Home > China Guide >Yangzhou Travel Guide

Yangzhou Travel Guide

The city of Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province, is located about 225 kilometers, as the crow flies, northwest of Shanghai. Yangzhou rests at the end of a string of five cities that lie in an almost perfectly diagonal line, stretching from the city of Suzhou, the line's southeastern terminus, to the city of Yangzhou, its northwestern terminus, the three in-between cities being Wuxi, Changzhou and Zhenjiang. Situated on the northern bank of the Yangtze River, the prefecture-level city of Yangzhou ("Rising Prefecture") is today an important port city for international and domestic trade, albeit, Yangzhou has no a deep-water harbor. Yangzhou Harbour serves as an important distribution hub for goods destined for northern Jiangsu, eastern Anhui and southeastern Shandong Provinces - especially raw materials such as cotton, grain, timber, coal, minerals, iron and steel - and the city's harbor is also a port of call for a number of international cruise liners.

Yangzhou also boasts an old and interesting "port of call" history involving numerous emperors, and was home to a number of attractive ladies of ill repute - who were nonetheless frequented by emperors and sundry others - as well as being home to quite a few poets, scholars and remarkably good cooks. Even the famous 13th century Italian traveler, Marco Polo, served for a time in an official capacity in Yangzhou's administration, as the next section explains.

A Brief History

The first settlement in the area of present-day Yangzhou recorded by historians was called Guangling (alternatively, Kuang-ling), and came into being during the Spring and Autumn (BCE 770-476) Period of the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) Dynasty, an area that was under the dominion of the Wu State. Due to increasing hostility between the various states during the subsequent Warring States (BCE 475-221) Period of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (Wu State was in conflict with its northern neighbor, Qi State (present-day Shandong Province), but would later be attacked and subdued by Yue State), King Fu Chai of Wu, in BCE ca.485, decided to create a fortified garrison near the settlement of Guangling, ostensibly to protect the capital of Wu State, Suzhou, from Qi attack.

Both the Wu and Yue States were ruled by members of the Yue ethnic group, which the Han Chinese states farther to the north had an arrangements of sorts with, by which the south enjoyed a vassal state status that linked it to the north. It is important to realize the significance of the Yangtze River, which, in ancient times served as a sort of natural continental divide between northern and southern China - note also that the settlement of Guangling and the new garrison town lay on the northern bank of this "continental divide". Because the Han Chinese waterway (canal), one of the first of a series of canals that linked up a string of regional rivers - the culmination of which would be the Grand Canal that would stretch from Hangzhou in the south to Beijing in the north - passed alongside the new garrison town on the town's southern and eastern sides, the new garrison town was duly named Hancheng, or Han Way (Han "waterway", or canal, in this instance).

While Wu State and its capital, Suzhou, received some protection from Qi State by the presence of the garrison at Hancheng, Wu State was eventually defeated and annexed by Yue State in BCE 473. A century and a half later, in BCE 334, Yue State was defeated and annexed by Chu State, which, in turn, was defeated in BCE 221 by the Qin State, with the victorious Qin State emerging as the Qin (BCE 221-207) Dynasty, thus ending the Warring States Period and ushering in China's first Imperial dynasty, in a string of dynasties that would last for another 2000 years.

The city of Hancheng would continue to expand, eventually becoming one of the most important cities within the southern region of China that had come to be known as Yang Zhou ("Southern" State, though the word zhou would later come to mean "prefecture", and note that the "Yang" here is from the duality concept of 'the Yin and the Yang', where the former here stands for "northern" while the latter, as we see here, here stands for "southern"), or Yangzhou, as it is customarily written. In fact, the city of Hancheng, from around CE 590, during the Sui (CE 581-618) Dynasty, would itself come to be called Yangzhou, and the city was made the capital of the Sui Dynasty under the reign (CE 605-617) of Emperor Yang Di, the penultimate emperor of the Sui Dynasty (Emperor Gong Di would rule from CE 617-619, thus creating a short overlap with the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty).

