Tianshui Travel Guide

Last updated by fabiowzgogo at 2017/6/19

Tianshui Overview

The area of the present-day city of Tianshui, Gansu Province, which city lies on the ancient overland Silk Road route immediately west of the city of Xi'an in present-day Shaanxi Province, has a very long history, if we are to believe the contents of a 2200 year old map unearthed at the Fangmatan Site near Tianshui, the Fangmatan Site being one of the lesser-known Qin tombs. The map - which appears on a set of pine wood plates - depicts an ancient county (xian) called Gui. This is the, to date, oldest discovered Chinese map, which is a significant discovery, since it demonstrates that the Chinese - whom we knew to be capable cartographers based on a 1900 year old map of the geography of the Han (BCE 206 - CE 220) Dynasty unearthed in 1973 at the Forest of Steles in the city of Xi'an - had mastered the art and science of cartography much earlier.

10-Day Golden Silk Road Tour

However, to call this map Chinese may be an inventive use of language, since the area where it was found is territory that belonged to the Qin people, who were a minority group living west of the then Han Chinese Zhou (BCE 1027-221) Dynasty, though the Qin would later achieve Chinese greatness through the Qin State (BCE 778-221) that would eventually come out on top of the heap, as it were, during the Warring States (BCE 475-221) Period of the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) Dynasty, ultimately establishing the first Imperial Chinese dynasty, the Qin (BCE 221-207) Dynasty, and the Qin people would eventually become so assimilated into mainstream Chinese society that they would completely cease to exist as a separate minority group.

Still, the map is an important discovery, and at this late date we can in good conscience call it a Chinese map, since the Qin people (if, indeed, the map was drawn by a Qin cartographer - it could very well have been drawn by a Han Chinese cartographer employed by the Qin State, since the Qin people were highly favored by the Han Chinese court of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty) went on to become "Chinese", i.e., their genes were added to what was believed at the time to be the Chinese people, or the sum total of the Chinese gene pool at the time, as we would express it today, which gene pool surely encompassed countless earlier minority groups that had already been absorbed, just as countless later minority groups would also be absorbed, into what we today call the Han Chinese ethnic majority.

The early city that lay on the site of present-day Tianshui is mentioned in the historical record already as early as BCE 688, i.e., during the Spring and Autumn (BCE 770-476) Period of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, as the city of Qinting. The name "Tianshui" first appeared when the surrounding area of Qinting was set up as Tianshui County by the Qin Dynasty.

The city of Tianshui has not only a long and important history, but a long and important prehistory, just as it is claimed to be the birthplace of the legendary forefather to the Chinese people (farther back even than the Yellow Emperor, who is himself sometimes credited with being the forefather to the Chinese people), namely, Fu Xi, one of the "Three August Ones" (the other two are most often listed as Shen Nong and Huang Di ("Yellow Emperor"), generally in that order, though some sources list Suiren, who preceded Fu Xi, as the third "August One", while other sources list Fu Xi's sister and wife (!), Nu Wa, as the second "August One", with Shen Nong as the third, omitting entirely the Yellow Emperor from the lineup, while at least one source lists Shen Nong as the second and Zhu Rong as the third "August One").

To elucidate the importance of these various semi-gods (mythological figures), Suiren - who, as indicated, came before Fu Xi and Nu Wa (who are sometimes depicted as twins with human heads and intertwined bodies of serpents) - discovered fire; Fu Xi and Nu Wa were the Adam & Eve, as it were, of Chinese procreation, and taught their offspring, the Chinese people, how to hunt, fish and domesticate animals; Shen Nong taught the Chinese people the art and science of agriculture; while Zhu Rong, who dashingly rode a tiger and was the God of Fire (he didn't discover it, he only controlled it), helped separate Heaven from Earth (note that no Chinese deity is credited with having created the universe, while several of them are credited with helping to make it work, and generally maintaining it, such as the heroic archer Yi, who put out eight of the nine Suns, thus preventing the Earth from being scorched... obviously the Creator, in Chinese mythology, was a bit careless, if not downright sloppy, in much of His work!).

The importance of Fu Xi and Nu Wa in this context is that they are supposed to hail from the area of present-day Tianshui, Gansu Province, though the good folk of the city of Lantian in neighboring Shaanxi Province claim that their city is the rightful birthplace of Fu Xi and Nu Wa (we leave it for you, the clever reader, to decide, though it should be pointed out that Chinese scholars beginning with the 19th century have determined that most if not all of these "long tales" about the ancient (mythical) deities stem from the Three Kingdoms (CE 220-280) Period (a very romantic - in the literary sense - period indeed!), i.e., they were unheard of prior to that romantic period).

