The city of Nanning, which in Chinese means "Southern Peace," is the capital of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, or Guangxi Province in short. Nanning is located almost in the center of the province, though slightly southerly, closer to the coast and the Gulf of Tonkin and the South China Sea. The Chinese island of Hainan lies almost due south across the Gulf of Tonkin. Nanning is situated in a low-lying but hilly valley, surrounded by mountains. The southern part of the city is in fact built on the lower slopes of Mount Qingxiu.
The city was known in former centuries as Yong City due to its location on the northern banks of the Yong River, the principal southern tributary of the Xi River. The Xi River passes through the Guangxi Province city of Wuzhou before entering into Guangdong Province to the southeast, where it eventually empties into the Pearl River Estuary. The Xi River is only second in China in terms of flow volume to the mighty Yangtze River.
Culturally speaking, Nanning is a mixing pot of traditions as it is home to some 30 ethnic minority groups. It is also the center of the Zhuang ethnic minority culture, with over 90% of China's Zhuang living in Guangxi Province. The city is filled with the Zhuang’s ethnic flavors particularly during the Folk Song & Arts Festival, which takes place in late October or early November each year, depending on the lunar calendar. This is the best time of year to visit Nanning if you are interested in the culture and history of the Zhuang ethnic minority.
The province's other main minority groups include the Dong and the Miao, the Gin (a Vietnamese ethnic group), the Hui, the Shui, the Yao, and the Yi (also known as Lolo). In addition, Nanning boasts a small Christian enclave, though these are not of ethnic origin. Rather, this group is perhaps a remaining trace of the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864).
Not surprisingly, the city has several ethnic minority villages where visitor can enjoy firsthand the music, dance, art, and even fireworks of the local people, especially during the traditional ethnic festivals. Each of the minority groups represented here holds its own celebrations, where ritual dances and traditional ceremonies and competitions take place. In addition, Nanning has an Institute of Nationalities, or ethnic culture museum, that profiles the history and culture of each of group represented here.
One such ethnic minority village, Jintian Village, is the site where the Taiping Rebellion originated. At its height, there were over 30 million revolutionaries who attempted to institute pervasive social reforms under the guise of a hybrid Christian rule called the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. Even Mao Zedong, the communist revolutionary and first Chairman of the Communist Party of China, acknowledged the Taiping Rebellion as a legitimate attempt to rid the Chinese people of a corrupt, repressive feudal system. The Taiping Rebellion was the largest, most extensive uprising in Chinese history prior to the communist uprising that would eventually lead to the creation of the People’s Republic of China.
A Brief History
The city of Nanning has a long, ancient, and proud history. In 318, during the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420) and on the site where present-day Nanning sits, the county seat of Jinxing was established under Yulin Prefecture. The county seat of Jinxing and its larger highlands then became Jinxing Prefecture, at the expense of Yulin Prefecture. The area had long been the home of an enclave of the Baiyue ethnic minority. Jinxing became a military garrison, or commandery, as well, until 589, when the commandery was dismantled and the prefecture was renamed Xuanhua, losing its status as a prefecture.
During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the city again became a prefecture and was renamed Yong Prefecture, when the garrison was re-established as part of a larger Han Chinese plan to establish control over all of the surrounding area. This region included much of present-day Guangxi Province and parts of present-day Yunnan and Guizhou Provinces. The independent Kingdom of Nanzhou, which was a collection of small states (zhao) each consisting of a variety of ethnic groups, chiefly the Bai, created an alliance which lay in present-day Yunnan Province. The kingdom fought the Tang Dynasty over control of Yong Prefecture during the middle of the 9th century, winning control over the prefecture from 861.
That was, until a Zhuang chieftain and hero, Nong Zhigao, appealed in 1052 to the ruler of the Song Dynasty (960-1127), Emperor Huangyou (ruling 1049-1054) for help in opposing the Kingdom of Nanzhou. The emperor supported the Zhuang leader in his rebellion and Yong Prefecture once again came under Chinese rule, albeit under the direct rule of the Zhuang ethnic minority, though the former Han Chinese garrison was again re-established. In any case, the Zhuang, though officially a recognized minority, is perhaps the most assimilated into Han Chinese society ethnic minority group among China's 56 officially recognized ethnic minorities.
It was during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) that the city was finally renamed Nanning, meaning, as indicated above, "Southern Peace," to commemorate the fact that imperial Chinese rule had finally achieved stability in its formerly unruly southern provinces. During the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties, Nanning's position as a production and distribution hub was cemented, thanks to the city's location on the You and Zuo Rivers which merge just northeast of Nanning to form the Yong River, which then runs through the city. This development earned Nanning the nickname of "Little Nanjing," the famous Jiangsu Province city west-northwest of Shanghai that became the production and distribution center of eastern China during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, noted especially for its textile, shipbuilding, printing, and minting industries.
In 1914, just 3 years after the fall of China's last imperial dynasty (the Qing Dynasty), Nanning replaced Guilin as Guangxi Province's capital. During the Republic of China rule, when the country was being partitioned in certain areas by powerful warlords, Nanning fell under the rule of the warlord Li Zongren. He decided to convert the city into a model provincial metropolis, and a new Nanning—a larger and more spacious city—was created in place of the old city. Later, the city of Nanning was briefly occupied by Japanese forces in 1940 during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), which of course encompassed WWII in the Pacific theater.
Though rivers have given way to railroads and highways, Nanning continues to play a major trade role in China's southern region, linking China to Vietnam and the rest of Southeast Asia to the southwest, and to Hong Kong and Macau to the northeast.
But Nanning is also the region's political and cultural hub. Regarding the latter, the city's Guangxi Museum features permanent historical and cultural exhibitions, including a plethora of historical material on the Taiping Rebellion. The museum also has the largest collection of bronze drums (over 300) in China, not to mention botanical and zoological sections.
Centrally located South Lake Park contains more than 1,200 varieties of medicinal herbs as well as numerous varieties of orchids and bonsai, or miniaturized trees. Another attraction, Yiling Cave, a karst cave about 20 kilometers north of the city (similar to Guilin Cave located some 400 kilometers to the northeast) features colored lights that illuminate the cave's unique rock formations (stalactites and stalagmites), in order to highlight their striking resemblances to a variety of recognizable shapes, such as those of lions, hens, and flowers (to read more about Yiling Cave, click here).
Perhaps most importantly for tourism and the wellbeing of its citizens, over the past decade, Nanning has successfully completed a massive campaign to clean up the city. The happy result is a renewed city with broad, clean boulevards, soaring skyscrapers, modern shopping malls, and attractive apartment blocks. The city is also home to 3 institutions of higher learning, including Guangxi University, making Nanning an attractive academic center as well.