China Travel Guide

Central China

  • Shanghai
  • Jiangsu & Anhui
  • Zhejiang & Jiangxi
  • Hunan & Hubei
  •  
    Central China
    Central China

    Dominated by the mighty Yangzi River, China’s central region encompasses the east coast port city of Shanghai and the six provinces of Jiangsu, Anhui, Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Hunan, and Hubei, that fan out from it to the north, south, and west. The region is rich in historic sights as well as natural beauty, including the attractive city of Nanjing, with its largely intact city wall, and the splendid scenery around Zhejiang’s West Lake and Anhui’s Huang Shan Mountain. The cultured cities of Hangzhou and Suzhou lie on the banks of the Grand Canal, one of the greatest engineering feats in China’s early history. A more up-to-date colossal feat of construction, the recently completed Three Gorges Dam, on the Yangzi River in Hubei, is the world’s largest.

    Central China
    Temple buildings on the island of Putuo Shan, off the east coast of Zhejiang
    Temple buildings on the island of
    Putuo Shan, off the east coast of Zhejiang

    Getting around
    The region’s main airport hub is Shanghai, although other international airports include Nanjing, Hangzhou and Wuhan. Many other towns and cities in the region have domestic airports, but unless time is really an issue, it can be more pleasurable to travel by train. The rail network has been upgraded and high speed CRH “bullet” trains operate on selected inter-city routes. Both the Grand Canal and the Yangzi River operate tourist ferry or canal-boat services, but in the remote mountainous regions such as Wudang Shan in northern Hubei, and Jinggang Shan in southern Jiangxi, bus travel is the most expedient means of transport.



    A Portrait of Central China

    Ornately-styled garden gate in Yangzhou
    Ornately-styled garden
    gate in Yangzhou
    From the modern city of Shanghai to the historic and picturesque canal towns, Central China encapsulates the essence of the country and its culture. The region can also be considered the crucible of modern China, as many of the stirring historical events that shaped the nation took place here in the early 20th century.

    View of the futuristic Pudong skyline from the Bund promenade, Shanghai
    View of the futuristic Pudong skyline
    from the Bund promenade, Shanghai

    The Yangzi (Chang Jiang), which flows into the East China Sea just below Shanghai, is the thread that binds all of Central China together. The combination of water and silt has fertilized vast areas, especially around Wuhan, referred to as “China’s Grain Basket”, or the “Land of Fish and Rice.” Despite its tendency to flood, the river has for centuries been a vital conduit for China’s trade, crowded with sampans and junks, as observed by Marco Polo in the 13th century, as well as tea clippers in the 19th century and ferries and cruise ships today. The river has also accelerated the country’s development: without the Yangzi there would have been no Grand Canal and no Shanghai. Now, with the controversial construction of the Three Gorges Dam, the river has been used again to supply the requirements of China’s vast, clamorous population.

    Tour boats on one of Tongli’s many canals
    Tour boats on one of
    Tongli’s many canals

    Shanghai, which actually sits on the Huangpu River, a small tributary of the Yangzi, is something of an upstart, despite its reputation. A small provincial town until the mid-19th century, it evolved to become China’s greatest city. Even after the Cultural Revolution it remained the country’s fashion and shopping capital as well as a great industrial powerhouse. It is, today, one of the most visible symbols of “new” China’s vitality and dynamism. A massive urban makeover took place ahead of Shanghai hosting the 2010 World Expo, and the city has positioned itself as a world financial center.

    Politically too, Shanghai’s impact has been enormous; it was the site of the first meeting of the Chinese Communist Party and the spawning ground for the Cultural Revolution and the Gang of Four, all of whom had strong connections with the city.

    Detail from the Ming Palace Ruins, Nanjing
    Detail from the Ming Palace Ruins, Nanjing

    In fact, nearly all of the major political events of 20th-century China took place in its central provinces. Nanjing, the first Ming capital, was also Chiang Kai-shek’s Republican center. Chairman Mao was born and educated, and began his revolutionary activities in Hunan. In Jiangxi, the 1927 Nanchang Uprising was the rallying point for the creation of the Red Army, while the same province was the starting point of the Long March. That revolution should ignite so easily was not surprising, since Anhui, Hunan, and Jiangxi, large parts of which are mountainous and remote from the Yangzi and seats of power, have always been associated with appalling poverty.

