HUBEI (湖北, húběi) is Han China’s agricultural and geographic centre, mild in climate and well watered. Until 280 BC this was the independent state of Chu, whose sophisticated bronzeworking skills continue to astound archeologists, but for the last half-millennium the province’s eastern bulk, defined by the low-lying Jianghan plain and spliced by waterways draining into the Yangzi and Han rivers, has become an intensely cultivated maze of rice fields so rich that, according to tradition, they alone are enough to supply the national need. More recently, Hubei’s central location and mass of transport links into neighbouring regions saw the province become the first in the interior to be heavily industrialized. The colossal Three Gorges hydroelectric dam upstream from Yichang, car manufacturing – up and running with the help of foreign investment – and long-established iron and steel plants provide a huge source of income for central China.
As the “Gateway to Nine Provinces”, skirted by mountains and midway along the Yangzi between Shanghai and Chongqing, Hubei has always been of great strategic importance, and somewhere that seditious ideas could easily spread to the rest of the country. The central regions upriver from the capital, Wuhan, feature prominently in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms – the port of Jingzhou for one retaining its period associations, while Wuhan thrives on industry and river trade, and played a key role in China’s early twentieth-century revolutions. In the west, the ranges that border Sichuan contain the holy peak of Wudang Shan, alive with Taoist temples and martial-arts lore, and the remote Shennongjia Forest Reserve, said to be inhabited by China’s yeti.