Hubei is Han China’s well-watered agricultural and geographic centre. 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, 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.
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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. The central river regions feature prominently in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, while the capital, Wuhan, thrives on industry 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.
Shennongjia Forest Reserve
Hidden away 200km northwest of Yichang in Hubei’s far west, Shennongjia Forest Reserve encloses a rugged chain of mountains, culminating in the 3053m-high Da Shennongjia, the tallest peak in central China. The area has been famed for its plant life ever since the legendary Xia king Shennong – credited with introducing mankind to farming, medicine and tea – scoured these heights for herbs. More recently, the plant hunter Ernest Wilson found several new species here in the early twentieth century. And more fancifully, Shennongjia has been the setting for numerous sightings of the Chinese wild man – even if he eludes you, there’s a chance of seeing endangered golden monkeys here.
Way up in northwestern Hubei, the 72 peaks of Wudang Shan, the Military Mountain, are steeped in legends surrounding its Taoist temples and fighting style. Wudang is associated with Zhen Wu, a martial deity whose portly statue graces many local temples, and whose birthday is celebrated on the third day of the third lunar month – a good time to visit the mountain. Wudang’s martial arts would have come in handy considering the vast number of outlaws who’ve inhabited these mountains over the centuries, not least the rebel peasant Li Zicheng, who amassed his forces and eventually deposed the last Ming emperor from here.
Many temple buildings here date to an imperial building frenzy during the fifteenth century – the work took three hundred thousand labourers ten years to complete – and the mountain is currently enjoying a bloom of tourist-funded religious fervour. A relatively easy ascent, coupled with the mountain’s splendid scenery and the availability of transport connections, makes this an appealing trip.
Wudang’s martial arts
Wudang is most famous for its martial arts, which command as much respect as those of Henan’s Shaolin Monastery. It’s said that the Song-dynasty monk Zhang Sanfeng developed Wudang boxing – from which tai ji is derived – after watching a fight between a snake and a magpie, which revealed to him the essence of neijia, an internal force used (in typical Taoist manner) to control “action” with “non-action”.
For those interested in learning some Wudang wushu, there are several academies: try the Jing Wu Martial Arts School (0719 5666666) or Chuanzhen Martial Arts Institute (139 2471458), where you should be able to negotiate a course from around ¥2000 per week.
One way or another, almost anyone travelling through central China has to pass through WUHAN, Hubei’s vast capital. The name is a portmanteau label for three original settlements, separated by the Han and Yangzi rivers but connected by bridges, tunnels and ferries. On the west bank of the Yangzi, Hankou is the city’s trade and business centre and boasts the best services and accommodation. South across the Han River is lightly industrial Hanyang, while Wuchang recedes southeast of the Yangzi into semi-rural parkland.
Wuhan’s sheer size lends atmosphere and significance, even if the metropolis not a traditional tourist centre. Hankou’s former role as a foreign concession has left plenty of colonial European heritage in its wake, while Wuchang’s Provincial Museum in 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’s continued growth and development and the ongoing metro construction mean that the city currently feels like an enormous building site, and can make it a challenge even to cross the road. Furthermore, the city 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
The Hubei Provincial Museum features a display of items unearthed from the Warring States Period’s tomb of the Marquis Yi, and deserves a good hour of your time. 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. More than a hundred musical instruments are on display, including bronze bells, 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.
Bells of Bronze
The Hubei Provincial Museum’s impressive orchestra of 64 bronze bells, ranging in weight from a couple of kilos to a quarter of a tonne, were found in the marquis’ waterlogged tomb 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. Brief performances (¥15) can be enjoyed in the museum’s auditorium at 10.30am, 11.30am, 2.30pm and 3.30pm.