Taiyuan Travel Guide
Taiyuan, a prefecture-level city whose name means Broad, or Big, Plains, is the capital of Shanxi Province. The city is located near the center (north-south and east-west) of the province, and at the intersection of the province's two main interprovincial highways, G307, which traverses the province in an east-west direction, and G208, which traverses the province in a north-south direction. Taiyuan is not only the transportational hub of the province, but its economic, cultural, educational, technological, informational and political nexus. The city has an ancient history, having been established in 500 BCE, circa, during the end of the Spring and Autumn (BCE 770-476) Period and the beginning of the Warring States (BCE 475-221) Period of the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) Dynasty.
A Brief History
Called Jinyang at the time, the present-day city of Taiyuan became the capital of the Zhou State (BCE 403-222), which had effectively ended already in BCE 228, when the Qin State (BCE 778-221) defeated the Zhou State, capturing its king, though a stepbrother to the king marshalled the "insurgents", as they would be called today, and fought on until he too was defeated by a Qin general in BCE 222 (note that the Qin State overlaps slightly, chronologically, with the Qin (BCE 221-207) Dynasty, since Shi Huang Di, the King of Qin State, after he had defeated all of the other kings of the opposing states of the Warring States Period, declared himself emperor, creating China's first Imperial dynasty, the Qin Dynasty).
After the Qin Dynasty take-over of the Zhao State, the city of Jinyang became the seat of the Taiyuan Commandery (a commandery is a district under the control of a military commander). Jinyang remained the seat of Taiyuan Commandery down through the Han (BCE 206 - CE 220) Dynasty to the Later Han (CE 947-950) Dynasty of the Five Dynasties (CE 907-960) Period, when it became the capital of the province of Bingzhou. Much of this part of present-day China had been under the defacto rule of various Turkic tribes belonging to the ancient, nomadic Xiongnu people (it will be remembered that the Jin (CE 265-420) Dynasty was ruled by a similar Turkic tribe, the Jürchens, who would later change their name to the Manchus, the rulers of China's last Imperial dynasty, the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty).
As time passed and the area became more populous and more prosperous, it became the object of power conflicts until it became closely linked to the powerful and much admired - and emulated abroad by its neighbors - Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty. In fact, the leader of what would later be the Tang Dynasty, the future Emperor Gaozu (he reigned during the period CE 618-626), began his struggle against the Sui (CE 581-617) Dynasty using the city of Jinyang as his base. By this time, the area of Bingzhou had largely become Buddhist.
The construction of the Buddhist cave temple complex on Mount Tianlong, the Tianlongshan Shiku Grottoes, which lie about 40 kilometers northwest of present-day Taiyuan, was undertaken during the Sui and Tang Dynasties. The most prominent statues among the Tianlongshan Shiku Grottoes are the statue of a seated Maitreya Buddha that is about 8 meters high - the grotto's best-preserved figure - and an 11 meter high statue of a standing Guanyin, or Goddess of Mercy, the patron saint, as it were, of seafarers, also considered as one of the grotto's unique treasures. During the Tang Dynasty, Jinyang was strengthened further, and became the secondary Tang capital, whose primary capital was the city of Chang'an, or Xi'an, the capital of present-day Shaanxi Province and home to the Terracotta Army that had been created at the behest of Emperor Qin (BCE 259-210) of the Qin Dynasty, whose capital was Chang'an (to learn more about the Terracotta Army, click here).
When the Tang Dynasty fell, an unstable period of warring states and warring dynasties followed, until this would eventually be replaced by the Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasty. During the unstable Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (CE 907-979) Periods, the area around Bingzhou came under the influence of the Shatuo Turks, another Turkic tribe belonging to the ancient nomadic Xiongnu people.
The city of Jinyang was badly damaged during the Northern Song (CE 960-1127) Dynasty conquest over the Ten Kingdoms rulers. The then-ruling Northern Song Dynasty emperor, Emperor Taizong, who reigned during the period CE 976-997, therefore had Jinyang razed to the ground and a new city built in its place, a few kilometers west of the old city. The new city of Jinyang continued to increase in size and importance down through the Yuan (CE 1279-1368) Dynasty, though its name changed several times. During the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty, the city of Jinyang was renamed to its old commandery name, Taiyuan.
