Jiexiu Travel Guide

Last updated by drwi at 2014/5/4

Jiexiu Overview

The ancient city of Jiexiu, Shanxi Province, lies at the southwestern end of the Taiyuan Basin, sandwiched between the northernwestern foot of Mount Mian and the Fenhe River. Mount Mian is also called Mount Jie, a reference to the same individual for whom the city of Jiexiu is named (Jie Xiu means "Jie's Refuge" – see below). At the northeastern end of the Taiyuan Basin lies the city of Taiyuan itself, the capital of Shanxi Province. The Fenhe River originates in the Luliang Mountains to the west and north of the city of Taiyuan, runs through a serpentine valley in the Luliang Mountains (and through the Fenhe Reservoir, located roughly 60 kilometers, as the crow flies, west-northwest of Taiyuan), then down into the Taiyuan Basin itself, where it swings to the right (southward), coursing through the city of Taiyuan and on southwestward through the basin, passing the city of Jiexiu near the foot of Mount Mian.

To discuss the tiny city – not to say town – of Jiexiu without focusing on Mount Mian is to ignore the  behemoth in the room, for the city of Jiexiu stands in the towering shadows, figuratively if not literally speaking, of Mount Mian, which is to say that practically all of the attractions associated with the former are to be found on the latter. Unlike most ancient towns and cities in China, there is precious little ancient history associated with the city of Jiexiu, though the city – or, rather, the mountain next door – is associated with China's more recent history, namely the War of Liberation. Instead, the city of Jiexiu is associated with a somewhat sad, if not tragic, legend...
 
 

How the Name Jiexiu Came to Be

 
According to the legend, a certain minor official by the name of Jie Zhitui who faithfully and diligently served Marquis Wen of Jin (BCE 805-746) during the Spring and Autumn (BCE 770-476) Period of the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) Dynasty, and who achieved many good things on his master's behalf, but who was too reticent to "promote" himself (in contrast with the way folk are accustomed to in our current Facebook era!), was somehow passed over by the Marquis, i.e., Jie did not receive the recognition that he felt he deserved. Being a reticent man – being perhaps reticent to a fault (and possibly even a bit passive aggressive) – Jie resigned his post in BCE 636 and went back to his hometown to live in solitude with his mother. "Hometown" for Jie was a tiny village at the foot of Mount Mian.
 
When the marquis learned about what had transpired, he felt bad, he felt responsible in fact for the distress that his insensitivity – his lack of recognition of Jie Zhitui's faithful and diligent service – had caused for his trusted servant, so the marquis decided to try and lure Jie back to court by offering him an even higher post. Marquis Wen and a suitable entourage therefore went to the village where Jie was known to have lived, but they could find no Jie. It was rumored that Jie had fled into the forest with his old mother, to live as a recluse there, apparently having become quite bitter about having been slighted by the marquis. The next part tends to reinforce my observation above – with which the reader will perhaps also agree – that Jie was not only quite possibly the passive aggressive type, but also quite likely the type who likes nothing better than to cast himself in the role of martyr, if you will forgive my off-the-cuff, dime-store Freudian analysis...
 
The marquis' men eventually found the area where Jie and his mother were holed up, and the offer of the marquis' apology and a better job for Jie was passed on to the former official, who promptly refused it, refusing to even come forward and confront the marquis, whereafter the marquis had the forest set on fire behind Jie's hideout in the belief that this would "smoke" the former official out of hiding. Alas, no Jie came forward, only the flames! In the aftermath, the marquis' men found the scorched bodies of Jie and his mother clinging to a scorched tree trunk.
 
The marquis now felt really, really bad... and who but a royal would do such a foolhardy thing as to light a forest fire to smoke someone out of hiding?! So remorseful in fact was the poor marquis that he declared that the day in question should be remembered forever after as "Cold Cuts Day" (which, in military speak, would be roughly equivalent to "K-Rations Day" :) ), and lest you fail to appreciate the inherent sacrifice, just try to remember that we are here speaking of a people who are insanely fond of their hot pot and their piping hot cup noodles, even on a summer's day! The good marquis also declared that the tiny village where Jie had lived should forever after be called Jie's Refuge (Jie Xiu, or Jiexiu, as it is more commonly written).
 
At the risk of sounding insensitive myself, I think that this is the right time to move to the next section...
 
 

Jiexiu: An Historical and A Cultural Footnote  

 
The Historical Footnote – Though no great ancient battles were fought, or even planned, in Jiexiu, the city did play a minor role in the War of Liberation, and for this reason, the War of Liberation/ Red Army highlights of the city have recently been taken out of mothballs, dusted off and aired out, as it were, since there is renewed interest among tourists in general concerning events pertaining to the War of Liberation. Moreover, there are plenty of Chinese people, both in China as well as among those living abroad, who find China's Red Army past keenly interesting, especially given what it has led to, with China becoming an economic superpower in the span of only a few decades.
 
