Shaanxi Travel Guide
Last updated by david at 2014/5/2
Shaanxi Province, part of the ancient territory that is at the heart of China's "cradle of civilization" - and which provided the capital city of dynastic China for over a thousand years, one of which Shaanxi Province China capitals was the ancient city of Chang'an (present-day Xi'an), site of the Qin (BCE 221-207) Dynasty Terracotta Army - is located in the central part, east to west, of northern China, just south of present-day Inner Mongolia. Much of Shaanxi Province is mountainous, serving as a natural continental divide that separates the Yellow River drainage to the north from the Yangtze River drainage to the south. The northern part of Shaanxi Province, in which part lies the city of Xi'an, is a loess plateau, the central part of the province belongs to the Guanzhong plain, and the southern part of the province lies in the Qingling and the Daba Mountains.
Unlike many other parts of China, Shaanxi Province did not experience a turbulent history, except for the 19th century Muslim Hui uprising, known alternately as the Dungan Revolt and the Hui Minorities' War, as the history section below illustrates. But first things first, as they say, for Shaanxi Province, with its many rivers, its loess plateau in the north, its central plains and its mountains in the south, made ideal hunting grounds for early man, as the next section explains.
Shaanxi Prehistory and Mythology
Archeologists have dated the first hominid (aka "great apes") settlements in the area of present-day Shaanxi Province to over a million years ago. Lantian Man, so named from the find in Lantian County, Shaanxi Province, about 50 kilometers southeast of the city of Xi'an, has been dated to 1.15 million years ago. Lantian Man is the earliest example of Homo erectus found in North Asia, predating both Peking Man (Homo erectus pekinensis, formerly called Sinanthropus pekinensis, believed to be about 500,000 years old) and Java Man (Homo erectus erectus, formerly called Pithecanthropus erectus, believed to be about 700,000 years old), though most paleontologists now believe that we Homo sapiens evolved from the African populations of Homo erectus such as Homo ergaster of eastern Africa (present-day Kenya), dated to somewhere between 1.4 and 1.9 million years ago.
This would mean that Peking Man, Java Man and Lantian Man are early, "dead-end" hominids that existed - and became extinct - prior to the arrival of Asia's "true hominids" (the forefathers of the Homo sapiens), who wandered out of Africa. Many Chinese paleontologists dispute this interpretation, however, insisting that "true hominids" arose not from a single source, but in several places roughly simultaneously ("roughly" in paleontological terms).
The archeological finds suggest that Lantian Man used very simple stone implements such as a stone ball as, among other uses, a hunting tool (it could also have been used to crush hard-shelled nuts as well as bones, for bone marrow). It is also believed that Lantian Man used naturally occuring fire to cook food (and from this practice it is believed that burning coals capable of igniting fires were eventually kept "alive" and transported from place to place, since fire provided not only a means to cook food, but also a source of warmth and light, transforming a protected cave into a place not only suitable for sleeping, but also for socializing).
Dali Man, so named after the Dali County site in Shaanxi Province where he was found, lived about 200,000 years ago. The Dali Man specimen has sparked heated debate over its placement in the hominid evolutionary chain, with some experts insisting that it is an example of Homo erectus and others insisting that it is an example of Homo sapiens, with a third group suggesting that it is a possible "missing link" between the two, either a late Homo erectus or an early Homo sapiens.
The interesting thing about the Dali Man find is that it can be used to support either of the two schools of thought regarding the evolution of man: either the single, out-of-Africa source (aka Recent, Single-Origin Hypothesis) or the "many-sources simultaneously" school of thought (aka Multiregional Hypothesis). The fact that Dali Man has cranial characteristics that are more in common with current Chinese Homo sapiens than with, for example, current European Homo sapiens could suggest that the Multiregional Hypothesis is the right one, while the same characteristics can be explained in terms of the progressive change in the Homo exemplar that would become the Dali Man as this Homo spread out of Africa and into first India, then China, either via a northward-then-eastward route, or via a continued eastward-then-northward route.
Dali Man was a highly skilled maker of stone implements. It is believed that he was the predecessor of the Upper Paleolithic (aka Late Stone Age) Shayuan Culture that was thoroughly excavated in the Shayuan region of Dali County, first in 1955, then re-examined again in 1973, 1979 and 1981.