It was during the Sui Dynasty that the Grand Canal was completed. Upon completion of the Grand Canal, the city formerly called Yangzhou came to be called Jiang Du ("River Capital"), or Jiangdu, as it was more commonly written, but beginning with the Tang Dynasty, the city's name would revert to Yangzhou, while the Tang emperors would make Chang'an (present-day Xi'an) their capital. Nevertheless, the city of Yangzhou expanded and prospered during the Tang Dynasty, thanks in large part, of course, to the presence of the Grand Canal that caused trade to blossom.

Yangzhou became a prominent trade and cultural center during the Tang Dynasty, and though the city's port is no longer a major international port, it was indeed a major international port during the Tang Dynasty - so much so, in fact, that the city was home to a thriving community of Arab and Persian merchants, as part of the Silk Road trade. Throughout the Tang Dynasty, these Muslim traders flourished in the southeastern and the northwestern parts of China. It has been claimed that the Silk Road sea route was first opened after the fall of the Yuan (CE 1279-1368) Dynasty, and although it is indeed true that the overland Silk Road route declined measureably with the emergence of the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty, this does not necessarily mean that the Silk Road route by sea first began as a result of the decline of the overland Silk Road trade route, as has been traditionally claimed. Many historians dispute this claim, pointing out that Silk Road trade by sea ran parallel with overland Silk Road trade as early as the Tang Dynasty, if not earlier.

There have also been claims that Yangzhou's Muslims were slaughtered en masse during the An Shi Rebellion (CE 755-763), but not only are these claims nowhere substantiated, they run counter to all historical accounts regarding the thriving presence of Muslims in China during the Tang - Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasty period even though it was first during the Yuan Dynasty that China's Muslims began to be assimilated into mainstream Chinese society in large numbers, thanks to the Mongol emperors who so admired Muslim culture that they engaged China's Muslims proactively, appointing them to high office throughout the empire.

THE most important Silk Road trade item that the city of Yangzhou exported was salt. In the past, salt was an immeasurably important commodity, since it was used, in lieu of non-existant refrigerators, to preserve meat, fishes and sundry other foodstuffs. Salt was collected, via a time-consuming and laborious process (essentially, the sun evaporated the salty water that was led into a series of shallow troughs, leaving a residue of salt crystals), along all of Jiangsu Province's coastal areas and then transferred in smaller and larger vessels to Yangzhou, where it was amassed and sold locally, regionally, and also transported, by means of camel caravan, to Central Asia and the countries beyond that required ever-increasing amounts of salt, and which themselves only had limited salt resources.

The trade in salt originally came to be regulated as part of a late Ming - early Qing Dynasty quid pro quo arrangement with local shippers. The state had numerous smaller and larger military contingents stationed at distant outposts, and delivering staples such as wheat and rice to these outposts was a logistical headache for the state. Locally, wild game and fishes could be caught, and various vegetables grown, but wheat and rice - and, for that matter, salt - were too complicated for the soldiers to grow or obtain in remote locations. The solution? The state decided to only grant transport licenses to those salt traders who would agree to transport salt and grain to the remote military outposts, for which the shippers were of course paid. However, the state soon realized that it could as easily levy a tax on the transport of salt, and thus the state, by raising the tax level sufficiently, was in a position to hire its own separate shippers to transport the supplies necessary for the upkeep of its remote outposts - and still pocket a handsome profit.

Unfortunately for the state and for many of the salt tax assessors - whose incomes were dependent upon the tax income they could rake in for the state - upwards of one-half of China's salt production came to be transported and traded on the sly (i.e., via the black market), which most probably only managed to exist because certain highly placed officials took generous kickbacks, though no official was ever prosecuted for this offense. And, of course, the incentive for the black market trade in salt - not surprisingly - was the high price of salt as a direct result of the taxation that was imposed in order to provide the tax assessor with a livelihood as well as to provide the state with a source of revenue.

Salt was the mainstay of Yangzhou's trade throughout the Tang Dynasty, then declined somewhat thereafter but remained a significant trade commodity for the city of Yangzhou. In fact, though some historical sources hint at the notion that Marco Polo served for a spell as the governor of Yangzhou during the reign (CE 1260-1294) of Emperor Shizu, aka Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan and the first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty, the current consensus is that it was more likely that the famous Italian traveler served in an official capacity in Yangzhou's salt trade, perhaps as facilitator of said salt trade to Central Asia as well as to landlocked countries on the eastern fringes of Europe.