Fearing the imminent occupation of the city of Jiexiu by the Japanese Army, a local Communist Party official and member of the embryonic Communist resistance movement, a certain Li Zhimin, together with the mayor of Jiexiu County, Zhang Dehan, organized the retreat, on February 15, 1938, of a Jiexiu "government in exile" – the Anti-Japanese Democratic Government as it was called – to Mount Mian. The group, numbering in the hundreds and including several soldiers and a political-military strategist, sought refuge in three caves in the Five Dhyani Buddhas area, from whence they were trained in the art of sabotage, spreading this knowledge thereafter among the local populace with an all-embracing, seven-point program that can roughly be summed up as follows: Awareness, Self-Organization, Sabotage, Crushing Victory, Liberation, A New Path and Future Aspirations.
 
The provincial government of Shanxi has in recent years refurbished and restored the caves in question under the theme of "Patriotism Education Base" ("patriotism" as in "patriotic resistance") so that they appear today as they would have appeared when they were in use. A plaque above the entrance that was inscribed by Song Tao, the then First Director of the Propaganda Department of the Jiexiu "government in exile", reads, "Jiexiu Anti-Japanese Democratic Government", and on either side of the entrance is inscribed the following couplet composed by Feng Jianping, the former Secretary of the Communist Party Committee of Jiexiu, but in the quintessentially Chinese poetic style of dramatic juxtaposition that could as easily have placed the couplet in the Tang Dynasty rather than in the modern era:
 
Majestic Mount Mian witnesses great exploits of ancestors,
Murmuring Fenshui River eulogizes loyal souls of heroes.
 
As indicated, the Chinese Communist "Patriotism Education Base" on Mount Mian has preserved its original furniture and even the site's original arrangement, a feature that imparts the impression – except for the dated look of the furniture, the aged books, the old-fashioned pamplets, etc. – that the site could have been in use only yesterday. The leader's (teacher's) old-fashioned wooden armchair with backrest placed centrally at the head of the table and with the simple, straightforward stools for the villagers (pupils) surrounding the table, together with the many illustrative oil paintings hanging on the walls with their patriotic imagery, all bear witness to a simple, direct form of pedagogy that was designed to engage simple villagers who themselves had barely emerged from the yoke of feudalism – and maybe few of whom could even read or write at the time – before this challenge was thrust upon them by the course of history, i.e., by the yearning for self-determination.
 
The Cultural Footnote – Jiexiu came to be known during the ancient period for its Ding-style porcelain kilns. The Ding-style porcelain (so-called because it first appeared in the ancient Dingzhou region corresponding to present-day Quyang County, Hebei Province) was an improvement over the earlier Xing-style porcelain that was of a lesser quality, though not all admirers of porcelain take this view. The earliest Ding porcelain that emerged during the late Tang Dynasty was imitative of the Xing style, and this tendency continued through the Five Dynasties (CE 907-960) Period, but by the time of the Northern Song (960-1127) Dynasty, the Ding style porcelain that would become famous had emerged.
 
Ding-style porcelain was characterized by its thin walls with its very distinct, elegant overall shapes (made possible, surely, by the thinness of the walls). The most famous of the Ding styles to emerge had a luxurious off-white glaze that gave the porcelain the allure of ivory. Ding-style porcelain also comprised colors such as black, crimson, and green, though off-white dominated. Where Xing-style porcelain had made a name for itself from its snow-white appearance, suggesting purity, Ding-style porcelain made a name for itself by the unique combination of its many cutting-edge features, which also lent themselves admirably to everyday pottery for household use; Ding-style porcelain containers could be made in larger sizes – and with large, eminently practical mouths – precisely because they used precious little material and were therefore not bulky and heavy.
 
Alas, this most outstanding, cutting-edge feature of Ding-style porcelain would prove to be its Achilles heel, as it were, since it eventually fell in disfavor with the Imperial court. Because of the thinness of the walls of Ding-style porcelain – and this was even more pronounced in "household pottery" (mugs, cups, pitchers, etc.) – the glaze had to be fired onto the porcelain with the item standing on its head. Therefore the top rim of the utensil – i.e., it's contact surface with the kiln's grate, since the utensil stood on its head – could not be glazed. For ordinary users, this posed no great problem, but for the porcelain to appeal to more discriminating consumers, if you will excuse the anachronism (consumerism is a hypermodern concept, of course), the top, unglazed edge had to be finished with a gold, silver or copper enamel, which itself imparted a degree of beauty in the eyes of most beholders, at least initially...
 
