this architecture “Meilu,” literally meaning “beautiful villa.” The couple loved the villa, and each year when they visited Mt.Lushan they stayed there. While the mountain was for a period regarded as the “summer capital” of the Kuomintang government, Meilu Villa was considered as “presidential residence.” It was also the venue where Kuomintang officers met to discuss military and political affairs.

The distinctive architectural style and courtyard layout of Meilu stands out among the numerous villas on Mt.Lushan. The structure contains two stories, with two interior balconies and a huge exterior balcony, plus several exotic wing houses and a long corridor. The entire compound is full of beauty and varying attractions. Trees and flowers can be found everywhere in the courtyard: The twin golden larches are considered the best among other trees of the same species on Mt. Lushan; the Yulan magnolias are pure-white and elegant; and the trumpet vine planted by Soong Mei-ling spreads to carpet the entire roof of the corridor. In summer, the blooming flowers emit overwhelming fragrance. Also inside the compound are an air-raid shelter, a cold bathing pond, and a bamboo grove.

In the summer of 1948, as the Kuomintang troops were finally defeated, Chiang Kai-shek stayed in his beloved Meilu Villa for a mere 10 days. On August 18, prior to his departure, Chiang inscribed the name “Meilu” on a rock in the courtyard, foreseeing the impossibility of revisiting this enchanting “summer capital.”

On June 29, 1959, the late Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong visited Meilu. Upon entering the courtyard Mao shouted in his strong Hunan accent, “Chiang, here I come!” Seeing a stonemason trying to get rid of Chiang’s inscription, at the order of an officer, Mao stopped him, saying that was part of history and it was better not to destroy it. Still today, those cut marks can be seen on the rock. Of the three important conferences the CPC Central Committee held on Mt.Lushan, Mao stayed in Meilu twice, in 1959 and in 1961. It was also here that many important events that influenced and determined the nation’s fate were conceived.

From the 1930s through the late 1970s, Meilu was secluded as a secret, important site. It was not open to the public until the 1980s.

In May 1996, during his inspection tour to Mt.Lushan on the application for inscribing the mountain as a World Heritage, a UN expert marveled at the structures and courtyard at Meilu, praising it as one of the most beautiful and best preserved villas in the world. The same year, Mt.Lushan was included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List as a cultural landscape.

A villa after renovation.

A Serene Sanatorium

For many, when the Lushan villas are mentioned, the Jiangxi Lushan Sanatorium comes to mind.

Established in 1953, the Jiangxi Lushan Sanatorium is a well-known resort for rest and recuperation. Encompassing a total of 139 villas, the facility once served high-ranking officials of the People’s Republic. During all three Lushan meetings of the CPC Central Committee, most participants stayed here. However, after a century of weathering, many of the buildings were damaged and left unused.

In recent years local administrative departments conducted a comprehensive investigation into the architectural, historical, cultural, and environmental traits of the sanatorium and accordingly worked out principles for maintenance and renovation. It was determined that the old look would be retained, and focus would be on protection and scientific utilization. Great importance was attached to maintaining the historical and cultural flavors of the villas, as well as the distinctive garden scapes in their European style.

A group of villas belonging to noted personages are now open to the public, including the Former Residence of Zhu De; Xiao Ping Villa Garden, with the Former Residence of Deng Xiaoping as the center; Yiyuan Villa Village, with the Former Residence of Ho Chi Minh (former General Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party) as the core; and Linsai Villa Village, characterized by the Former Residence of Ye Jianying.

The maintenance and renovation of these villas have set a prime example for the effective protection and utilization of the villa resources on Mt.Lushan.

An old villa in golden autumn.
A personal inscription by Chiang Kai-shek for the name of Meilu Villa.