We are all on much safer and more solid ground when discussing below the history of Tianshui, as we also are with the next section, which deals with Tianshui's prehistory.

The Prehistory of Tianshui

At the Xishanping Site, located about 15 kilometers west of the city of Tianshui, archeologists have unearthed a long series of cultures, some (the older ones) lying below newer cultures. Artifacts belonging to the following Neolithic cultures were found: the 8000 year old Dadiwan Culture (BCE 5800-5400, ca.), the Banpo Phase (BCE 5000-4000) of the Yangshao Culture, the Majiabang Culture (BCE 5000-3000) and the Majiayao Culture (BCE 3100-2700). Also artifacts (the bulk of them, in fact) belonging to the more recent Early Bronze Age culture, the Qijia Culture (BCE 2400-1900), were uncovered.

What these cultures bear witness to is a series of early social organization that progressed from being very little reliant on agriculture to being very heavily reliant on agriculture, though even the Early Bronze Age Qijia Culture bears witness to a people who continued to hunt and fish alongside their gradual heavier reliance on agricultural produce.

Agricultural produce paves the way for a more stationary, non-nomadic (non hunter-gatherer) lifestyle, and it inevitably leads to a division of labor, where some members of society can enjoy the luxury of neither hunting, fishing nor tilling the land, but rather, that of painting images and/ or telling stories, i.e., members of society who serve in the capacity of shamans. As we know from early Western society, some of the first members of society to read and write - and record history - were monks and priests, just as the first picture-and-sculpture artists of Western culture painted religious motifs, but from these early beginnings eventually emerged a division-of-labor society of doctors, lawyers, teachers and engineers, as well as common laborers and even artists, including writers.

Many of the implements that the Dadiwan Culture made were designed to kill animals (arrowheads, spears and the like) and slice their meat, or chop their bones (i.e., implements in disc form, with one sharp cutting edge), with only a few that might be used for cutting plant matter, the latter of which would require a handle to be effective, but already by the time of the later Majiabang Culture, many of the chopping implements were of dual use - they were axes that could be used for butchering meat or chopping down plants - while various other, more refined tools such as saws, chisels, awls and needles made their appearance, testifying to the abilility of late Stone Age man to better cut and shape wood items, and to fabricate better fitting clothing.

Pottery making was introduced during the early Majiabang Culture here, and though the shards are curved, suggesting that the utensils were round, they were probably not made with the help of a pottery wheel, since they bear no evidence of turning marks. But the pottery wheel was introduced during the later Majiabang Culture, and specialized tools for making tools appeared, such as grinders and polishers. Stone knives with notches for attaching handles by means of a leather cord were common, and stone shovels with similar notchings for the attachment of handles also appeared. Animal domestication, especially the introduction of the pig, was present. Handicraft production was well developed, though the items produced were more for practical use than for adornment.

Many of the tools present in earlier cultures were still present in Qijia Culture, except that they were more refined - many taken to levels of beauty, exhibiting exquisite workmanship for the period - while a whole range of new implements were introduced, such as the mortar and pestle and more and better so-called compound tools (tools consisting of two or more parts, such as an ax with an attached handle). Pottery items are larger, smoother, and with more practical shapes - for example, with large openings with an even larger girth for use as containers for grain, etc. Qijia houses were partially subterranean, had wooden floors with a round, central hearth, and had walls made of moisture-proof, baked earth.

Ploughs as well as other tilling implements were introduced at this time, suggesting that the Qijia Culture had become very efficient at agriculture, from preparing the soil to planting and cultivating the crops to large scale harvesting. Agriculture had come center stage in Qijia Culture, though hunting and fishing still made a large contribution to the daily provisionment in a Qijia settlement. Animal domestication had reached new heights as well in Qijia Culture, where, in addition to the ubiquitous pig, cows and sheep were kept, as well as dogs and horses.