    Suspension bridge at the Divine Cliffs, Yandang Shan
    Suspension bridge at the Divine
    Cliffs, Yandang Shan

    However, long before the fall of the last emperor, this was where many of the greatest features of pre-Revolutionary Chinese culture flowered during the brilliance of the Song and Ming dynasties. Before establishing their glorious capital in Peking, the Ming left their mark on Nanjing, as evidenced by the huge Ming tomb and formidable city wall, while Hangzhou, a former Song capital, is the location of the West Lake, one of China’s most scenic places. Just as remarkable are the region’s gardens and workshops producing sophisticated silk embroidery and porcelain. Suzhou, in Jiangsu, has to some extent retained some of its ancient charm and is renowned for its private gardens, which have survived the upheavals of recent history largely intact. Porcelain production continues alongside the historic imperial kilns of Jingdezhen, while silk, produced throughout parts of the region, is still a major export, as it was a thousand years ago.

    Considering that Central China is a heavily populated region largely shaped by man’s manipulation of nature, it is surprising to find that there are still large areas of wilderness to enjoy. This is best illustrated in the legend of the Wild Man, China’s equivalent of the Yeti, who is said to haunt Shennongjia in Hubei. For those who want to escape urban or pastoral China, there are plenty of opportunities to do so, from the scenic beauty around Taihu Lake in Jiangsu to the wonderful mountain vistas at Hunan’s Wulingyuan and Zhejiang’s Yandang Shan.

    Lotus, a favorite symbolic flower
    Lotus, a favorite
    symbolic flower
    Patterns and mosaics brighten up the garden and are also symbolic. Cranes represent longevity, while the yin and yang symbol often appears where a path forks in two.
    Cranes represent
    longevity

    Traditional Chinese Gardens
    The Chinese garden developed as a synthesis of two concepts linked in Daoist philosophy (see Daoism) – scenery and serenity: the contemplation of nature in isolated meditation led to enlightenment. Therefore, the educated and wealthy built natural-looking retreats for themselves within an urban environment. The garden creates poetic and painterly concepts, and aims to improve on nature by creating a picture that looks natural but is in fact entirely artificial. For this the Chinese garden designer used four main elements: rocks, water, plants, and architecture.

    Patterns and mosaics brighten up the garden and are also symbolic. Cranes represent longevity, while the yin and yang symbol often appears where a path forks in two.

    A moon gate is a round door that neatly frames a view as though it were a picture. Gates can be square-, jar-, or even book-shaped. Corridors, paths, and bridges link the different areas and give the artist control over how the views are presented to the visitor

    Bridges
    Bridges
    A moon gate
    A moon gate

    Garden views
    Using these four elements the garden is like a series of tableaux painted onto a roll of silk. One by one they come before your eyes just as the artist intended them to. As you follow the paths, you see just what he wanted you to see. These may be borrowed views, where the scenery from somewhere else is made to look part of the picture; hidden views, where you round a corner to come upon an unexpected scene; or contrasting views where leafy bamboo softens the view of rock, or opposite views as the yin element water balances the yang element rock.

    Rocks: Water Buildings
    Rocks
    There were two main kinds of rock – the eroded limestones from lakes, often used as sculptures, or the yellow rock piled up to recall mountains and caves to the mind of the viewer. The beauty and realism of the rockery usually determined the success or failure of the garden.
    Water
    An essential element of life, water also could be used in the garden as a mirror and so appear to increase the size of the garden. Water also serves as a contrasting partner and therefore a balance to the hard stone. Finally it is a home for goldfish, symbols of good fortune.
    Buildings
    An intrinsic part of the garden, these pavilions and waterside halls provide a place for contemplation and more importantly a specific viewpoint, as well as shelter from the sun and rain. They could range from open kiosks to multi-story halls and meeting rooms.
    The Chinese art of penjing, the forerunner to Japanese bonsai
    The Chinese art of penjing,
    the forerunner to Japanese bonsai
    Park cafés – popular places to snack on some filled dumplings
    Park cafés – popular places to
    snack on some filled dumplings

    Penjing
    Dating as far back as the Tang dynasty (618–907), penjing is the art of creating a miniature landscape in a container. Not limited to small trees, the artist may use rocks and specially cultivated plants to portray a scene of natural beauty, as though it were a landscape painting. As well as being beautiful, the harmony in these creations is seen as the spiritual expression of man’s relationship with nature, the meeting of the temporal with the omnipresent. Often part of a Chinese garden will be devoted to the display or cultivation of this delicate art.

