One way or another, almost anyone travelling through central China has to pass through WUHAN (武汉, wŭhàn), Hubei’s vast capital. The name is a portmanteau label for three original settlements: Wuchang (武昌, wŭchāng), Hankou (汉口, hànkŏu) and Hanyang (汉阳, hànyáng), separated by the Han and Yangzi rivers, but now connected by bridges, tunnels and ferries. Wuhan’s sheer size – the population approaches ten million people – lends atmosphere and significance, even if the city is not a traditional tourist centre. Nonetheless it’s an upbeat, characterful metropolis, and Hankou’s former role as a foreign concession has left plenty of colonial European heritage in its wake, while the Provincial Museum in Wuchang is one of China’s best. There are also a couple of temples and historical monuments to explore, some connected to the 1911 revolution that ended two thousand years of imperial rule. On the downside, Wuhan has a well-deserved reputation – along with Chongqing and Nanjing – as one of China’s three summer “furnaces”: between May and September you’ll find the streets melting and the gasping population surviving on a diet of watermelon and iced treats.
Hubei Provincial Museum
Hubei Provincial Museum
From the Yellow Crane Tower in Wuchang, it’s around twenty minutes by bus to the Hubei Provincial Museum (湖北省博物馆, húběishěng bówùguăn) on Donghu Lu. The museum’s display of items unearthed from the Warring States Period’s tomb of the Marquis Yi deserves a good hour of your time – especially if you’re planning on visiting similar collections at Jingzhou or Changsha.
The marquis died in 433 BC and was buried in a huge, multilayered, wooden lacquered coffin at nearby Suizhou, then a major city of the state of Zeng. His corpse was accompanied by fifteen thousand bronze and wooden artefacts, 21 women and a dog. The museum’s comprehensive English explanations of contemporary history and photos of the 1978 excavation put everything in perspective. Don’t miss the impressive orchestra of 64 bronze bells, ranging in weight from a couple of kilos to a quarter of a tonne, found in the waterlogged tomb – the largest such set ever discovered – along with the wooden frame from which they once hung in rows. Played with hand-held rods, each bell can produce two notes depending on where it is struck – the knowledge of metals and casting required to achieve this initially boggled modern researchers, who took five years to make duplicates – and there are brief performances every hour or so in the museum’s auditorium. More than a hundred other musical instruments are on display, including stone chimes, drums, flutes and zithers, along with spearheads and a very weird brazen crane totem sprouting antlers – an inscription suggests that this was the marquis’s steed in the afterlife.