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The Chang Manor of scholarly tea merchants

When you walk up to the front of the Chang Manor, it looks no different than one of the entrances to Beijing's Summer Palace, or one of the many historical stone structures in China. But step inside, and you're in for a surprise.

The first thing you see when you walk in is a street, not lined with houses, but little shops with stone facades making tourists feel like they are in a self-sufficient village. But this is a family manor, in fact the estate is 600,000-square meters, but only a quarter is open to the public. What remains now is only the north wing, but tourists are often taken aback by the size of the place. Qin Chunrong, a Chinese tourist on a school trip from Changzhi, a city not far from Chang Manor, said "the manor is so big, which is very much nexpected."

 According to Wang Ting, one of the manor's tour guides, it usually takes two hours to cover the whole manor by foot. It was the largest family residence among the Shanxi merchants in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The Chang family is best known for their success in trading tea with Russia and Mongolia during that time.

However, when you tour their family home, their role as prosperous businessmen is far less obvious than their Confucius values, such as education and dutiful respect for their elders. This is proven by the strict layout of the Family Academy - the largest civil learning institute in China.

The Chang family believed that better educated people made better merchants. The academy serves as a family school which taught not only men, but also women, and even daughter-in-laws. In a feudal society when most women were not allowed to attend school, the Chang family was a thorough advocate of the academics. As a result, during its 200 years of prosperity, the family produced large numbers of scholars, educators and politicians. Although the offspring of the Chang family are scattered across China and overseas today, most of them live by their intellectual heritage.

71-year old Chang family descendant, Chang Shixuan, said the knowledge gave his ancestors foresight into business opportunities. Which is why, when it came to international trade, they became the most successful tea merchants.

When you stroll through the Family Academy, you will see extravagant decorations including wood and rock carvings. But, the academy also houses an array of family members' works and a rare collection of calligraphies by Chinese emperors and empresses.

Adjacent to the Family Academy are the gardens. Hiding in the back of the solemn high houses, the gardens opens a whole new prospect of Chang Manor. With delicate arching bridges, decorative walls overflowing with carvings and artificial rocks, the gardens take you away from north China. The travel brochure explains that as the Chang merchants bought tea from southern cities, they were inspired by the local architecture, and built those elements into their family gardens. As they established business in Russia and Mongolia, more inspiration was acquired.

One of the garden's gates even resembles a European door.But what distinguishes the Chang family gardens from those in southern China is its large scale. The trees and lakes seemed double sized and the pebbled lanes meandering through the gardens stretch to infinity. The picturesque scenery in the gardens is popular with young tourists. Many couples came a long way to take their wedding pictures. "The autumn foliage serves as a wonderful backdrop to my wedding photos," said one of the brides, draped in a lavish white wedding gown.

A five-story tower marks the highest point of the manor. The balcony on top opens to a view of the surrounding farmland and the flat plains unfolding into the horizon. Tourists can also get a panoramic view of the manor.

The historical houses of Chang Manor are also catching the eye of directors. It’s one of China's first tourist sites to open its doors to the film industry. So far, the manor was featured in a series of TV hits, including the popular show "Qiao Family Courtyard," chronicling the career of Shanxi merchants in the late Qing dynasty.

Yet, the potential of tourism development in Chang's Manor is still to be discovered. Zhao Jiguang, general director of the company administrating the scenic site said they've been holding exhibitions on old films and photography to enrich the manor's contents. According to Zhao, it's the official partner of the Pingyao International Photography Festival.

A chain of services is developed to attract more tourists. Direct buses bring tourists to the manor daily from Taiyuan, capital city of Shanxi province which is within one hour's drive to the manor. Entrance ticket to the manor costs 60 yuan per person while seniors and students enjoy half discount. There are restaurants inside and out of the manor and tourists can book hotels through the company's hotline 0354-2756292 in Taiyuan and Jinzhong city. The manor can also hold conferences, with meeting rooms large enough for 100 people. Souvenirshops in the manor sell miniature wood and stone carvings and local food specialties. Near the entrance gate, tourists can examine old black and white photos of the Chang family while sipping a cup of hot tea.