Since the emperor saw himself as God's manifestation on earth, things made for the Imperial court had to meet the highest standards, if not perfection itself. The absence of glazing on the rim of a Ding-style utensil, even though it could be masked with a beauty-enhancing enamel, was inherently flawed in the eyes of the emperor, therefore Ding-style porcelain quickly fell out of favor at court, and this disfavor spread to government officials who might receive a visit from the emperor, and thus the fame of Ding-style porcelain became slowly eroded, though the new, pioneering method of porcelain produced by the Ding kilns, including the Ding kilns of Jiexiu, would have far-reaching influence on the continued development of porcelain in China.
 
 

Present-Day Jiexiu's Highlights

 
Besides the "Patriotism Education Base" on Mount Mian, which the local tourist bureau profiles as "Red Tourism" – and which is definitely worth a visit (btw, the Mao suit, especially the tunic with its upturned collar, will never go out of style, it just adapts itself to meet new materials and demands for modern flourishes) – there are numerous other sites on Mount Mian that are worthy of a visit, the arguably most popular of which is Shengru Spring, aka Abdomen-Encircling Cavern and Holy Breast Spring, a monstrously large cavern with pools below fed by natural springs, while the upper part of the entrance forms a very, very large, semi-circle that is angled skyward at about 45 degrees and from which dangle large stones, held by sinuous, moss-covered vines that are kept alive by the trickle of water that runs down them and splashes into the pools below, creating a musical concert with echo feedback (this would make a great movie set for a film about Cro Magnon Man, don't you think?). Walking out of the cavern's mouth (or belly or breast, or whichever image one prefers... my favorite is "womb" :) ), one experiences a spectacular vista.
 
Other famous sites on Mount Mian include: Sky Bridge, an aerial walkway that spans a large cavern; Nun Lee Cliff, aka Nun Lee Cavern, the cavern that was the favorite meditative haunt of the sister to Tang Dynasty Emperor Taizong, Princess Changzhao, whose family name was Lee and who, having become a Buddhist nun, persuaded her brother, the emperor, to also convert to Buddhism (most Chinese people in ancient times started first as Taoists, then became Buddhists, though some became Confucianists in the interim while others remained either Taoists or Confucianists); and of course, the larger than life (over 10 feet tall) statues of Jie Zhitui and his mother, constructed at Dragon Ridge Peak (near Nun Lee Cliff) on the orders of Wen Yanbo (CE 575–637), who also served as prime minister under Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty (note that there is also an Emperor Taizong of the Northern Song Dynasty), who reigned during the period CE 627-649. The statues of Jie Zhitui and his mother at Dragon Ridge Peak are considered to be the very soul of Mount Mian.
 
There are some 70 noteworthy tourist sites on Mount Mian – the mountain is in fact riddled with enormous caverns and cliff faces, most of them with an ancient cultural and/or military history and some of them filled with sculptures relating to a religious or a royal theme, or, as with Dragon Ridge Peak, an honored public official.
 
In and around the ancient city of Jiexiu proper are other interesting sites to visit. In fact, the tourism sites of Jiexiu overlap with the tourism sites of the ancient city – and World Cultural Heritage Site – of Pingyao. For example, the Wang Family Courtyard is roughly halfway between Pingyao and Jiexiu, while Zhangbi Ancient Village, aka Zhangbi Ancient Castle, lies close to Jiexiu. Jiexiu also boasts a very old if not ancient king cypress tree, called Qinbai.
 
Regarding Zhangbi Ancient Village, it is more of a village laid out like a fortress (or maybe a fortress laid out like a village), that is, it has a city wall that encircles the entire, densely-packed (building-wise) village (the word bi in fact means "wall", so another name for the place is Zhang Walled City). But Zhangbi Ancient Village is quite unique in that in its time it served a multitude of functions, some of which functions strike a modern person as being potentially mutually opposed. For example, Zhangbi Ancient Village served a military and a religious function as well as a residential and a production function – one can truly say that this was an integrated institution far ahead of its time! There are alone some 5-6 temples in the complex, while underground, the ancient village is a veritable maze of catacombs that connects to all the above-ground buildings, with "stacked" catacombs existing on three different planes, or tiers, reinforcing the role of Zhangbi Ancient Village, despite its many temples, as a defensive works.
 
The Jiexiu/ Mount Mian area of Shanxi Province lies both at a high altitude and a high latitude, which produces cool, dry weather with not a lot of precipitation. This makes the area an ideal place to visit during mid-summer, when the weather can be hot and muggier in other places, but of course higher altitudes translate to cooler temperatures anywhere, though this is mitigated by the warming effect of direct sunlight. Dressing "layered" is therefore a must in the Jiexiu/ Mount Mian area, and due to the high altitude and the associated potential exposure to UV rays, an appropriate sun block is also highly recommended.
 

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