The most recent prehistoric find is from the Banpo Village Site that dates back about 6000 years (i.e., dated to BCE ca.4500) and belonging to the Yangshao Culture. The Banpo Village Site represents an early phase (called the Banpo Phase) in the Yangshao Culture, a Neolithic culture that was prevalent along the Yellow River Valley. The Banpo Village Site was excavated during the period 1954-57 and consists of numerous round houses with steeply pitched overhanging thatched roofs, the buildings surrounded by what appears to be a defensive moat. Outside the moat were located the settlement's pottery kilns as well as a communal burial site. The Banpo Village Site represents a large settlement, covering some 50,000 square meters.
The Banpo Phase of the Yangshao Culture was characterized by the use of weapons and tools of bone, including fishooks, arrowheads and needles. They used numerous ingenious tools in potterymaking. They were also settled farmers who used annual slash-and-burn agricultural methods.
According to legend, Yan Di (the Yan Emperor) and Huang Di (the Yellow Emperor), both from present-day Shaanxi Province, were larger-than-life leaders and folk heroes who were much admired for their exceptional abilities. If Huang Di was credited with inventing the wheel, as it were, then Yan Di was credited with inventing the bowl. Initial rivalry between these two folk heroes eventually led to a union of these two peoples, who formed the Hua Xia, or Huaxia, as it is most commonly written, culture, China's first historically recognized culture that would produce the Xia (BCE ca.2000-1500) Dynasty ("hua" is a reference to the fine clothing that these people wore, while "xia" is a reference to their adherence to rules of decorum - in other words, the Huaxia saw themselves as being quite apart from their more primitive neighbors (tribes) who were unwashed, dressed in filthy rags, and who comported themselves like the inferior creatures that they were).
Later generations of Chinese descendants of the Huaxia would call themselves "the offspring of Yan and Huang". Shaanxi Province's Huangling County houses the Huangdi ("Yellow Emperor") Mausoleum while the city of Baoji in Shennong County, Shaanxi Province, houses the Yandi ("Yan Emperor") Mausoleum. Of these two forefathers of Chinese culture, the Yellow Emperor is more highly revered. Accordingly, on Qingming Day (i.e., on Tomb-Sweeping Day), Chinese people from near and far journey to Huangling County to pay their respects to the Yellow Emperor.
Though Shaanxi Province would provide the cities that served as China's capitals from the beginning of the Western Zhou (BCE 1027-771) Dynasty to the end of the illustrious Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty, the region of present-day Shaanxi Province, present-day Gansu Province and present-day Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region (Ningxia, for short) would later become the homeland of the Dungans, the Chinese people who embraced Islam and who were later referred to as the Hui (in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang, for short), they are still referred to as Dungans), most of which group eventually fled China over the border into the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, as well as into the border area with southeastern Russia, though some Hui remained in China's northwesternmost frontier region, i.e., in present-day Xinjiang.
It is no great surprise that the Chinese peoples of the region immediately south of Inner Mongolia converted to Islam, since large numbers - an entire clan, in fact - of Mongols converted en masse to Islam. At the time, all of Mongolia as well as Xinjiang was in close cultural contact with the Islamic countries of Central Asia, and much of northern China had been all but abandoned by the Han Chinese who had retreated farther south in order to regroup, as it were, with an eye to retaking the north that had been invaded by Turkic nomads. One can therefore see the conversion of large numbers of Mongolians - also a Turkic people - and their immediate neighbors to the south, the Chinese peoples living in the area bordering up to Mongolia, as a natural outgrowth of the Islamicization of Central Asia.
Had the Muslim Hui uprising in the area not been put down, i.e., had the Muslim Hui people, stirred to revolt by the Taipeng Rebellion (1850-64, and note that China's troubles with the Muslim Hui uprising was initially fanned by Russia until the Russians came to the stark realization that a strong, independent and radicalized Muslim state on its southeastern border would be at least as big a problem for Russia as for China), succeeded in establishing an independent state in the region of present-day Gansu and Shaanxi Provinces as well as present-day Ningxia, then Gansu-Shaanxi-Ningxia might well have become the Kosovo of China (viz., Kosovo is considered by Serbia as part of the cradle of Serbian civilization).
