The two traditional villages of Xidi and Hongcun preserve to a remarkable extent the appearance of non-urban settlements of a type that largely disappeared or was transformed during the last century. Their street plan, their architecture and decoration, and the integration of houses with comprehensive water systems are unique surviving examples.
Xidi was originally called Xichuan (West River), because of the streams that pass through it, but its present name, which means “West Post,” comes from the ancient caravan posting station some 1.5km to the west of the village.
It owes its growth to the Hu family from Wuyuan (Xinan), who adopted a son of the Tang Emperor Zhaozong (888- 904) after the Emperor was forced from his throne in 904, naming him Hu Changyi. One of his descendants, Hu Shiliang, moved his family from Wuyuan to Xidi in 1047. From that time onwards the family lived and prospered at Xidi.
The population began to rise sharply from 1465, when the Hu family began to act as merchants. The construction of a number of important private and public buildings, and in particular the Huiyuan and Gulai bridges, began at around that time. From the mid 17th century until around 1850 the Hu family was influential in both commerce and politics. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties members of the family became Imperial officials, whilst many also became graduates of the Imperial College. At its peak in the 18th and 19th centuries the village had more than six hundred residences. However, with the decline of the Anhui merchant community and the disintegration of the feudal clan system during the later Qing Dynasty and the Republic, Xidi ceased to expand.
Hongcun was founded in 1131 by Wang Wen, a Han Dynasty General, and his kinsman Wang Yanji, who brought their families from Qisu village to the upper part of the stream near Leigang mountain and built 13 houses there. The village knew two periods of great prosperity, 1401- 1620 and 1796-1908. Like the Hu family in Xidi, the Wang family became officials and merchants and accumulated enormous wealth, which they used to endow their home village with many fine buildings. Around 1405, on the advice of geomancers, a channel was dug to bring fresh water to the village from the West Stream. Two hundred years later the water supply system of the village was completed with the creation of the South Lake. The 19th and early 20th centuries saw the construction of a number of imposing public buildings, such as the South Lake Academy (1814), the Hall of Meritorious Deeds (1888), the Hall of Virtuousness (1890), and the Hall of Aspiration (1855, rebuilt 1911).
Somewhat later than Xidi, Hongcun fell into a decline with the birth of the Republic, but it still retains many of its fine buildings and its exceptional water system.