The Siang-ze kie 湘子橋 (Xiangzi Bridge, according to standard Mandarin), alternatively known as Guang-zi kie bridge廣濟橋 (Guangji Bridge), located outside the historical Teochew prefectural city’s eastern gate is arguably the Teochew region’s most recognisable landmark. It straddles the magnificent Hangkang韓江 (Han River), creating a picturesque postcard scene familiar to many of us, even overseas Teochews who have yet to visit.
The Xiangzi Bridge is hailed as one of China’s four celebrated ancient bridges and counted as one of eight wondrous sights of Teochew. Beyond its cultural value, it is also an engineering marvel. Formed by connected stone piers on two ends and a row of movable boats in the middle, it is believed to be the oldest bascule bridge in the world designed to allow clearance for shipping traffic. The idea behind is astonishingly simple, yet ingenious and practical.
[Scene of the Xiangzi Bridge, probably from the Ming era]
The bridge having two separate names is linked to an enchanting folklore regarding its construction. It is said that when the eminent Tang dynasty Confucian scholar Han Yu was governor of Teochew prefecture (in 819), he wanted to elevate the difficulties of the people having to negotiate the Han River’s strong currents every time they had to cross it. Thus he invited his nephew Han Xiangzi, one of the Eight Immortals from Taoist tradition and the venerated Buddhist monk Guangji, and proposed a contest for the two to construct one end of the bridge from either river bank, and to see who could build the longer stretch when they met in the middle by a given day. The challenge was accepted by both, with Han Xiangzi choosing to start building from the east bank and Guangji from the west.
Both men took their tasks seriously, but their parity in talent and strength meant that neither had clear advantage. And so the story goes, Guangji was overcome by anxiety for victory in the evening before the day of reckoning. Using magic he transformed the large stones he was supposed to move into a herd of black goats, hoping they could reach the riverside faster by themselves and the cover of night would hide his trickery. When Han Xiangzi discovered what was happening, he pretended to crow like a rooster welcoming daybreak. Guangji’s spell was broken and the goats became rocks again to form a mountain. In this way a gap was left in the bridge’s centre when the deadline passed, and boats had to be tied together to join the two ends. The legend ends with Han Yu declaring the competition a tie, and thereafter the bridge’s eastern end was christened Xiangzi, and the western end Guangji.
[Likely the oldest photo of Xiangzi Bridge by John Thomson, 1869]
[Bustling activities on Xiangzi Bridge from close-up of another photo by John Thomson, 1869]
The historical fact is that the Guangji was originally a chain of 86 boats linked together to form a pontoon bridge in 1171 by a prefecture governor of the Song dynasty. However the structure could not withstand the strength of the river flow and was severely damaged. When it was reconstructed three years later, piers made of stone were built on the west bank. As more of these structures were added in successive years, the unique form of the bridge began to take shape.
Apart from serving as a busy thoroughfare for merchants and travellers passing through the Teochew centre of administration and culture, the Xiangzi Bridge functioned also in the days of imperial China as a customs checkpoint for the important salt trade and a place of exchange for goods flowing between the hinterlands and the coast. Befitting of its prominence, a Ming dynasty prefect for Teochew initiated a major refurbishment in 1435 by adding 12 pavilions and 126 rooms on the surface and giving it its official name Guangji. Following another round of renewal in 1531 the bridge attained a configuration of having 18 boats and 24 piers. In 1724 a pair iron cast oxen were placed to symbolically guard the bridge, though sadly one of them was lost during a flood in 1842.
[Last of the two iron cast oxen shown in the left of this photo from the 1940s]
Even though travel was a luxury in the past, nearly every Teochew knew of the bridge’s appearance by a popular folk tune:
The remaining ox was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution period, and the bridge itself was ravaged conversion in 1958 into a faceless beam bridge because of increasingly heavy traffic. Fortunately it has since been relieved of this burden, and given new life as a tourist attraction after extensive restoration works that ended in 2007. If you do visit the Xiangzi Bridge, remember you are not just walking on water, but treading the same path taken by forebears for more than 800 years.
[Panoramic view of Han River from a postcard dated to turn of 20th century]
[An undated old photo likely to be from early 20th century]
[Photo from the early 1920s. In the middle is a sedan chair, likely to be seated a rich person, being carried across the bridge]
[The Xiangzi Bridge featured in a war-time Japanese postcard from early 1940s ]
[Photo of Xiangzi Bridge shortly after conversion into a beam bridge in 1958 ]
[Photo from 1976. The bridge retained this appearance until 2003 when work began to restore it to its finest appearance in the Ming dynasty]