Not only did Yangzhou's salt merchants control the salt trade in the area immediately surrounding Yangzhou, they eventually came to corner the market, more or less, on the trade in salt, since all such trade came to be regulated through the state, with licenses granted to specific merchants or trading houses. It is said that those who wished to trade in the salt produced in their own coastal communities located far away from Yangzhou were forced to relocate to Yangzhou in order to participate in this lucrative trade.

The accidental discovery by the People's Liberation Army in 1951 of a tomb near the site of Yangzhou's (Hancheng's) ancient fortress wall's belonging to Katarina Vilioni, a member of an Italian trading family, suggests that there were other Italians living in Yangzhou during the period besides Marco Polo who were active in the city's blossoming salt trade. Katarina Vilioni's tomb marker is dated 1342, meaning that she had been a part of Yangzhou's salt trade during the latter part of the Yuan Dynasty.

Yangzhou's salt trade blossomed anew during the Ming Dynasty, since Ming emperors saw in it a lucrative source of taxation, as indicated above. As well, both silk and rice were becoming important trade commodities for the city of Yangzhou. It was during the Ming Dynasty that the present-day ring of protective walls that surround the city of Yangzhou was built. Yangzhou's salt trade - as well as its silk and rice  trade - would continue to flourish for the better part of the subsequent dynasty, the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty, thus also providing Qing emperors with lucrative sources of taxation.

The city of Yangzhou found itself thereafter in the middle of China's history-in-the-making on more than one occasion. For example, the city, due to its proximity to Nanjing (about 70 kilometers to the southwest) remained within the orbit of the Southern Ming rebels. Note that Nanjing had served as the Ming capital during the early years (before the Ming rulers eventually moved the capital to Beijing), and the city again briefly became a Ming capital during the so-called Southern Ming (CE 1644-1662) Dynasty, when Han Chinese rebels, refusing to bow to the Manchu rule of the Qing Dynasty, fled southward to Jiangsu Province, establishing anew Nanjing (aka Nanking) as their capital. Yangzhou paid a high price for its loyalty to the Ming rebels, since the Manchus, after having taken the city as the culmination of a short seige, massacred countless Yangzhouers, some for being a part of the resistance and others for refusing to pledge allegiance to China's new Manchu rulers.

The city declined rapidly thereafter, due partly to physical circumstances that had reduced the navigability of the Grand Canal (thus reducing Yangzhou's trade role), and due partly to the emergence of a competing network of railways throughout China that replaced the need for the Grand Canal, though the railways of the period never quite reached Yangzhou, which further increased the city's mercantile isolation. However, the city was embroiled in the anti-Western, anti-Christian (or at least anti-missionary) movement (the Yangzhou Riot of 1868) against foreigners that was fanned by the provocative actions of Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908), and which riot ended in a show of force by a British military contingent that managed to  extract an apology - as well as financial restitution (no foreigners were killed, though in fleeing what might have  been their certain death, had they remained, many were injured) - from the Chinese viceroy in Nanjing, Zeng Guofan.

Present-Day Yangzhou

Yangzhou is a city of culture, having been home to a number of notable personnages down through China's history, such as the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou, a group of innovative calligraphers and painters who were famous throughout China during the Qing Dynasty, two of the most prominent of these being the landscape painter, Zheng Xie (1693-1765, better known as Zheng Banqiao), and the calligrapher cum painter Huang Shen (1687-1772), who painted images of religious and historical figures, as well as common people such as ordinary fishermen. The writer Ouyang Xiu (1007-1062) and the poet Su Shi (1030-1101, aka Su Dongpo), both of the Song Dynasty period, lived in Yangzhou. In addition, the famous, privately weathy Tang (618-907) Dynasty poet, Li Bai (701-762, aka Li Po), who, together with Du Fu are considered the two most important Chinese poets, resided in Yangzhou for at time. The most famous modern-era notable personnage linked to the city of Yangzhou is Jiang Zemin, the Chinese leader who came to power in the wake of the Tiananmen Square incident and who served as President of the PRC from 1993 to 2003; Jiang Zemin is a native of Yangzhou.

Numerous emperors, from the Tang Dynasty emperor, Emperor Yang Di, to various Qing Dynasty emperors, frequented the famous brothels of Yangzhou, where pretty women also entertained members of the local literati, which perhaps goes some way in explaining Yangzhou's popularity among members of China's literati, who - for who knows what other reasons - seemed to be drawn to the city of Yangzhou.