    Regional Food: Central China
    Traditionally referred to as the “Lands of Fish and Rice,” Central China is one of the country’s leading agricultural regions with some of the most fertile land in China. Both wheat and rice are grown here as well as barley, corn, sweet potatoes, peanuts, and soybeans. Freshwater fisheries abound in the network of lakes and rivers, while deep-sea fishing has long been established in the coastal provinces. In the holy mountains of Huang Shan and Jiuhua Shan, Buddhist vegetarianism has also influenced the region’s cuisine. Hunan’s cuisine is like Sichuanese food but even hotter (see Regional Food: The Southwest).

    Garlic chives and bok choi
    Garlic chives and bok choi
    Eight-treasure Buddha's Special
    Eight-treasure Buddha's Special
    Market stall displaying the wide variety of dried goods available
    Market stall displaying the wide
    variety of dried goods available

    Shanghai
    The characteristics of Shanghai cuisine are summarized as “exquisite in appearance, rich in flavor, and sweet in taste.” A favorite ingredient is the hairy crab from the Yangzi estuary (although overfishing means they come from elsewhere). A relatively new city, Shanghai has not really developed its own cuisine, although it has its own famous filled dumplings called xiao long bao. Instead the city’s main influences are older schools of cuisine – Huiyang and Suzhe. Another culinary influence is the Buddhist school of cuisine. Strangely, the best Buddhist vegetarian restaurants are to be found in Shanghai – a city with a racy reputation. Maybe the sinners want to redeem themselves by abstaining from meat occasionally. Often these dishes have similar names to meat dishes and, thanks to the skilful use of soy sauce, tofu, gluten, and agar, they can look and even taste like meat.

    Eels, a popular ingredient from the rivers of central China
    Eels, a popular ingredient from
    the rivers of central China

    Huaiyang & Suzhe
    Based specifically around the deltas of the Huai and Yangzi Rivers, Huaiyang cuisine is most famous for its excellent fish and shellfish – the freshwater crabs from Tai Hu are superb. Suzhe cuisine, however, covers a wider area – the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang – and includes culinary centers such as Nanjing and Hangzhou that both served as capital cities. Along with stews flavored with a light stock, the region is famous for its “red cooking” – food braised in soy sauce, sugar, ginger, and rice wine. “Chinkiang Vinegar” is black rice vinegar from Zhenjiang, Jiangsu, and is acknowledged to be the best rice vinegar in China.

    The province of Zhejiang, of course, produces China's best rice wines from Shaoxing and top quality hams from Jinhua. It is also worth trying the Long Jing (Dragon Well) green tea grown around West Lake in Hangzhou.

    Anhui
    Further inland is the little known Anhui cuisine, which has a long history, but is often overlooked by visitors. Despite being landlocked, Anhui still enjoys a lot of fish thanks to its network of lakes and rivers. The province is also one of the leading agricultural regions in China, producing a great number and variety of crops and vegetables. One of Anhui’s famed ingredients are its tender white bamboo shoots. These crisp shoots feature prominently in the vegetarian cuisine prepared in the lofty Buddhist mountain retreats and are often combined with a variety of exotic woodland mushrooms. Finally the world-famous Keemun red tea – it is actually black – comes from the humid hills of Qimen in south Anhui.

    On the menu

      Beggars Chicken A whole chicken stuffed with flavorings and cooked in a clay pot.

      Fried Prawns in Shells Prawns still in their shells are rapidly fried and then braised in a soy and tomato sauce.