The Dungan Revolt was apparently not directed at the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty, i.e., the Muslim Hui had no known outstanding quarrel with the Qing government; rather, the revolt seems to have been a revolt for revolt's sake, or an ill-chosen aping of sorts of the Taipeng Rebellion. Seen in the larger historical perspective, the artificially instigated Dungan Revolt was at best pointless, with respect to Muslim Hui self interests, and at worst a nightmarish exercise in how to shoot oneself in the foot.
Shaanxi Province, as indicated, was home to various dynastic capitals of China - capitals belonging to, in all, thirteen Chinese dynasties - from the emergence of the Western Zhou Dynasty through the close of the Tang Dynasty. The first recognized Shaanxi capital of China was the city of Haojing, when King Wu of Zhou (BCE 1046-1043), the founder of the Western Zhou Dynasty (note that many sources set the beginning of the Western Zhou Dynasty to BCE 1027) built the city on the remains of a settlement of the same name built by King Wu's father, King Wen of Zhou, Zhou being a self-proclaimed state that challenged the authority of the floundering Shang (BCE 1700-1027) Dynasty, ultimately defeating the Shang Dynasty (King Wen of Zhou's "captial" was Fenghao, a composite term given to the twin settlements of Fengjing and Haojing, each of which was situated on its respective bank of the Feng River in what is today the southwestern quadrant of the city of Xi'an).
And speaking of Shaanxi rivers, it is no accident that the largest river, measured in terms of volume of flow, in this, the province that styles itself "the Cradle of Han Chinese Civilization" bears the name "Han River" (note that the Yellow River, which has several tributary rivers in Shaanxi Province, does not cut through the province, but serves as the demarcation line, or border, between Shaanxi Province to the east and Shanxi Province to the west).
When King Wu of Zhou died soon after establishing the Zhou (BCE 1027-221) Dynasty, the crown prince was too young to assume the role of king. King Wu's brother, the able and honest Duke of Zhou, resisting the temptation to proclaim himself the new king, served as regent in the place of the crown prince until the latter was old enough to assume the reins of power.
The most famous Shaanxi capital of China was the city of Xi'an (formerly Chang'an), once the eastern terminus of the Northern Silk Road (the Northern Silk Road would later extend to another old Chinese capital, the city of Luoyang, Henan Province, one of the Four Ancient Captials of China, like Chang'an itself, as well as Beijing ("Northern Capital") and Nanjing ("Southern Capital") - to learn more about the Silk Road, click here).
In its heyday, Xi'an was the largest city in the world (it is still the largest city, geographically, in the north of China, larger even than Beijing proper, i.e., not counting the rest of Beijing Municipality), being three times larger than was Rome in its heyday. And speaking of Rome, it is a curious thing that the first imperial Chinese dynasty, the Qin Dynasty, was founded by a non-Han Chinese people, the Qin people, though they would become so assimilated into mainstream Chinese society that they would eventually cease to exist as a separate ethnic group.
In many organizational ways, the Qin Dynasty bears comparison, however slight, to the Roman Empire. The Qin Dynasty organized the new Chinese empire under a prefecture-and-county system, introduced the practice of standardized weights and measures, unified and standardized the written script, codified laws, built roads broad enough for a military chariot and stone footpaths broad enough for a simple cart - and established a system of city-to-city communication via this network of roads and paths, with, as its center, the capital of Xianyang, situated on the banks of the Wei River a few kilometers beyond the northwestern corner of the outer ring road (the Ring Expressway) that encircles the most heavily built-up area of the present-day city of Xi'an (the city of Chang'an cum Xi'an was later built by the first Western Han Dynasty emperor, Liu Bang, aka Emperor Gaozu, who ruled during the period BCE 206-195) - constructed the first stage of what would later be called the Great Wall, and built a vast mausoleum and filled it with an army of terracotta warriors, chariots, and horses, the now famous Qin Dynasty Terracotta Army. And all this was accomplished over the span of a mere 15 years.