Tianshui History

The city of Tianshui is the birthplace of the Western Han Dynasty general, Li Guang, who was nicknamed the "Flying General" by his enemies. Those enemies were the Xiongnu tribes, currently believed to be either of Turkic or Persian origin (little original trace is left of these nomads, making it difficult to pin down their exact ethnic origin), who encroached on the territory of northern China from bases in southern Siberia and Manchuria, an area which the Xiongnu had traditionally occupied. In moving into the area of present-day Inner Mongolia and Gansu Province, the Xiongnu displaced the Yuezhi tribes who were living in the area, in relative harmony with their Chinese neighbors. The hostile Xiongnu, in contrast, fought vociferously with the Chinese, defeating the first Western Han Dynasty army, and almost succeeding in taking the emperor prisoner, i.e., Emperor Gaozu, aka Liu Bang, who ruled from BCE 206-195.

Thereafter the Han Dynasty attemped to placate the Xiongnu, which was deemed to be a less costly strategy than waging an interminable war with them, but deals entered into between the Han leader and his Xiongnu counterpart were often worthless "on the ground", as the Xiongnu leader ruled over an unruly flock of nomadic lieutenants who often did as they pleased, including mounting raids against the Chinese. It was into this unstable state of affairs that Li Guang was born. He was considered by many, including most of his superiors, as an able general, and he was loved by his soldiers, for the most part, for his bravery, though General Li often made poor calculations regarding the location and numbers of enemy forces, calculations that could prove fatal for his men; in short, General Li expended a good many foot soldiers, and for this, he was criticized by the emperor, Emperor Wu, who ruled from BCE 140-87.

Though the Flying General did not lack courage in battle, he seems to have lacked courage when facing politicians, a quality he shared - and still shares - with many a general since. After one particularly bloody battle, where General Li not only arrived late due to disorientation (some people - yours truly included - are simply born with an innate lack of a sense of direction, and given the frequency with which General Li lost his orientation, both on the way to, during and from a battle, it is tempting to conclude that the Flying General, despite his "aeronautic" abilities, lacked an internal gyroscope), but also underestimated the size of the forces ranged against him, with the result that his army was decimated, the general, fearing at best a severe reprimand from his superiors - mainly from the emperor - and at worst, a court martial, decided that the only honorable course of action was to commit suicide.

Thus the famous Flying General, whose date of birth no one seems to have recorded, took his own life shortly after the inglorious Battle of Mobei in the cold and dreary month of January, BCE 119, rather than face the political fallout for his poor performance on the battlefield at Mobei.

The city of Tianshui, like the cities of Anding, Nan'an and Qishan in Gansu Province, as well as the city of Chang'an (present-day Xi'an) in Shaanxi Province - all of which areas belonged to the Kingdom of Wei (aka Cao Wei, since the kingdom was ruled by the infamous warlord, Cao Cao) - was fought over vehemently during the Three Kingdoms Period, when the Kingdom of Shu (aka Shu Han, since it was an outgrouth of the preceeding Han Dynasty - specifically, the Eastern Han Dynasty), on the advice and under the leadership of the Shu Han Chancellor, Zhuge Liang, mounted a series of attacks on Cao Wei, specifically on the area directly north and east of Shu Han, the latter of whose capital was Chengdu, in present-day Sichuan Province.

One of Zhuge Liang's trusted generals was Jiang Wei (CE 202-264), a general who had defected from Cao Wei to Shu Han, enticed to do so by Zhuge Liang himself, though Jiang Wei left his family behind in Cao Wei. Jiang Wei served, besides Chancellor Zhuge Liang, two other Shu Han chancellors before he himself was promoted to the position, albeit, entrusted only with military matters (he was after all originally from Cao Wei). Jiang Wei did his best to continue the battle against his mother country, Cao Wei, and even after Cao Wei defeated Shu Han on the battlefield, Jiang Wei tried to turn one of the two winning generals, Zhong Hui, against Sima Zhao, the then de facto ruler of Cao Wei, but Zhong Hui's troops rebelled, killing both perceived traitors, Zhong Hui and Jiang Wei.

Despite repeated Shu Han attacks, and despite some initial gains on the part of Zhuge Liang's forces, the tide was eventually reversed under Zhuge Liang's successors, and the stronger Cao Wei defeated the attacker, Shu Han, in CE 263. The third state, the Kingdom of Wu, aka Eastern Wu since it covered most of present-day eastern and coastal China from Jiangsu Province in the north to the upper coastal region of Vietnam in the south, managed to fend off Cao Wei attacks, and ended up being the longest-surviving of the three kingdoms, though not because Eastern Wu succeeded in defeating Cao Wei - that task was accomplished in CE 280 by the Western Jin (CE 265-316) Dynasty during the reign (CE 265-290) of the first Jin emperor, Emperor Sima Yan.

