The city of Shaoguan is a prefecture-level city located in the hilly northeastern corner of Guangdong Province, less than 100 kilometers southwest of the juncture of Guangdong, Hunan and Jiangxi Provinces, a city that is situated at the confluence of the Wu and Zhe Rivers, which merging rivers form the Bei ("North") River that flows thereafter southward to Guangzhou, where the Bei River empties into the Pearl River Estuary, which in turn empties into the South China Sea. As a prefecture as well as a city, Shaoguan is home to a number of concentrated ethnic communities (think: enclaves) such as the Bai, Dong, Hui, Jing, Manchu, Meng, Miao, Tujia, Yao and Zhuang ethnic enclaves, as well as a diverse assortment of ethnic individuals who live and work in the remainder of the prefecture, dominated by the ethnic Han Chinese. In fact, Shaoguan has an ancient anthropological pre-history as well as a rich cultural history (which includes a 16th century Jesuit mission), as the following sections explain.
A Brief Pre-History
The prehistory of the area of present-day Shaoguan dates back to the Middle Paleolithic Age (300-30 thousand years ago), where early Homo erectus forms lived here, as northern Guangdong Province is characterized by a hilly to mountainous karst terrain which produces caves that would have been of supreme importance to the continued development of early humans. The existence of a shelter that provided protection from the elements as well as from predators, coupled with the presence of rivers, which provided drinking and bathing water as well a source of nourishment (i.e., fishes and crustaceans, not to speak of the many other game animals which would be attracted to the rivers), made places such as northern Guangdon Province an ideal habitat for early humans.
The find of the Middle Paleolithic (135-129 thousand years ago, circa, in China) hominid fossil forms exemplified in the fossil cranium of the so-called Maba Man (China's Neanderthal Man) unearthed in a karst cave at Lion's Rock near the city of Maba, also revealed the presence of large animals on which these Paleolithic hunters might have survived. The finds include the fossilized teeth of a stegedon (a mammoth-like member of the Elephantidae family) and the mandible of an early rhinoceros, as well as primitive chopping and crushing tools. Maba Man is generally classified by laymen as an early exemplar of Homo sapiens rather than an exemplar of the more primitive Homo erectus, while scientists peg Maba Man as being at an in-between stage of development, or an early stage of Homo sapiens.
The much later, Late Neolithic Shixia Culture that inhabited the area of present-day Shaoguan during the period BCE 3000-500 were, for all practical purposes, as modern as the humans who now walk the earth. The Shixia site in Qujiang County, Guangdong Province was excavated in 1973. The Shixia Culture here is stratified into three rather distinct layers that match, roughly, with the pre-dynastic Late Neolithic (about 3000 years ago) period, the Xia (BCE 2000-1500) - Shang (BCE 1700-1027) dynastic period, and the Western Zhou (BCE 1027-771) - Spring and Autumn (BCE 770-476) dynastic period.
The finds from the Shixia site, not surprisingly, reflect a much richer hominid development - one comparable to the Neolithic Hemuda culture (BCE 5000-4500) of the immediate Hangzhou Bay area of Zhejiang Province - than the much older Liujiang hominid site (aka the Guangxi Shell Middens) in Guangxi Province, which date to at least 110 thousand years ago, if not to 150 thousand years ago, which would make the Guangxi Shell Midden hominids considerably older than the oldest hominid finds in Africa and in the Levant, which date to about 100 thousand years ago at the extreme (and which, if true, would challenge the single-origin, or "Out of Africa", theory of human evolution).
A Brief History
The area of present-day Shaoguan, like most of the rest of present-day Guangdong Province, belongs to what is termed the ancient Lingnan region of southern China that encompasses most or all of the following present-day political-administrative entities: Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region (aka Guangxi Province), Guangdong Province, Fujian Province and Hainan Province, as well as the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macao, and the island of Taiwan.
The Lingnan culture that developed here was distinct from the Zhongyuan culture of central China, even though the main driver of the Lingnan culture, like the driver of the Zhongyuan culture, were the Han Chinese. The difference lies in the fact that the Han Chinese arrived in Lingnan as immigrants fleeing unrest in the north of China, and the place and the pre-existing culture that they encountered in this chiefly coastal part of southern China was that of the indigenous Baiyue ("Hundred Yue") people, whose culture came to influence that of the mainstream Han Chinese immigrants. For example, the theatre form that emerged from this mixed, Han and Yue culture is referred to as Yue Opera.
