China’s eastern seaboard stretches for almost 2000km between the mouths of the Yellow and Yangzi rivers, both of which have played a vital role in the country’s history. The murky Yellow River finally pours into the sea from Shandong province, and its dusty basin provided China with its original heartland. However, it was the greenness and fertility of the Yangzi River estuary that drew its people south, and provided them with the wealth and power needed to sustain a huge empire. The provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang, which today flank the metropolitan area of Shanghai, have played a vital part in the cultural and economic development of China for the last two thousand years. No tour of eastern China would be complete without stopovers in some of their classic destinations.
Shandong province is home to some small and intriguing places: Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius, with its giant temple and mansion; Tai Shan, the most popular holy mountain in the area; and the coastal city of Qingdao, which offers a couple of beaches and a ferry service to South Korea. Over in Jiangsu province there’s Nanjing, China’s large but likeable “southern capital”, and wonderful Suzhou, whose centre is crisscrossed by gorgeous canals, and dotted with classically designed gardens. Heading further south to Zhejiang province one will undoubtedly stumble across Hangzhou, which Marco Polo termed “the most beautiful and magnificent city in the world”; its Xi Hu (West Lake), still recognizable from classic scroll paintings, is deservedly rated as one of the most scenic spots in China. The same can be said of the enchanting island of Putuo Shan, which juts out of the sea just east of the mainland.
The prosperity of the region means that its accommodation is on the expensive side, with the cheapest hotels dipping only slightly below ¥200 for a double room – though there are excellent youth hostels in almost all tourist centres. The downside of this relative affluence means that the area suffers from chronic overpopulation – including Shanghai, the eastern seaboard is home to going on for 250 million people, meaning that if somehow cleaved from China it would be the world’s fourth most populous country; Shandong alone would rank twelfth. However, this makes for excellent transport connections: comfortable modern buses run along the many intercity expressways, and are often the best way to make relatively short trips, while train connections are also good, with a growing number of high-speed lines.
Shandong’s climate is more or less proximate to that of Beijing, but the area around the Yangzi River, despite being low-lying and far from the northern plains, is unpleasantly cold and damp in winter, and unbearably hot and sticky during the summer months when most people choose to visit – Nanjing’s age-old reputation as one of the “three furnaces” of China is well justified. If possible, try to visit in spring (mid-April to late May), during which a combination of rain showers, sunshine and low humidity gives the terrain a splash of green as well as putting smiles on the faces of residents emerging from the harsh winter.
The fertility of the Yellow River flood plain means that human settlements have existed in Shandong for more than six thousand years, with Neolithic remains indicating a sophisticated agricultural society. In the Warring States Period (720–221 BC), Shandong included the states of Qi and Lu, and the province is well endowed with ancient tombs and temples, not least thanks to the efforts of its most illustrious son, Confucius.
The story of the Yangzi basin begins in the sixth century BC when the area was part of the state of Wu and had already developed its own distinct culture. The flat terrain, the large crop yield and the superb communications offered by coastal ports and navigable waterways enabled the principal towns of the area to develop quickly into important trading centres. These presented an irresistible target for the expanding Chinese empire under the Qin dynasty, and in 223 BC the region was annexed, immediately developing into one of the economic centres of the empire. After the end of the Han dynasty in the third century AD, several regimes established short-lived capitals in southern cities; however, the real boost for southern China came when the Sui (589–618 AD) extended the Grand Canal to link the Yangzi with the Yellow River and, ultimately, to allow trade to flow freely between here and the northern capitals. With this, China’s centre of gravity took a decisive shift south. Under later dynasties, Hangzhou and then Nanjing became the greatest cities in China, each serving as capital of the country at some point, and acting as counterweights to the bureaucratic tendencies of Beijing since its own accession to power.
The area’s recent history, though, has been dominated by foreign influence and its ramifications. The Treaty of Nanking, which ceded Hong Kong to Britain, was signed in Nanjing in 1841, after which the city itself became a treaty port. In 1897, the Germans arrived in Shandong, occupying first the port of Qingdao and then the capital, Ji’nan, their influence spreading further as they built a rail system across the province. Resentment at this interference, exacerbated by floods and an influx of refugees from the south, combined at the turn of the twentieth century to make Shandong the setting for the Boxer Rebellion. Moving on a few decades, Nanjing was to suffer one of the world’s worst ever massacres, with an estimated 300,000 civilians killed by Japanese soldiers in what is now known as the Rape of Nanking.