Having raced out of Sichuan through the narrow Three Gorges, the Yangzi (here known as the Chang Jiang) widens, slows down and loops through its flat, low-lying middle reaches, swelled by lesser streams and rivers that drain off the highlands surrounding the four provinces of the Yangzi basin: Anhui, Hubei, Hunan and Jiangxi. As well as watering one of China’s key rice- and tea-growing areas, this stretch of the Yangzi has long supported trade and transport; back in the thirteenth century, Marco Polo was awed by the “innumerable cities and towns along its banks, and the amount of shipping it carries, and the bulk of merchandise that merchants transport by it”. Rural fringes away from the river – including much of Anhui and Jiangxi provinces – remain some of the least developed regions in central China, a situation the mighty Three Gorges Dam on the border between Hubei and Chongqing, whose hydroelectric output powers a local industrial economy to rival that of the east coast, is going some way to address.
The river basin itself is best characterized by the flat expanses of China’s two largest freshwater lakes: Dongting, which pretty well marks the border between Hunan and Hubei, and Poyang, in northern Jiangxi, famed for porcelain produced at nearby Jingdezhen. Riverside towns such as Wuhu in Anhui also hold interest as working ports, where it’s possible to see traditional river industries – fish farming, grain, rice and bamboo transportation – exist alongside newer ventures in manufacturing. Strangely enough, while all four regional capitals are located near water, only Wuhan, in Hubei, is actually on the Yangzi, a privileged position that has turned the city into central China’s liveliest urban conglomeration. By contrast, Anhui’s Hefei and Jiangxi’s Nanchang seem somewhat dishevelled. Long settlement of the capitals has, however, left a good deal of history in its wake, from well-preserved Han-dynasty tombs to whole villages of Ming-dynasty houses, and almost everywhere you’ll stumble over sites from the epic of The Three Kingdoms, making the tale essential background reading (see Classics). Many cities also remain studded with hefty European buildings, a hangover from their being forcibly opened up to foreign traders as Treaty Ports in the 1860s, following the Second Opium War. Perhaps partly due to these unwanted intrusions, the Yangzi basin can further claim to be the cradle of modern China: Mao Zedong was born in Hunan; Changsha, Wuhan and Nanchang are all closely associated with Communist Party history; and the mountainous border between Hunan and Jiangxi was both a Red refuge during right-wing purges in the late 1920s and the starting point for the subsequent Long March to Shaanxi.
Away from the river, wild mountain landscapes make for excellent hiking, the prime spot being Huang Shan in southern Anhui, followed by Hubei’s remote Shennongjia Forest Reserve, and Wulingyan Scenic Reserve (known locally as Zhangjiajie) in Hunan’s far west. Pilgrims also have a selection of Buddhist and Taoist holy mountains to scale – Hubei’s Wudang Shan is outstanding – and less dedicated souls can find pleasant views at the mountain resort town of Lu Shan in Jiangxi. As an alternative to the better-known Huang Shan, Anhui’s Jiuhua Shan has many advantages: it’s lower (the highest peak is a little over 1300m), the walking is considerably easier and there’s plenty of interest beyond the scenery.
Autumn is probably the most pleasant time of year, though even winters are generally mild, but near-constant rains and consequential lowland flooding plague the summer months. In 1998, floods claimed four thousand lives, wiped out entire villages, isolated cities and destroyed millions of hectares of crops, and a similar disaster was only narrowly averted in 2002. In 2010, torrential rains upstream saw the Three Gorges Dam – trumpeted as the solution to the region’s water management problems – put to its stiffest test since completion, amid swift backpedalling from its supporters: while the dam held, both land and people felt the destructive effects of the flooding. During building it was claimed the dam could deal with everything but a “once in 10,000 year flood”, by 2007 that had been reduced to “once every 1000 years” and in 2008 to “once in every 100 years”. By 2010, Chinese lawmakers were saying the dam’s flood prevention abilities were “limited” and “should not be overestimated”.Read More
Sanguo: The Three Kingdoms
Sanguo: The Three Kingdoms
The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.
So, rather cynically, begins one of China’s best-known stories, the fourteenth-century historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国, sān guó). Covering 120 chapters and a cast of thousands, the story touches heavily on the Yangzi basin, which, as a buffer zone between the Three Kingdoms, formed the backdrop for many major battles and key events. Some surviving sites are covered in this chapter and elsewhere in the guide.
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is essentially fictionalized, though well founded in historical fact. Opening in 168 AD, the tale recounts the decline of the Han empire, how China was split into three states by competing warlords, and the subsequent (short-lived) reunification of the country in 280 AD under a new dynasty. The main action begins in 189 AD. At this point, the two protagonists were the villainous Cao Cao and the virtuous Liu Bei, whose watery character was compensated for by the strength of his spirited sworn brothers Zhang Fei and Guan Yu – the latter eventually becoming enshrined in the Chinese pantheon as the red-faced god of war and healing. Having put down the Yellow Turban taoist secret society uprising in 184 AD in the name of the emperor, both Cao and Liu felt their position threatened by the other; Cao was regent to the emperor Xian, but Liu had a remote blood tie to the throne. Though both claimed to support the emperor’s wishes, Cao and Liu began fighting against each other, with Cao being defeated in Hubei at the Battle of the Red Cliffs (208 AD) after Liu engaged the aid of the wily adviser Zhuge Liang, who boosted Liu’s heavily outnumbered forces by enlisting the help of a third warlord, Sun Quan.
Consolidating their positions, each of the three formed a private kingdom: Cao Cao retreated north to the Yellow River basin where he established the state of Wei around the ailing imperial court; Sun Quan set up Wu farther south along the lower Yangzi; while Liu Bei built a power base in the riverlands of Sichuan, the state of Shu. The alliance between Shu and Wu fell apart when Sun Quan asked Guan Yu to betray Liu. Guan refused and was assassinated by Sun in 220 AD. At this point Cao Cao died, and his ambitious son, Cao Pi, forced the emperor to abdicate and announced himself head of a new dynasty. Fearing retaliation from the state of Shu after Guan Yu’s murder, Sun Quan decided to support Cao Pi’s claims, while over in Shu, Liu Bei also declared his right to rule.
Against Zhuge Liang’s advice, Liu marched against Wu to avenge Guan Yu’s death, but his troops mutinied, killing Zhang Fei. Humiliated, Liu withdrew to Baidicheng in the Yangzi Gorges and died. With him out of the way, Cao Pi attacked Sun Quan, who was forced to renew his uncomfortable alliance with Shu – now governed by Zhuge Liang – to keep the invaders out of his kingdom. By 229 AD, however, things were stable enough for Sun Quan to declare himself as a rival emperor, leaving Zhuge to die five years later fighting the armies of Wei. Wei was unable to pursue the advantage, as a coup against Cao Pi started a period of civil war in the north, ending around 249 AD when the Sima clan emerged victorious. Sun Quan died soon afterwards, while Shu abandoned all claim to the empire. Wei’s Sima clan founded a new dynasty, the Jin, in 265 AD, finally overpowering Wu and uniting China in 280 AD.