During the Warring States (BCE 475-221) Period, the region corresponding to present-day Shaoguan was governed by the Chu Kingdom (the Chu Kingdom stretched through the entirety of the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) Dynasty, i.e., through both the Spring and Autumn (BCE 770-476) and the Warring States Periods), though the Baiyue people who occupied the region lived more or less as they pleased here, being far removed from the center of Chinese power and not being particularly rebellious toward the emperor. During the Sui (CE 581-617) Dynasty, the area of present-day Shaoguan, though still largely controlled at the local level by the Baiyue people, was given the name of Shaozhao. After the influx of ever larger numbers of Han Chinese who fled social unrest in the north in favor of a new life in Lingnan, the area was given the administrative title of Shaoguan, beginning with the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty, since the Ming government set up checkpoints, or passes (guan) here in order to collect taxes.
During the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty, Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit priest of Italian origin, relocated his Jesuit mission in CE 1589 from Zhaoqing, about 80 kilometers due east of present-day Guangzhou, to Shaoguan, where it flourished. After some years of prosperity, Ricci developed other Jesuit missions in Beijing, Nanchang and Nanjing. It was first in 1975 that Shaoguan was re-organized as a prefecture-level city.
There are many interesting sites to see in Shaoguan Prefecture, including the Maba Man Museum in the nearby town of Maba. Also located near Maba is Nanhua ("South") Temple, founded in CE 502 during the period of the Southern and Northern (CE 386-588) Dynasties by an Indian monk by the name of Zhiyao Sanzang, who gave it the name of Baolin Temple. Baolin Temple became the temple in which the Sixth Patriarch of Ch'an Buddhism (aka Zen Budhism in Japan and elsewhere), Huineng (CE 638-713), was associated. It is said that Huineng received enlightenment in an epiphanic moment, and since the received wisdom at the time was that enlightenment, or nirvana, could only be attained through a long process involving years of meditation and self-sacrifice, Huineng, having himself fortuitously arrived at nirvana through an instantaneous process, felt compelled to found the Sudden Awakening School of Dhyana (Ch'an) Buddhism.
In CE 968, during the reign (CE 976-997) of the Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasty emperor, Emperor Taizong, Baolin Temple was renamed Nanhua Temple, its current name. For many years, Nanhua Temple was the most important Buddhist temple in all of southern China. The temple gradually lost its allure, and the aforementioned Jesuit priest, Matteo Ricci, who had relocated to Shaoguan, criticized the temple, claiming that it housed murderers and highwaymen, and though this may have been an exaggeration, it is nonetheless true that Chinese Buddhism did produce some monks who were at least petty criminals.
When the later very famous monk, Master Caotang ("Thatched Hall") (CE 1611-1681), earlier known first as Dexuan Hongzan, then Zaisan Hongzan, but more generally known at the time simply as Hongzan (though born Zhu Ziren) came to the area, he was particularly attracted to Nanhua Temple, given its stellar reputation, but for some reason Hongzan chose not to make the temple his new pulpit, as it were, but had a new temple and modest monastery erected, Baixiang Grove, in neighboring Yingde County, where Master Caotang served as the first abbot. By this time, Nanhua Temple had fallen into a state of disrepair, and perhaps there was an element of truth to the accusations made by Matteo Ricci.
Another renowned temple in the area is Biezhuan Temple on Mount Danxia. Biezhuan Temple has an interesting history...
Jin Bao, a native of the city of Renhe (present-day Hangzhou) in present-day Zhejiang Province, earned his jinshi ("presented scholar") degree (the jinshi degree, awarded in three different levels, or classes, was one of the degrees offered under the Imperial Examinations, while the highest, or first class, the Jinshi jidi, itself was further subdivided into three classes) in CE 1639, during the reign (CE 1627-1644) of Emperor Chongzhen of the Ming Dynasty, who was also the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty proper, though pockets of resistance against the Manchus of the Qing Dynasty continued for another 20 years or so under a designation that historians refer to as the Southern Ming (CE 1644-1662) Dynasty, since, when the Ming rulers were driven out of the capital city of Beijing, they gradually retreated southward, losing terrain as they retreated still further, until they eventually reached the end of their tether, as it were, or Guangdong Province, where land met sea.
