The city of Guilin, former capital of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region (or "Guangxi"), is considered by the Chinese themselves as China's most picturesque city. Guilin also ranks second on the "Ten Best" list of Chinese tourist destinations, i.e., second only to Beijing itself. Guilin is situated in the northeastern quadrant of Guangxi, almost due west of Hong Kong, from which it can be reached by air in an hour's time. The city's name means "forest of Sweet Osmanthus" ("gui" means "osmanthus tree" while "lin" means "forest", Osmanthus fragrans, or sweet osmanthus, being a bushy, evergreen shrub common to China, Japan, the U.S. and the Middle East, whose white, scented blossoms - called "cinnamon flowers", or "cassia flowers" - are used to flavor certain teas). Guilin also has an interesting history as an imperial Chinese military outpost and as a military headquarters for one of the armies of the Republic of China, which was formed after the collapse of China's last imperial dynasty, the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty. It also has an interesting prehistory.
Brief Prehistorical Background
An archeological find near Guilin, more specifically, the Zengpiyan Cave site, originally excavated in 1965 but re-excavated twice since, has revealed the presence of early human habitations in the Guilin area belonging to the so-called Pengtoushan Culture (other finds across present-day Guangxi corroborate this). The artifacts unearthed at the site (the remains of 30 humans, as well as those of a number of animals - ranging from mammals to fishes to birds to reptiles - were also unearthed) indicate that the settlements in the area belong to the Pleistocene to Holocene geological period, or around BCE 8000, which marks the end of the Neolithic Period in China.*
The pottery remnants and the simple stone implements that were unearthed suggest that the early aboriginal inhabitants of the area - forefathers, no doubt, of the present-day Zhuang people of the region - were mainly hunter-gatherers, and did not engage in agriculture at this early stage, although they may have collected and eaten wild rice. Some scholars have advanced the hypothesis that these early aboriginals may have kept semi-domesticated pigs, while others doubt this interpretation of the archeological evidence. However, since the Pengtoushan Culture is the earliest documented human culture in China, it means that the area around Guilin was one of the first areas in China to be settled by prehistoric man.
Brief Historical Background
In more recent times, a small village was founded in BCE 314 (which corresponds to the Warring States (BCE 475-221) Period of the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) Dynasty, though the centralized power of China had not yet reached the area of Guilin) on the banks of the Li River, corresponding to the site of the present-day city of Guilin. During the subsequent Qin (BCE 221-207) Dynasty, the Han Chinese people extended their rule over the area, which would continue thereafter. During the Yuanding Reign (BCE 116-111) of Emperor Wu Di of the Han (BCE 206 - CE 220) Dynasty, the village was large enough that its status was upgraded, and it became Shi An County (in Chinese terms, a county generally corresponds to a smaller city/ larger town). In CE 507, during the Southern Dynasties (CE 420-588) Period of the Southern and Northern Dynasties (CE 386-588) Period, the city was renamed Guizhou.
Guizhou prospered during subsequent dynastic periods, and though the city increased somewhat due to a military presence (it became a garrison, a defense post to protect the country's southern border), its status remained as a county. It was during the military build-up in Guizhou that the city got its many canals, as the latter provided a convenient means of transporting agricultural produce from the fertile Yangtze River Delta to outlying areas, such as the military garrison at Guizhou. A previous canal, the Ling Canal, had already been dug at the close of the 3rd century BCE in order to connect the Xiang River, a tributary to the Yangtze, to the Li River, albeit for military purposes - this was at the time when the Qin Dynasty extended its empire to include present-day Guangxi.**
In the years following the formation of the Republic of China, the new republic continued to expand its military forces throughout the country, including in the Guizhou area, under the leadership of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the hero of the uprising that had toppled the Qing Dynasty. Thus Guizhou, in 1921, became one of the regional headquarters of the Republic of China's Northern Expeditionary Army, under the command of Sun. In 1940, the city officially changed its name to Guilin.
Guangxi has since become an autonomous region within China – only one of a string of autonomous ethnic regions in China – and the canals are no longer used to transport troops or food for their upkeep. In fact, the canals are now seen as contributing to the city's overall beauty. The region itself belongs to what geologists term a karst landscape, i.e., the bedrock is of carbonate origin, either limestone or dolomite (limestone in the present case), that erodes unpredictably, leaving pitted stones, some above ground and some in the form of sinkholes, and some of which "pitting" results in caves of varying sizes.
Guilin is built around water, one might say. The Li River and the Taohua Jiang ("Peach Blossom") River meander through the city, and a number of smaller lakes and ponds are present within the city and its immediate environs. The city lies in a small valley, encircled by mountains with typical karst features, including caves, all of which contributes to the unique beauty of the city and its environs.
The surrounding counties of Xin'an, Yangshuo and Longsheng are renowned for their beautiful scenery. Yangshuo in particular has become a paradise for backpackers, with its idyllic countryside, its easy-going atmosphere, and its cheap food and beer. Longsheng is famous throughout China, if not throughout the world, for the unparalleled scenic beauty of its terraced rice paddies, and for its genuine Zhuang and Yao ethnic cultures (though Guangxi is the "home province" of the Zhuang ethnic minority, there are ten other ethnic minorities present here, as well as a large contingent of Han Chinese). A visit to Longji Terraced Fields in Longsheng County, roughly 120 kilometers from Guilin, is at the same time an enounter with the unique ethnic minorities who tend them. The most spectacular caves in the Guilin region are Reed Flute Cave and Silver Cave (located in Lipu County, about 70 kilometers from Guilin.)
Guilin proper is a well-developed, modern city with a plethora of retail shops that are tourist-friendly, and with a string of excellent hotels - especially along the main artery, Zhongshan Lu, which runs roughly parallel to the Li River. The downtown area of the city is dominated by a central square surrounded by a number of good hotels, shopping centers, and other commercial buildings. Guilin Railway Station is a regional transportation hub that connects to all the major cities of the nearby provinces. Those who enjoy walking are encouraged to spend a few hours ambling along the city's charming waterways and around its placid lakes - they will discover what makes Guilin the Shangri La that tourists near and far have begun to recognize.
* Note that while the terms "Pleistocene"and "Holocene" refer to geological periods pertaining to the earth's evolution, the terms "Paleolithic", "Mesolithic", and "Neolithic" refer to socio-developmental stages in early human civilization.
** An outsider cannot but be impressed at how the Chinese people, having once learned the art of building canals - perphaps initially to reduce the incidence of flooding and to provide much-needed irrigation in drier reaches - exploited this art to the fullest. The Grand Canal that runs between Hangzhou and Beijing - the longest man-made waterway ever conceived - being the most impressive such engineering feat.