The fate of Tianshui, like that of the rest of the area of present-day Gansu and Shaanxi Provinces would be greatly affected by the struggle between the established Han states, kingdoms and dynasties - as well as the established non-Han states, kingdoms and dynasties that had become sinicized - and the ever-fresh waves of Turkic nomads who pressed southward from southeastern Siberia and Manchuria. The Jin Dynasty that put an end to the Three Kingdoms Period was of mixed rule, especially in its first stage, the Western Jin Dynasty, with Han Chinese rulers sharing power alongside non-Han Chinese colleagues, but this unity began to fall apart already toward the close of the Western Jin Dynasty, with the Eastern Jin (CE 317-420) Dynasty, formed on the remnants of the nomad-defeated Western Jin Dynasty, and being essentially a Han Chinese dynasty in retreat (whereas the Western Jin capital had been Chang'an at the time, the rulers of the remnant Jin Dynasty were forced to relocate their Eastern Jin capital southward in Jiankang, present-day Nanjing in Jiangsu Province).

The next long period, the Southern and Northern Dynasties (CE 386-588) Period (the Southern Dynasties Period extended from CE 420 to 588, while the Northern Dynasties Period spanned the entirety of the Southern and Northern Dynasties Period), saw the fluid "border" vaccilate between the territory temporarily held by encroaching northern tribes and the territory temporarily held by the defending Han Chinese southern tribes, with the area of Gansu Province and the city of Tanshui belonging sometimes to the one contestant and sometimes to the other.

In CE 763, the entire Qinghai-Gansu area would fall to the Tibetans, though the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty would recover most of what had been lost, including Tianshui, in CE 843. Ownership of the region again shifted back and forth during the unstable Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (CE 907-979) Period, relative unity was re-established during the Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasty, but the Tuoba rulers (one of the clans of the Xianbei tribe) of the Western Xia (CE 1038-1227) Dynasty, aka the Tangut Empire, another nomadic Turkic tribe from the north, would wrest control of the area. They would lose it to the increasingly sinicized nomadic Jürchen Jin (CE 1115-1234) Dynasty, who in turn would lose it to yet another group of nomadic Turkic peoples, the Mongols, though the grandson of Ghengis Khan, Kublai Khan, would become the first emperor of the Yuan (CE 1279-1368) Dynasty that would again unify the empire.

Curiously, it was the Turkic nomads, albeit, highly sinicized by that time, who would have the last word, as it were, in the 2000 year long saga that was Imperial China, when the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty, which was ruled by the Jürchens cum Manchus, relieved the Han Chinese Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty rulers of power.

Present-Day Tianshui

There are so many historical references (sites and relics) in and around the city of Tianshui that a visitor could be forgiven for thinking that s/he found him-/herself in a theme park devoted to the virtual (PS3) world of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms! At the city of Jieting, a famous battleground where Zhuge Liang fought, is a monument to Zhuge Liang, aka Kongming. Nearby is also the much later erected Tomb of Jiang Wei, though Jiang Wei did not perish here. Jieting is near the foot of Mount Maiji, which is also the site of the famous Buddhist grottoes, the Maiji Grottoes (click here). Moreover (as if this weren't already reason enough to visit the area!), Mount Maiji, which is a part of the eastern section of the northern branch of the Qinling Mountains, exhibits the UNESCO recognized Danxia Landform, i.e., a landform of near-barren, reddish rock that juts straight upward, like a cliff face (which explains why it's near-barren!). Mount Maiji/ Jieting lie about 45 kilometers southeast of Tianshui.

In the city of Tianshui itself are memorials to the famous Tang Dynasty poet, Du Fu (CE 712-770), to General Li Guang, the "Flying General" of Han Dynasty fame (click here), and to Fu Xi, the legendary forefather of the Chinese people (click here), plus countless other ancient graveyards, battlefield sites and ancient defensive works - not to forget the prehistoric Dadiwan-Qijia Cultures site near Fangmatan, not far from Tianshui (click here) - as well as other, lesser known historical-cultural sites, of which 69 sites enjoy protection, either from the state, from the province, or from the county. Last but not least, the surrounding area, here near the northern fringes of the Qinling Mountains, offers some spectacularly beautiful scenery, including cliffs (such as the Xianren Cliffs), grasslands and river valleys, that would make the trip to Tianshui worth every Yuan, even if there were no historical venues to visit.