FUJIAN (福建, fújìan), on China’s southeastern coast, is well off the beaten track for most Western travellers, which is a pity because the province possesses not only a wild mountainous interior, but also a string of old ports, including Xiamen (厦门, xiàmén), probably China’s most relaxed coastal city. From Hong Kong, the well-trodden routes head directly west towards Guilin, or north to Shanghai, but a detour to Xiamen makes an excellent introduction to mainland China.
Culturally and geographically, the province splits into distinct halves. One is made up of large, historical seaports and lush, semitropical coastal stretches, whose sophisticated population enjoys warm sun and blossoming trees even in January. The other is the rugged, mountainous and inaccessible interior, freezing cold in winter, home to around 140 different local dialects and with a history of poverty and backwardness: when the Red Army arrived in the 1960s they found communities unaware that the Qing dynasty had been overthrown, and even today, the area is wild enough to harbour the last remaining South China tigers. However, while inland Fujian until recently knew very little even of China, contacts between the coastal area and the outside world had been flourishing for centuries. In the Tang dynasty, the port of Quanzhou (泉州, quánzhōu) was considered on a par with Alexandria, and teemed with Middle Eastern traders, some of whose descendants still live in the area today. So much wealth was brought into the ports here that a population explosion led to mass emigration, and large parts of the Malay Peninsula, the Philippines and Taiwan were colonized by Fujianese. In the early eighteenth century this exodus of able-bodied subjects became so drastic that the imperial court in distant Beijing tried, ineffectually, to ban it.
Today the interior of Fujian remains largely unvisited and unknown, with the exception of the scenic Wuyi Shan (武夷山风景区, wŭyíshān fēngjĭng qū) area in the northwest of the province, and the Hakka regions around southwesterly Yongding (永定, yŏngdìng). The coast, however, is booming, with colossal investment pouring in from both Hong Kong and neighbouring Taiwan, many of whose citizens originate from the province and speak the same dialect. The cities of Fuzhou (福州, fúzhōu) and Xiamen are among the wealthiest in the country, particularly Xiamen, with its clean beaches, charming streets and shopping arcades. The proximity of Taiwan accounts not only for the city’s rapid economic development and the proliferation of first-class tourist facilities, but also for the occasional outbreak of tension. During Taiwanese elections, mainland authorities often hold military exercises just off the coast as a gentle reminder to the Taiwanese not to vote for separatist candidates – a tactic which usually backfires, as demonstrated by the back-to-back election victories of pro-independence Chen Shui-Bian in 2000 and 2004, while military exercise-free elections in 2008 saw Beijing-friendly candidate Ma Yingjiu sweep to power. Cross-straits business manages to smooth over the cracks somewhat, but the hundreds of missiles pointing from the mainland to Taiwan remain.
Getting around Fujian has become easier in recent years, with a fast coastal expressway linking the main cities with neighbouring Zhejiang and Guangdong provinces. To reach the interior wilds of Wuyi Shan, you’re better off catching a train, with separate lines from Fuzhou, Quanzhou and Xiamen; Fuzhou also has a decent link through to Jiangxi province, and there’s another track west to Meizhou in Guangdong from Xiamen and Quanzhou. Otherwise, train travel within or beyond the province is circuitous and very slow.Read More
Capital of Fujian Province, FUZHOU (福州, fúzhōu) is a comfortably modern city, with shiny skyscrapers looming over the main roads. An important trading centre for more than a thousand years, it was visited by Marco Polo during the Yuan dynasty. In the fifteenth century, Fuzhou shipbuilders earned themselves the distinction of building the world’s largest ocean-going ship, the Baochuan, sailed by the famous Chinese navigator Zheng He, who used it to travel all around Asia and Africa. One thing Polo noted when he was here was the high-profile presence of Mongol armies to suppress any potential uprisings; the city is no less well defended today, forming the heart of Fujian’s military opposition to Taiwan. There’s precious little to detain casual visitors, and the city is probably best used as a springboard for reaching the tourist-friendly wilds of Wuyi Shan.
- Wuyi Shan
I tell you that for one shipload of pepper which may go to Alexandria or to other places, to be carried into Christian lands, there come more than one hundred of them to this port.
Thus wrote Marco Polo when he visited QUANZHOU (泉州, quánzhōu), then called Zaytoun (from the Arabic word for olive, symbol of peace and prosperity), in the late thirteenth century. At this time, Quanzhou was a great port, one of the two largest in the world, exploiting its deep natural harbour and sitting astride trade routes that reached southeast to Indonesian Maluku, and west to Africa and Europe. It became uniquely cosmopolitan, with tens of thousands of Arabs and Persians settling here, some of them to make colossal fortunes – the Arabs of Quanzhou are also believed responsible for introducing to the West the Chinese inventions of the compass, gunpowder and printing.
The Song and Yuan dynasties saw the peak of Quanzhou’s fortunes, when the old Silk Road through northwestern China into Central Asia was falling prey to banditry and war, deflecting trade seawards along the Maritime Silk Road. Polo was by no means the only European to visit Quanzhou around this time: the Italian Andrew Perugia, Quanzhou’s third Catholic bishop, died here in 1332, having supervised the building of a cathedral; and fourteen years later the great Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta saw the port bustling with large junks. But by the Qing era, the city was suffering from overcrowding and a decaying harbour, and an enormous exodus began, with people seeking new homes in Southeast Asia. According to Chinese government statistics, there are more than two million Quanzhounese living abroad today – which compares to just half a million remaining in the entire municipal area. Despite these depredations of history, Quanzhou today retains several reminders of its glorious past, and it’s certainly worth a stopover between Fuzhou and Xiamen.
Quanzhou is a small, prosperous and, so far, sympathetically preserved town. Located entirely on the northeast bank of the Jin River, the majority of its sights can be reached on foot. The two major north–south streets are Zhongshan Lu (中山路, zhōngshānlù) and Wenling Lu, with the town centre falling mainly between these two. The oldest part of town lies to the west and up along the northern section of Zhongshan Lu, where you’ll find attractively restored, colonial-era arcaded streets, lined with trees and packed with pedestrians and cyclists. As in Fuzhou, there are plenty of minor temples scattered around, perhaps the best of which is Tianhou Gong (天后宫, tiānhòu gōng), a large airy hall at the southern end of Zhongshan Lu, dedicated to southeastern China’s most popular deity, the Heavenly Empress.
The Hakka homelands
The Hakka homelands
Fujian’s hilly southwestern border with Guangdong is an area central to the Hakka, a Han subgroup known to locals as kejia (客家, kèjīa; guest families) and to nineteenth-century Europeans as “China’s gypsies”. Originating in the Yangzi basin during the third century and dislodged ever southward by war and revolution, the Hakka today form large communities here, in Hong Kong and on Hainan island. They managed to retain their original languages and customs by remaining aloof from their neighbours in the lands in which they settled, a habit that caused resentment and led to their homes being well defended. While towns up this way are mostly unattractive low-level industrial settlements, the countryside is pretty in spring, and villages and hamlets around the focal city of Yongding (永定, yongdìng) sport fortress-like Hakka mansions built of stone and adobe. The largest are four or five storeys high, circular, and house entire clans.