Changsha, the capital city of Hunan Province as well as its political, economic and cultural center, is located in the northeastern part of the province. Changsha is also a city of history and culture, as well as being one of China's premier tourist destinations.
Changsha is an old city with a rich past. It lies in the central, roughly east-to-west swath of ancient China defined by the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers, with their fertile valleys, or basins. It was in this swath of land that the earliest Chinese civilization arose around the year BCE 2100 (human activity, including settlements, that preceeded the period termed civilization is generally termed a "culture", as in the Longshan Culture that existed in this region prior to the first broadly recognized Chinese "civilization"). Indeed, the Yellow River Basin is often called "the cradle of Chinese civilization".
The city of Changsha lies about 200 kilometers south of the nearest point on the Yangtze River, with the nearest comparable point on the Yellow River lying some 350 kilometers further to the north. It was first toward the end of the Spring and Autumn (BCE 770-476) period of the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) era* that Changsha was put on the map, as it were, when the Kingdom of Chu (originally "Jing", then "Jingchu", and finally simply "Chu"), which was based in the city of Ying (the city no longer exists, but was situated roughly where the city of Jingzhou in present-day Hebei Province is located), spread its sphere of influence to comprise Changsha.
As turbulent the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States (BCE 475-221) periods (i.e., the Eastern Zhou era) were, they led to considerable advances in Chinese – and thus in world – civilization. It was a time of much experimentation, not only in religious and philosophical thought (Taoism would emerge from the strange brew of existential ideas that were astir at the time, including animism, dualism (the Yin and the Yang) and ancestor worship), but also in science and medicine. The discovery in 1972 of the amazingly well-preserved Mawangdui Tomb corpse at Changsha, dating back to BCE 168, with moist, elastic skin, flexible joints and internal organs that had completely resisted decomposition shocked the world, opening the world's eyes to the high degree of medical advancement that had existed at such an early stage in mankind's civilization.
It should therefore come as no surprise that Changsha should become a center of learning the culture as well as an important military outpost. It was a city and an area that was fought over incessantly during China's Imperial history, sometimes with brutal consequences (the city's entire population was once massacred). Changsha would survive all this and would eventually produce one of the four original "academies" of China, Yuela Academy (present-day Hunan University). Changsha attracted many scholars and thinkers as well as famous generals. For example, during the Southern Song (CE 1127-1279) Dynasty, when the then famous rationalist (Confucian) philosopher, Zhang Shi, was the head of Yuelu Academy, he invited the equally famous ideologist of the Lixue ("Learning of Principle") school of thought, Zhu Xi, to give a series of lectures at the academy, and from these lecures arouse the influential "Huxiang" school of thought, which embraced 'Patriotism combined with Practicalism'. Indeed, at the time, Yuelu Academy was considered the premier academy for bright, progressive thinkers.
In more recent times, Changsha was the hometown – adopted in some instances – of a number of revolutionary figures, from revolutionaries who fought against China's last Imperial dynasty, the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty, to Mao Zedong, whose communist revolution altered radically the political landscape of China.
But the city of Changsha is more than just a repository of ancient culture and a center for intellectual and political pursuits, it is also a very beautiful city of "hills, water and islands". Here one is neighbor to Mount Yuelu, part of the mystical mountain range to which Mount Hengshan – one of the five holy mountains of Taoism – belongs. One is also neighbor to the broad Xiang River, in the middle of which is located Juzi Island, and from which one has the best possible view of Mount Yuelu. Visitors to Changsha quickly come to appreciate why some of the earliest Chinese forbears chose this very spot to make their encampment.
* The Eastern Zhou era is often referred to as a dynasty, as are all periods in China's ancient past, all the way back to the first recorded dynasty, the Xia (BCE 2000-1500) Dynasty. This is an incorrect characterization, however, since the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States periods (i.e., the Eastern Zhou era) represented a period of turbulence, where there was no central, or unifying, power, but rather, separate kingdoms, or states, that each vied for power. The Xia and Shang (BCE 1700-1027) Dynasties were characterized by slavery, and indeed, slavery continued in some parts of China for a very long time after it ended in the most developed parts of "Han" China. But in the Han parts of China, a social awareness had developed, due surely to freedom of expression and to the institution of a codified, or state-regulated, civil service, and it was surely these initiatives which eventually made it impossible to conscience slavery (Confucius was one of the most vociferous opponents of slavery). In this, the Han Chinese were far ahead of the rest of the world.