Jin Bao served as the Subprefectural Magistrate of the city of Linqing, Shandong Province, under Emperor Chongzhen, but fled southward to Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, after the fall of the Ming Dynasty, but when Qing forces also overran Hangzhou, Jin Bao ending up in Guangdong Province serving Emperor Yongli, who would prove to be the last of the Southern Ming emperors. When the Qing forces also entered the last Ming Dynasty holdout, Guangdong Province (though remnants of the Southern Ming Dynasty would flee into the then "Wild West" of western Guizhou and eastern Yunnan Provinces), Jin Bao did what many other Han Chinese intellectuals and scholars had done before him: he became a Buddhist monk (most members of the literati (writers, painters, poets), who quickly became the prime targets of the Manchus, since intellectuals wielded influence over the masses, became masters of Ch'an Buddhism, as this particular strain of Buddhism especially held esthetic appeal).
Becoming a monk was oftentimes only a temporary guise (as soon as the threat of immediate persecution had passed, many intellectuals cum monks shed their robes and retreated to a quiet corner of the empire from whence they published anti-Qing, Ming-loyal material), but some of the intellectuals came to devote their lives to Buddhism. One such more serious intellectual monk was Jin Bao, who, in 1652, became the disciple of the Cantonese master, Tianran Hanshi, and took the dharma ("religious", or "pious") name of Dangui Jinshi. Dangui Jinshi received his dharma transmission (i.e., the disciple succeeds the master, forming an unbroken chain of masters and disciples cum masters) in 1668 and made Biezhuan Temple his home. Yet Dangui Jinshi remained loyal to his Ming Dynasty origins, his writings and poems reflecting a nostalgia for this lost Han Chinese era, which caused Dangui Jinshi's writings to be later banned, after the monk's death, in 1775, during the reign (1735-1796) of Emperor Qianlong.
One of the most colorful sights, both literally and figuratively, near the city of Shaoguan is Mount Danxia, whose name became an international expression to designate this very special landform consisting of stratified red sandstone formations, some of which have been subjected to extensive erosion, often leaving strange, isolated shapes jutting up from the surrounding landscape, and which are characterized not only by their reddish color, but also by their sheer, cliff-like walls. The Danxia Landform, present on several continents, has now been recognized by UNESCO as a unique, preservation-worthy world natural heritage.
Mount Danxia is an especially unique Danxia Landform, given that two of the mountain's features bear rather explicit sexual symbolism, namely, Yangyuan Rock, whose towering shape is unmistakably that of the male organ, and a cave located inside Yinyuan Rock, whose entrance is highly suggestive of the female organ (the perceptive reader will have noted the Yin and the Yang in the names of these two rocks, and just for the record, yuan means "round" (as in the Chinese money/ coin, the Yuan), or "mound", if we are speaking of a rock). To learn more about Mount Danxia, click here.
Other interesting sites in the city of Shaoguan include: Fengcai Pagoda, located in the center of the city, and built during the Ming Dynasty; Dajian Monastery, founded in CE 660, and located in the vicinity of Fengcai Monastery; Golden Rooster Ridge (to learn more about Golden Rooster Ridge, click here).; Yao Nationality Village in Ruyuan; Chebaling National Nature Reserve (to learn more about Chebaling National Nature Reserve, click here); Nanling National Forest Park; Shaoshi Hill; the Underground Forest; and Nanhua Hot Spring Vacation Village. For those who are not squeamish about big-game hunting, there is even a nature reserve here where controlled hunting is permitted as a means both of regulating the animal population and of bringing in much-needed income to the local population.
Another very interesting hands-on tourist venue near Shaoguan is the river rapids stretch of the Wu River between the villages of Pingshi and Lechang (located about 80 kilometers and 50 kilometers, respectively, northwest of Shaoguan), known as the Nine Torrents and Eighteen Shoals stretch that provides some exiliarating white-water rafting (to learn more about the Nine Torrents and Eighteen Shoals attraction, click here).