Taiyuan would be rebulit during the Ming Dynasty, and would retain its new name, Taiyuan, until the beginning of the Republic of China (1911-1949) period, when, in 1911, the name would be changed to Yangqu (the name of the present-day county in which the city of Taiyuan lies), perhaps as the result of the negative PR created by the Taiyuan Massacre of 1900, when 77 Christian missionaries (Westerners), including children, were beheaded in front of the Governor of Shanxi Province, Yu-Hsien, with the implicit, if not explicit, backing of Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) at the height of the Boxer Rebellion (1898-1901)... a much larger number of Chinese Christians met the same fate. Yangqu would be renamed Taiyuan in 1947.
The present-day city of Taiyuan lies at an altitude of some 800 meters above sea level, adjacent to the Fen River, and is bounded on three sides by mountains. Taiyuan and its surroundings is an area rich in natural resources such as iron, gypsum and coal, the area's prime "commodity" - indeed, Taiyuan is known among Chinese cities as "The Hometown of Iron and Coal", yielding upwards of 50% of China's domestically mined coal. These natural resources are exported to the rest of the country, but are also used in the local industries; besides its mining role, Taiyuan plays an important role as one of China's budding chemical and metallurgical industries, and is a major producer of dry cement.
On the negative side, there have at times been air pollution problems in and around Taiyuan - prompting WHO (World Health Organization) warnings - due to excessive particle concentration in the air as the result of coal dust. This is a problem that the authorities are well aware of and which they desire to improve. Unfortunately, the current (2008-2010) economic crisis has not made it possible to improve things as rapidly as one would like to, but it is a matter that one is keeping an eye on, and which one intends to improve as soon as the economic climate improves, just as state and local authorities are aware of the need for improving the cultural profile of the city, especially given its rich cultural heritage. Both of these initiatives, it is believed, will lead to increased tourism for the area.
In addition to its position as an important provider of mineral and energy resources, Taiyuan is also famous for its noodles as well as its local vinegar, the latter of which is a staple ingredient in many of China's famous culinary sauces, served up by restaurants and in private homes throughout the country, and especially in the regions that are home to China's Eight Great Cuisine Schools. Taiyuan is also known throughout China for its exquisitely crafted lacquerware.
The city of Taiyuan is also home to Shanxi University, founded in 1902 as Shanxi Grand School. Shanxi University offers MA and MS degree programs in the fields of science, engineering, and liberal arts. The university also offers doctoral programs in the fields of science and engineering, including a specialty doctorate degree (PhD) in Quantum Optics. Shanxi University has exchange programs with several sister universities worldwide, and it sponsors a chair for visiting professors as part of China's National Foundation for Scientific Research.
The climate of the Taiyuan area is what is referred to as steppe climate, i.e., a semi-arid grasslands climate, with few trees except for those clustered around water sources such as rivers and lakes. Summers are hot, with not infrequent dust storms until mid-summer (July and August), when the rains arrive. The winters are long, quite cold, but normally sunny. Not suprisingly, given the implied lack of cloud cover, there is a marked swing in daytime versus nighttime temperatures in the area, also during the summer, a phenomenom that is also charactistic of deserts. In extreme cases, a day with a temperature of 40 degrees Celsius can produce a night with a temperature of -20 degrees Celsius! Like most steppe areas, the area around Taiyuan offers some remarkable, big-sky vistas.
The landmarks of Taiyuan, of which the city is duly proud, are: its Twin Pagoda Temple (to learn more about Twin Pagoda Temple, click here); its Chongshan Temple (to learn more about Chongshan Temple, click here); its Jinci Temple (to learn more about Jinci Temple, click here), with its ancient cypress trees; its Tailongshan Shiku Grottoes (to learn more about Tailongshan Shiku Grottoes, click here); its Shanxi Museum (to learn more about Shanxi Museum, click here); and its Jin Opera, which belongs to the Bangzi ("Wooden Clapper") Opera form that is also known for its lively rhythms and its energetic singing style (note that the name "Jin" here reflects the region's Jin Dynasty past, the Jin Dynasty being synomymous with the Jürchen culture that would later be renamed to the Manchu culture - to learn more about Chinese Opera, including Bangzi Opera, one of China's local operas, click here). Shanxi Museum is justly proud of its collection of rare bronze goblets dating from the Shang (BCE 1700-1027) Dynasty.
The best times to visit Taiyuan are during the late spring - early summer period, or during the autumn.
Top Things To Do in Taiyuan
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