The city of Ningbo is located in the northeastern corner of Zhejiang Province, roughly 125 kilometers, as the crow flies, east-southeast of the city of Hangzhou, across Hangzhou Bay from Shanghai, i.e., south of Shanghai, and facing the East China Sea to the east. The city, whose name means "Serene (Ning) waves (bo)" (surely a reference to Hangzhou Bay to the north), is a major port city, and, as will be seen in the brief history below, got its start as a significant modern port city thanks to its role as a so-called Treaty Port, as part of the so-called Unequal Treaties outcome that resulted from the Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60), albeit, "thanks" is hardly the word that the Chinese themselves would use to describe the humiliation that the Unequal Treaties' "Colonial era" represented for the country, but which nevertheless hastened the demise of the feudalistic Imperial era, ushering in the Republic of China in 1912.
A Brief History
Ningbo was the seat of the Late Neolithic Hemuda Culture (BCE 5000-4500), a well-developed culture that produced some interesting cultural "firsts", including the art of lacquering wood and the cultivation of paddy rice. During the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty, Ningbo would become famous for producing cinnabar-lacquered furniture adorned with intricate carvings and with gold leaf. The cinnabar-lacquered, carved furniture technique of Ningbo involved the decorative use of gold leaf and the application of multiple layers of reddish lacquer (tinted with cinnebar, a red mercuric sulfide).*
Thus, the art of wood lacquering in Ningbo, which had begun during the Late Neolithic period, and which was a major export item already during the Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasty, would be further perfected during the Ming (CE 1368-1644) and Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasties, where the export of furniture from Ningbo and the surrounding area was a major contributor to the area's economy.
In general, present-day Zhejiang Province - and the city of Hangzhou in particular (but including other nearby cities such as Ningbo) - was one of the major production centers of 11th and 12th century "chinaware" (porcelain). The porcelain makers of Hangzhou were the originators of the celadon technique of porcelain production, i.e., porcelain finished with a translucent, pale-green glaze.
As a center of foreign trade, the port city of Ningbo rose to prominence during the Song Dynasty, but it had long been an important silk, tea, and paper-making trade city along the Silk Road, as far back as the Han (BCE 206 - CE 220) Dynasty, when it was known as Mingzhou. During the Qing Dynasty, Ningbo produced not only furniture, but other "home furnishing" and Buddhist-temple items - including statues of Buddha - as well as outdoor items such as artfully engraved wooden pavilions and boats. But it was as a manufacturer of hand-made furniture that Ningbo came to excel, producing wedding beds and sedan-chairs that became collector items.
Two of the most prestigious such works that have survived are the Qian Gong Bed and the Wan Gong Sedan-Chair, the latter of which is on display in Zhejiang Museum in the capital city, Hangzhou. The Wan Gong Sedan-Chair is adorned with over 400 figures, representing primarily birds, animals, flowers and humans, all motifs from Chinese Opera.
During the 16th century, Ningbo became a center for Portuguese trade, though at this early stage, the Portuguese traders were not permitted to construct housing units on land, but were required to spend the night on their ships in the harbor, even though they had been given permission to erect warehouses and other buildings housing trade offices and the like. It was first during the aforementioned 19th century Opium Wars that the Portuguese, who eventually established a major "Treaty Port" (under the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing, the first of the so-called Unequal Treaties) in Macao and in Ningbo, were permitted to erect housing facilities on land in China.
Ningo played a prominent role in many 19th century historical events. For example, during the First Opium War, Ningbo was taken by the British who briefly held the city in 1841, though not with an eye to occupying or colonizing Ningbo, and a few years later, during the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64), the forces of Hong Xiuquan, the leader of the rebellion, seized and occupied Ningbo for a period of 6 months. Finally, in 1885, during the very brief Sino-French War (1884-85), the warships of the French admiral, Admiral Courbet, blockaded Ningbo, pinning down at the same time several Chinese warships in the nearby Bay of Zhenhai, some 20 kilometers south of Ningbo, during which time significant fire was exchanged between the admiral's warships and Ningbo's shoreline defenses.
Ningbo was also a famous port city central to the 17th century Portuguese fictional adventure novel, Peregrinacao ("Pilgrimmage") by Fernao Mendes Pinto, whose subject matter was piracy in the Far East, and where the city of Ningbo, under the name of Liampo in the novel, played a central role in Pinto's famous 1614 work of fiction.