The Qin people rose as slowly to power within Han China as they quickly erected the outlines of the new Chinese empire, once in power. It is one of the supremely positive features of ancient China - and it represents yet another level on which the ancient Chinese empire can favorably be compared to the Roman Empire - that the ancient Chinese, whom we today call the Han Chinese majority, were gracious in rewarding talent, as long as that talent could be harnessed to the benefit of the empire, regardless of the ethnic origin of that talent. The present-day Han Chinese represent in fact a composite race consisting of countless ethnic minorities, including the Qin, who have been absorbed into mainstream Chinese society.
The Qin were, at the time of the formation of the Han Chinese Zhou Dynasty, a nomadic people who lived in the area of present-day Gansu Province and who proved themselves adept at compromise. During the reign (BCE 827-782) of King Xuan of Zhou, ruler of the Western Zhou Dynasty, the young leader of the Qin people, Qin Zhuanggong, was granted the honorary title of Da Fu ["Trusted Vanquisher"] of the Western Frontier for his meritorious service in beating back attacks from the hostile Rongs [the Rong were an obstinately and viciously hostile tribe located in the lands to the west of the Zhou Dynasty who adamantly refused to "cooperate with Rome", as it were, and who seemed hell-bent on self-destruction, given the power of "Rome")].
In BCE 771, at the death of King You of Zhou, son of King Xuan of Zhou and whose short reign (BCE 781-771) lasted only a decade, the son of King You and also heir apparent, Xuan Jiu, whose official title as the first ruler of the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) Dynasty was King Ping of Zhou, established his new capital at Luoyang in Henan Province, which lies east of the southern part of Shaanxi Province. King Ping invited the Trusted Vanquisher of the Western Frontier, Qin Zhuanggong, to provide a protective escort for the king and his entourage during this relocation process, for which loyal service Qin Xianggong was appointed the title of Imperial Duke and granted lands in the west commensurate with his new title.
Moreover, the new Imperial Duke was permitted to keep any lands recovered from the Rongs, which incentive was naturally to the advantage of both parties, the Qin and the Han Chinese peoples. The Qin managed to cobble together a very strong "duchy", or, in essence, a kingdom, such that by the time that the Eastern Zhou states began to quarrel uncompromisingly among themselves, leading to the Warring States Period of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, this strong Qin "duchy" was tranformed into a strong state, the Qin State that would eventually emerge as the victor in the struggle for hegemony that the Warring States Period would come to represent, thus forming China's first Imperial dynasty, the Qin Dynasty, with its capital in the Shaanxi Province city of Xianyang. As indicated above, in all thirteen Imperial dynasties, stretching from the Western Zhou Dynasty to the Tang Dynasty, would have their respective capitals in Shaanxi Province.
After the glorious Tang Dynasty, Shaanxi Province would diminish in stature as other dynasties - and other warring states, dynasties and kingdoms - would build their capitals elsewhere. The north, due to the pressure from the encroaching nomadic tribes farther north, would, for long periods, cease entirely to be of importance as the empire's capital and even as the "cradle" of further Chinese civilization, since the Han Chinese would flee southward in droves, taking with them their culture and building further upon it in their new habitats farther and farther south, as the pressure from the nomadic tribes in the north mounted. However, in fighting the Han Chinese, these nomadic peoples were themselves tranformed into a sedentary (some might say "civilized") society, and most of them eventually became so sinicized that they, like the Qin, would also have their chance at the reins of Imperial power.
Shaanxi Province would again be thrust into the spotlight when, in 1934, the Chinese Red Army, under the command of Mao Zedung and Zhou Enlai, escaped out of Jiangxi and Fujian Provinces (called the Jiangxi Soviet) under the noses of the Nationalist Army, the army of the Kuomintang (with the Red Army encircled, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Nationalist Army, believed that he had victory within his grasp) and thereafter entered upon what has since been called the Long March, which was a zigzagging retreat designed to confuse the enemy.
It is said that not even Mao Zedung himself knew their ultimate destination, and, indeed, it is quite possible that the ultimate destination of the fleeing Red Army, the city of Yan'an in Shaanxi Province, was only arrived at after the feinting, zigzagging maneuvers had proven successful, for the ostensibly ultimate destination was allegedly the He Long Communist base in Hubei Province (nicknamed the Chinese Robin Hood, He rose to the rank first of Marshal, then of Vice Premier under the government of the PRC). For the next thirteen years, Shaanxi Province would serve as the base for the Chinese Communist Revolution led by the Chinese Communist Party under the leadership of its chairman, Mao Zedong.
