The Huang Legacy
Repeat visitors to Yin Yu Tang, PEM’s Chinese house, might notice something new in the reception hall, a framed picture that memorializes the recent passing of Huang Binggen, a descendant of the Huang family who lived in the house for 200 years.
Though he grew up in Shanghai, Huang Binggen was intimately tied to Yin Yu Tang. He heard stories from his father of a childhood spent in Yin Yu Tang, with its lattice carved windows, two pools and open, airy central courtyard. Later in life his father’s greatest desire was to return to his childhood home in retirement. A trip back to Yin Yu Tang orchestrated by Huang Binggen led to his father’s ultimate decision to remain in Shanghai. Huang Binggen and his father both became enthusiastic supporters of the project to bring Yin Yu Tang to Salem and the PEM.
Saddened to learn the news of Huang Binggen’s passing at the age of 71 this summer, PEM’s staff have been recounting their memories of meeting with him in the fall of 2016 when he visited Salem and his ancestral home, Yin Yu Tang. The framed photo from Huang Binggen’s last visit is now placed on an altar table in the first floor reception hall.
Huang Binggen was deeply proud of sharing his home and family history with the world. Born in Shanghai, in 1947, to Huang Zhenxin and Chou Lijuan, Huang Binggen served in the army in his youth, was an award-winning performer of Chinese traditional rhythmic storytelling and later became an architectural civil engineer. One of his most enduring contributions was working with his father and the Yin Yu Tang team on the preservation and re-location of his ancestral home. Although Huang Binggen never lived in the house, he was able to visit the home both in Huang Cun and twice in Salem. According to Nancy Berliner, former PEM curator and author of Yin Yu Tang: The Architecture and Daily Life of a Chinese House, family members have recounted in recent days that among the events of his entire life, Huang Binggen was most proud of Yin Yu Tang.
During this more recent visit, Huang Binggen was visibly moved to be in Yin Yu Tang again. He recounted many stories focused on his father’s memory and legacy in the house. "It was incredibly moving," recounts Karina Corrigan, PEM's H.A. Crosby Forbes Curator of Asian Export Art, who was among those accompanying Huang Binggen that day as he made offerings in the upper hall of the first floor, then moved to the upstairs bedroom where his parents were wed. He placed red tassels on either side of the canopied bed and small Chinese opera figurines on the bed in remembrance of his parent's appreciation for the art.
The Huang family ancestral home was moved to PEM’s grounds in pieces from China’s southeastern Anhui Province through a cultural exchange project and has been open to the public since 2003. Today, Yin Yu Tang is the only intact example of Qing dynasty domestic architecture in America. The two-story traditional home that once housed multiple generations has found new life in the PEM community as thousands of visitors are awed by its multisensory re-creation of life in the past two centuries in China.
The name Yin Yu Tang means “house of shelter and plenty," perfect for a home that sheltered so many generations of descendants. The home was oriented in the village according to principles of feng shui to ensure a harmonious relationship with the landscape and was constructed according to local building traditions and customs. Yin Yu Tang was home to the Huang family until the 1980s when the last descendants moved from the village. The family’s well-documented genealogy and many of the furnishings passed down through eight generations offer the opportunity to understand historical changes in China as they affected individuals in their daily lives.
The unique experience of visiting Yin Yu Tang takes visitors through important moments in China’s history by way of the Huang family’s personal objects and stories. When she first arrived at PEM from the Smithsonian in 2013, Daisy Yiyou Wang, The Robert N. Shapiro Curator of Chinese and East Asian Art, felt a connection with objects that remind her of her own childhood. Even the smell of the aged wood is like time-traveling back to China, says Wang. The heavy, large-framed bicycle at the entrance of Yin Yu Tang is similar to the one Wang would ride, as her father pedaled her to school. “It was our family vehicle,” she said, before noticing the faded brand name of the bike, stenciled on the side, “It’s a Yongjiu! That means forever.”
The home offers a unique and authentic immersive experience on many levels. When you can see the family’s things for yourself and absorb the atmosphere, written labels and explanations become unnecessary. Everything from tea sets to original wallpaper to a wooden barrel with a foot warmer where together, aunts, uncles and cousins can warm themselves in the cold mountainous climate, sets the stage for imagining the lives lived inside.
Peeling back the layers
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