Ningbo enjoys a special administrative and economic status as a quasi-provincial entity, one of 14 such administrative-economic entities in China that have blossomed up in the wake of the post-Mao opening of China to the West. The result of this special status is that Ningbo has become an economic powerhouse that is rivalling even the port-city status of its larger neighbor to the north, Shanghai (Ningbo is currently second only to Shanghai as a port city, but since Ningbo is a deep-water port and Shanghai isn't, in future, Ningbo may eventually outpace Shanghai as the seaport of choice for both domestic as well as interntional trade).
Instrumental in this development has been a new bridge that connects Ningbo to Shanghai across Hangzhou Bay, a development that has seen a surge in property values in Ningbo, and which will eventually drive out lesser-profitable enterprises in favor of those that yield higher returns, as is the case for all such development, unless checked by government. Thanks to its deep-water port, Ningbo has become a major exporter of industrial equipment, electrical products, textiles, foodstuffs, and other consumer products.
With three rivers running through it - the Fenghua, the Yong and the Yuyao Rivers - the city of Ningbo is, not surprisingly, a city of bridges. For example, since the 1980s, 16 additional bridges have been constructed across Ningbo's three rivers, many designed by international architects and engineers, while another 27 bridges are either currently under construction or are on the drawing board, making Ningbo something of a Venice of the East.
The city of Ningbo has a rich Buddhist religious-cultural heritage, with many Buddhist temples that are not only well-preserved, but also exquisitely beautiful, itself a testament to the wealth that Ningbo generated even in ancient times. Ningbo's 1700-year-old Asoka Temple, for example, houses some of the rare relics of Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism. Other Buddhist temples in the vicinity of Ningbo include Ahyuwang Temple, Baoguo Temple (which is at the same time the oldest intact wooden structure in all of southern China), Qita Temple, Xuedou Temple, Tianfeng Pagoda and Tiantong Pagoda.
Ningbo is also home to three universities: Ningbo University, Zhejiang Wanli University and the University of Nottingham, Ningbo, which represents a partnership between England's University of Nottingham and Ningbo's Wanli Education Group. Ningbo is also home to China's oldest surviving library building, Tianyi Pavilion Library, and one of the world's largest private libraries. Tianyi Pavilion Library is in fact Ningbo's most popular tourist attraction.
Founded in 1561 by Fan Qin, a Ming Dynasty official, the library - which also incorporates a Chinese scholar garden, replete with pavilions, outbuildings, a pool and a rockery, all connected by special walkways that only reveal snippets of the garden from any given vantage point, thus creating the impression of a much larger garden - contains a collection of works that date back to the 11th century and include woodblock- and handwritten copies of Confucian classics, rare histories of a local nature, and numerous lists of candidates who sucessfully sat for the Imperial examinations. In all, the library boasted some 70,000 works during its heyday.
Unfortunately, Tianyi Pavilion Library was pillaged as part of the Opium Wars, first by certain British military commanders, then by local thieves. By 1940, Tianyi Pavilion Library's proud collection had shrunken from its heyday total of over 70,000 works to a mere 20,000 works. (A similar fate befell the old Summer Palace near Beijing, where British and French noblemen stood accused - by none other than the French writer, Victor Hugo - of having carted off priceless artworks from the Summer Palace, for personal gain.) To learn more about Tianyi Pavilion Library, click here.
Other sites in the vicinity of Ningbo worthy of a visit are: Tianfeng Tower, Mount Zhaobao, Mount Phoenix Theme Park, Lake Jiulong, Lake Dongqian and Ningbo Museum, where you can see many Hemuda relics.
The city of Ningbo was recently appraised by the United Nations as one of China's most promising cities. A 2006 Chinese government commission ranked Ningbo as the nation's 6th most dynamic urban environment and a model environmental protection city.
Ningbo belongs to a humid, monsoon-like, subtropical climate, characterized by four distinct seasons, including a winter with intermittent frost. The mean temperature for the month of January is 5 degrees Celsius (41 degrees Fahrenhiet), while the mean temperature for the month of July is 28 degrees Celsius (82 degrees Fahrenheit). Given the city's close proximity to Hangzhou and Shanghai, Ningbo is an increasingly popular tourist destination for the domestic as well as for the foreign tourist.