Rising from rags to riches, Hangzhou merchant Hu Xueyan built a pharmaceutical business that continues to flourish today.
THERE is a late Qing dynasty residence in Hangzhou that is remarkable not only for its sheer size and its fine restoration but even more so for the fact that it is hardly, if ever, featured in the famous city’s tour itineraries.
As with all things important in Hangzhou, the mansion (or properly, manor) is situated not far from the iconic West Lake around which everything in the city seems to revolve.
The property’s original owner was a merchant named Hu Xueyan (1823-1885) who, in the late 1800s, was one of the richest men in China.
Born into poverty in neighbouring Anhui province, Hu started as an apprentice in a Hangzhou bank and subsequently built up a thriving banking business. He later expanded into trading silk, tea and armaments, and finally into Chinese traditional medicine, all the while cultivating mutually beneficial relationships with high-ranking officials.
It is said that in his heyday, Hu possessed more silver than the moribund Qing dynasty, and he helped the official Zuo Zongtang pay soldiers’ salaries as well as procured provisions and ammunitions for his campaigns against the rebellions that wracked China in the late 19th century. He also generously donated money, clothing, seed stocks, rice and medicine to victims of natural disasters in various provinces.
Hu’s star rose even higher when Zuo recommended him to the Qing court and he was made an official of the second grade, just one level beneath the highest rank in the imperial bureaucracy.
Concealed behind rather plain enclosure walls several metres high, the residence that Hu built in 1872 sprawls over an astonishing 5,815sqm and comprises 13 buildings set amongst gardens, ponds and rockeries. The occupant’s wealth and status is immediately evident from the size, height and width of the manor’s soaring front porch which is designed to accommodate a sedan chair so big it had to be carried by eight men, a privilege which Hu, a grade 2 official was entitled to enjoy.
The luxurious manor was constructed using at least six types of rare and expensive wood, including cedar and sandalwood, as well as materials ranging from stone to brick to clay, much of which, like the stone lintel above a pair of doors just beyond the main gate, is intricately carved.
Hu’s primary wife and mother lived in the central hall as befitting their status while the 12 secondary wives and 19 children were consigned to the wings. There is a terrace for opera performances in one of the gardens as well as a raised gazebo from which the master, his family and friends could enjoy the entertainment.
Hu was reputedly worth 20 million taels of silver at his peak, a fortune which he presumably stored in his “vault”, an underground cellar beneath one of the halls.
There is an abundance of blue glass windows throughout the mansion, an expensive foreign luxury in Hu’s day, plus an extravagant use of copper, some 20 tons of it according to our guide, for fixtures and fittings. Besides window hinges, latches, and huge water storage jars, even gutters and drain pipes were made of copper, though all but one has disappeared.
Further, in a house full of women, a copper “telephone” conduit leading directly to the wives’ quarters enabled the master of the house to speak privately with each of them.
In a side street off Hangzhou’s Hefangjie is the medicinal herb shop Hu Xueyan established in 1874, now designated a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Museum. Called Huqingyutang, one would never have guessed its importance from the simple stone entrance gate just across from a well-known scissors shop. Covered corridors lead to the beautifully maintained retail hall, a stunning double storey atrium ornately decorated in Qing dynasty style with a multitude of lanterns, carved wooden beams and calligraphy panels.
The pharmacy built its reputation on its founder’s three-pronged motto of “benevolence, avoiding deception, and fixed price”. Backed by the time-honoured values of honesty and fairness, prices were non-negotiable as they were commensurate with the high quality of the establishment’s products. Hu’s business principles proved highly successful, so much so that he is sometimes dubbed “Medicine king of Jiangnan (south of the Yangtze River)”.
Huqingyutang is a living museum, bustling with pharmacists in white coats and caps busy preparing and portioning dried herbs from the well-stocked counters and drawers, much as they would have done over a century ago. Medicinal herbs like ginseng and other traditional preparations are available for sale. In addition the company now has a modern factory producing Chinese medicine for all sorts of ailments and even an online shop and consultation service.
Hu Xueyan and Huqingyutang are evidently not unknown in China, especially since a television drama was made about his life a few years ago. This makes it all the more surprising that we were able to enjoy his lavish estate and impressive pharmacy without the usual crowds that throng famous sites in the country.