SHENYANG (沈阳, shěnyáng), the capital of Liaoning province (辽宁, liáoníng) and unofficial capital of the northeast, is both a railway junction and banking centre that’s served as host to the Manchus, Russians, Japanese, Nationalists and then Communists. An hour’s flight from Beijing, the city likens itself to the capital; any cabbie here will delight in telling you that they have the only other Imperial Palace in China.
Shenyang does indeed resemble the capital, but only in its wide, characterless avenues walled by Soviet-style matchbox buildings and glassy towers. In fact, the most remarkable thing about Shenyang is that it isn’t remarkable at all. All the ingredients for an interesting visit are here: China’s other Forbidden City, constructed by Manchus before their takeover of the Ming dynasty; a stunning monument to Chairman Mao built during the frenzied height of the Cultural Revolution; the tombs of two former emperors; architecture left over from Japan’s occupation, including one of China’s loveliest hotels. The list goes on. And a list is what Shenyang feels like, a collection of curios out of context in their industrial surroundings, with little to detain you for more than a brief stop.
Though well known in China as an important power base for the more radical hardline factions in Chinese politics (Mao’s nephew, Yuanxin, was deputy Party secretary here until he was thrown in jail in 1976), Shenyang had its real heyday in the early seventeenth century. Nurhaci declared the city (then known as Mukden) the first capital of the expanding Manchu empire. He died in 1626, as work on his palace was just beginning, and was succeeded by his eighth son, Abahai, who consolidated and extended Manchu influence across northern China. When the Manchus, having defeated the resident Ming, moved to Beijing in 1644 and established the Qing dynasty, Shenyang declined steadily in importance. The city began to take on its modern, industrial role with the arrival of the Russians in the nineteenth century, who made it the centre of their rail-building programme. Years later, the puppets of the Japanese state also set up shop here, exploiting the resources of the surrounding region and building an industrial infrastructure whose profits and products were sent home to Japan.