      Three-layer Shreds Steamed shredded ham, chicken, and pork with bamboo shoots and black mushroom – should be called five-layer shreds.

      Fresh Water Crabs Simply steamed with scallions, ginger, soy, sugar, and vinegar.

      Steamed Belly Pork with Ground Rice Also known as Double-braised Pork, this long-cooked dish literally melts in your mouth.

      Eight-treasure Buddha's Special A generic name for a delicious vegetarian dish which can actually contain any number of different ingredients.

    Fermzented Bean Curd
    Fermzented
    Bean Curd

    Regional dishes and specialties
    Two of the area's great cities, Nanjing and Hangzhou, were at different times capitals in central China. Whenever there was a change of capital, the vast Imperial kitchens changed location bringing the staff with them resulting in a cross-fertilization of recipes and methods from one region to another. One favorite imperial dish despite its lowly name is Beggar's Chicken – a whole chicken is stuffed with vegetables and herbs, wrapped in lotus leaves, and encased in clay before being baked. The clay container is then broken at the table releasing the beautiful aromas. A central China specialty (but actually enjoyed all over) is red fermented bean curd. This has a pungent, cheese-like flavor that is also very savory and appears in vegetarian and meat dishes alike. Fresh water crabs are best during October and November, simply steamed with spring onions, ginger, soy, sugar and vinegar.

    Lions’ Heads pork meatballs braised with Chinese leaf – meant to look like lions’ heads and manes. Tofu Casserole tofu with sea cucumbers, ham, prawns, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and bok choi in a stew pot. Squirrel Fish a bream is filleted, coated with batter, deep-fried, and served with a sweet-and-sour sauce. Sweet & Sour Spare Ribs
    Deep-fried bite-size pork spare ribs braised in soy, sugar, and vinegar.
    Yin yang symbol
    Yin yang symbol
    Moxibustion, used in chronic cases,<br>involves burning artemisia leaves<br>to heat up the pressure points.<br>The heat is conveyed by needles,<br>but the moxa is sometimes held<br>so close to the skin that it singes.
    Moxibustion, used in chronic cases,involves
    burning artemisia leaves to heat up
    the pressure points. The heat is conveyed
    by needles, but the moxa is sometimes
    held so close to the skin that it singes.

    Traditional Medicine
    Medicine in China dates back some 4,000 years and evolved as a result of the search for the elixir of life, research in which many emperors took a keen interest. Over the centuries an approach was adopted that would today be called holistic – the importance of diet, emotional health, and environment was emphasized. Today, treatment is still founded on the use of herbs, diet and acupuncture, with Daoist philosophy as an integral ingredient, the most notable aspect being that of qi , the vital force of living things. Qi gives rise to the opposite and interdependent forces of yin and yang, signified in the universe and body by wet and dry, cold and heat, etc. Unlike western medicine, where an outside force, such as bacteria or a virus, is assumed to cause disease, in Chinese medicine a medical problem is caused by a yin-yang imbalance within the patient. When yin and yang are out of balance, the flow of qi has been depleted or blocked; Chinese medical practitioners seek to return the balance.

    A mixture of herbs, fungus, roots, bark, and sometimes dried animal products, such as ground antler, are carefully combined and dispensed to the patient who boils the ingredients to make a powerful decoction.
    A mixture of herbs, fungus, roots, bark, and
    sometimes dried animal products, such as
    ground antler, are carefully combined and
    dispensed to the patient who boils
    the ingredients to make a powerful decoction.
    Acupuncture needles are inserted just below the skin at pressure points, also called men or gates, along the channels. Acupuncture has even proved an effective anesthetic.Acupuncture needles are inserted just below the skin at pressure points, also called men or gates, along the channels. Acupuncture has even proved an effective anesthetic.
    Acupuncture needles are inserted just below the skin
    at pressure points, also called men or gates,
    along the channels.Acupuncture has even proved
    an effective anesthetic.

    10th-century channel chart
    Qi flows through channels that radiate throughout the body from the vital organs to the extremities. This chart clearly illustrates a channel that runs from the intestines through the arm to the finger tips. Applying pressure to the specified points will moderate the flow of qi.

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