Present-day Yangzhou is mostly known for its production of plush toys. However, ever since the Tang Dynasty era, the city of Yangzhou has been renowned for its jade carvings, its lacquerware and its Yang Opera. The city is also famous for its Qing Dynasty period public bath houses (recently renovated and enlarged, some containing naturally-occurring, "medicinal" minerals) and its ancient folk art from the Ming Dynasty period, "Yangzhou Storytelling", which was a theatre performance where the solo artist would recount a story in Yangzhou dialect - either a comedy or a drama - about a person - real or imagined - whose plight was relevant to everyday life in Yangzhou. But Yangzhou made a cultural name for itself already during the Sui Dynasty as a place where not only the company of pretty women, but also good food could be enjoyed.

The chefs of Yangzhou have a long tradition of excellence, so much so in fact that the cuisine of Yangzhou, better known alternately as called the Huaiyang or Weiyang school of cuisine, is considered one of the four most renowned cuisines of China. Huaiyang cuisine originated during the Sui Dynasty, one of its most famous dishes being Fried Rice - and one of the most common, and popular, dishes served in Chinese restaurants the world over. Huaiyang cuisine is quite fussy about the preparation of its dishes, refusing to compromise on quality, or take shortcuts in order to arrive at an exciting taste; with Huaiyang cuisine, the most exciting taste element should stem from the fresh ingredients themselves, not from oily or spicy sauces.

Not surprising for a city of culture, there are numerous noteworthy attractions in the city of Yangzhou. These include: Slender West Lake, named after its characteristic shape and as a local dig of sorts at the city of Hangzhou in neighboring Zhejiang Province, with its more famous West Lake (not unlike it more famous namesake, Slender West Lake is dotted with a whole host of scenic sites - from various interesting pagodas to a fishing platform where Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty is said to have experienced unnaturally good luck with a fishing rod, though it is rumored that the industrious locals attached live fish to the emperor's hook... in any case, the contented - or bemused - Emperor Qianlong saw to it that the city of Yangzhou received numerous royal grants and other gifts, to learn more about Slender West Lake, click here).

Other noteworthy Yangzhou attractions include: Fajing Temple, still more commonly known by its ancient name, Da Ming Temple (to learn more about Da Ming Temple, click here); Ping Shan ("Flat Hills") Hall; Ge Yuan (Ge Garden, to learn more about Ge Garden, click here); He Yuan (to learn more about He Garden, click here); Yechun Yuan; Shita Pagoda (aka Stone Pagoda), Yangzhou's oldest extant pagoda, built in CE 837 during the Tang Dynasty (to learn more about Shita Pagoda, click here); Wenchang Ge ("Pavilion of Flourishing Culture"); Puhading Mu (Puhading Tomb); Wenfeng Pagoda, which is situated on the southern bank of the Guan River just outside the city's southern gate where the ancient Grand Canal curved to link up with the Sanwazi River, which waterway in turn linked up with the Yangtze River... the 7-storeyed Wenfeng Pagoda served as a sort of lighthouse for boats navigating the river, the pagoda's many storeys lit up with oil lamps, since the tall pagoda was the first thing that was visible on the horizon when approaching the city from the Yangtze River - indeed, in its day, Wenfeng Pagoda was Yangzhou's preeminent landmark, while the bend in the canal was called "Pagoda Bend" (to learn more about Wenfeng Pagoda, click here); as well as numerous other sites that can be found in the "Attractions" link in the Table of Contents in the left-hand column above.

Finally - though not yet listed as an "Attraction" - Yangzhou Museum, which has recently been expanded to include a block printing museum that has amassed thousands of ancient Chinese books that were printed via the block printing method.

Lastly, the city of Yangzhou enjoys a somewhat atypical subtropical monsoon climate, in the sense that the weather is breezier than usual for a subtropical monsoon climate. The winters last about 4 months; the summers about 3 months; and the two transition seasons each last about 2 ½ months.

Popular Tours

2019 China Tours

Our local experts are always ready to create you a hassle-free tour. Get an authentic experience by contacting one of our travel advisors.