Shaanxi Province has a long history marked by its many years as the capital of China. The result of Shaanxi's significant historical past is a rich accumulation of historical sites that amount to a treasure trove of tourist attractions, some of the most prominent of which are: the Ancient City Walls of Xi'an, with its Ancient City Gates; the Wild Goose Pagoda in the city of Yan'an; Daqin Pagoda, the remnants of the earliest surviving Christian Church in China, built in CE 640 by Nestorian Christians (Daqin being the name used to refer to the Roman Empire in 1st and 2nd century Chinese documents); Famen Temple, which houses a finger bone belonging to the founder of Buddhism, Sakyamuni Buddha; the Great Mosque of Xi'an, China's oldest and one of the country's most renowned mosques, it is built entirely in a Chinese architectural style; the Yellow Emperor Mausoleum; the Yan Emperor Mausoleum; the Qianling Mausoleum, which houses the burial tombs of Emperor Gaozong of the Tang Dynasty and his wife; the Forest of Stone Steles Museum; the Shaanxi History Museum; the city of Yan'an itself, which is rich in Communist Revolution era historical relics; and the Mausoleum and Terracotta Army Museum in the city of Xi'an, considered one of the Eighth Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site.
In numbers, Shaanxi Province has 72 large-scale Imperial tombs, more than 20 Imperial palaces, some 2600 ancient buildings, and over 1200 ancient temples and monasteries. Of the province's more than 600,000 cultural artifacts distributed among Shaanxi Province's 74 museums and memorial halls, some 5000 represent rare artifacts, some 3500 represent what are termed Class 1 cultural relics, and 123 represent national treasures, making Shaanxi Province a living, breathing, as it were, natural, cultural and historical outdoor museum.
Besides its historical attractions, Shaanxi Province offers numerous natural attractions - some of which are also cultural attractions - such as the Qingling Mountain Range with its highest peak, Mount Taibai; Mount Hua (aka West Mountain Peak), one of Taoism's Five Sacred Mountains, and, sacred or not, Mount Hua, which also belongs to the Qingling Mountain Range, features breathtakingly spectacular cliffs with unforgettable vistas; the Yellow River Waterfall in the city of Hukou on the border with Shanxi Province, China's second-largest waterfall; and Huaqing Hot Springs near Mount Li, the latter of which is also situated in the Qingling Mountain Range near the edge of the Guanzhong Plain and whose barren cliff face juts up into the sky 1302 meters above sea level - Mount Li is said to "shine like a beacon in the sunset".
In addition, Shaanxi Province, as indicated, is rich in older, prehistorical sites, such as the 6000 year old Neolithic Banpo Village Ruins. The province features an additional 60 some palaeoanthropological sites belonging to the Paleolithic and Neolithic Ages.
Shaanxi Opera is widespread throughout the province, its music being rich in the sounds of drums and gongs and its stage being rich in paper-cut decorations and emotive paintings depicting themes typical of the life of rural peasants, their woes and also their joys. As Shaanxi Province develops - which province today still belongs to the poorer end of the spectrum of Chinese provinces - the central and provincial governments plan to revive the formerly rich cultural heritage of this once peerless province, including the music and the theatre of its Imperial court that spanned over a thousand years, not least the Imperial court of the illustrious Tang Dynasty. To get a better idea of the noteworthy natural, cultural and historical (and prehistorical) sites of Shaanxi Province, click on the "Shaanxi Tourist Cities" link in the upper left-hand column of this page.
Shaanxi Province enjoys a relatively stable, slightly monsoonal continental climate that is sharply divided between a northern (north of the Qingling Mountain Range) and a southern climate type. Generally speaking, the temperature increases the farther south one travels, though the higher the elevation, the cooler the climate. The province's precipitation falls chiefly in the mountainous south, feeding the province's many rivers. It is the case for both the northern and the southern parts of the province that the winters tend to be quite cold while the summers are quite hot. The best time to visit Shaanxi Province is from late spring to mid-autumn.
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