For more than seven centuries the bridge had been where village elders gather to gossip and lovers meet to whisper sweet nothings. It is also where the young and adventurous set off to make their fortunes and families part and unite. Huanxiu Bridge was very much part of the scenery in Chengkan, Anhui province and had guarded the village so long that no one really noticed it anymore. That is, until it collapsed during a flash flood in June this year and was swept away. The torrents destroyed not just the wooden pavilion on top of the bridge, but also the stones that bolstered the central arches, leaving only parts of two piers.
"It happened within a second," says Zhen Xinxue, an 82-year-old villager, as she gazed at the remains of the bridge. "Boom! It was over. I was so scared. That was the largest flood I had ever seen."
Zhen is not the only one who found it hard to accept the destruction of the bridge. As soon as the flood receded, villagers went downstream to search for the remnants of the bridge.
While the stone foundations were still lying in the river, the wooden parts had all been washed away. The villagers trekked miles along the river to salvage anything they could find, and identified the wooden components by the particular tenons and joints, and inscriptions.
Neighboring villages joined in the effort. Fang Shunlai, manager of the Chengkan Tourism Company, stopped the regular clearing of debris in the waterway as soon as he heard about the incident and rallied his own teams to join the recovery.
One month later, as much as 75 percent of the broken wooden parts of the bridge has been collected, and the bridge is now looking forward to a resurrection and a new connection to its storied past.
Built in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), Huanxiu Bridge is the oldest of its kind in Huizhou, a historical region in Anhui province, famous for its architectural heritage.
Hui-style architecture, one of the major genres in ancient Chinese structures, is known for its signature combination of gray tiles and white walls. The area is still full of clusters of exquisite homes, ancestral halls and memorial archways. "Huanxiu Bridge is like the soul of this area," says Zhang Jianping, a photographer who has been taking pictures of Hui-style architecture for more than two decades.
"It might look primitively simple, but its granite deck, wooden pavilion and gray tiles all represent the essence of different times," Zhang says.
Huanxiu Bridge, along with 48 other structures in the village, was listed as a major historical and cultural site protected at the national level by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, making Chengkan the only village in China with so many national treasures.