The Dayun Temple

The ethereally named Dayun or “Great Cloud” Temple is widely considered to be the oldest Buddhist temple in the city of Wuwei, which was once an integral oasis trading hub along the ancient Silk Road. Although the exact date remains a mystery, the temple was originally founded during the Eastery Jin Dynasty (317–420) by a man named Zhang Tianxi, who was serving as the regional governor of Liangzhou (modern-day Wuwei) at the time. It was established under the name Hongzang or “Spacious Repository” Temple, which is believed to be due to its status as a reliquary for sacred Buddhist objects. In particular, there was once a magnificent seven-storied wooden stupa known as the Gantong stupa that was part of the temple complex, which was said to be one of the original Ashokan reliquaries.    

King Ashoka was an Indian Emperor who ruled large swathes of territory in the Indian subcontinent under the Maurya Dynasty (323-184 BC). According to a Buddhist text known as the Ashokavadana, King Ashoka collected seven of the eight relics of Gautama Buddha and separated them into 84,000 elegantly decorated boxes made of precious materials, such as gold, silver, cat’s eye, and crystal. Using his immense power and wealth, he ordered that 84,000 stupas be built around the world to house these sacred boxes, and it is said that Gantong stupa was one such special stupa. In fact, this stupa was so revered by the local people that, during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period (907-960), a much-hated garrison commander hid within it after being chased down by a mob. When he threatened to burn himself alive and thus endanger the wooden stupa, the local people decided to let him go, rather than risk the safety of such a sacred structure. 

It wasn’t until 690, when the Tang Dynasty (618-907) was briefly interrupted by the ascension of China’s first and only female emperor, Emperor Wu Zetian, that the temple would receive its current name. Emperor Wu Zetian was a devout Buddhist and decreed that there would be a Buddhist temple named Dayun Temple in every prefecture. As was customary during this time, rather than construct an entirely new temple for this purpose, the Hongzang Temple was simply renamed to the Dayun Temple.

From 754 until 756, the famous northern Indian monk Amoghavajra lived within the temple at the request of a military governor named Geshu Han, who was tasked with protecting the Hexi Corridor and Gansu province during this time. These types of visits served both spiritual and political ends. While the arrival of renowned monks was guaranteed to impress the devout, the fact that such a prominent figure had heeded the call of a Tang military governor helped to solidify the imperial government’s claim to the city of Wuwei. After all, this city was located at a strategic location along the Silk Road and played an integral role in managing trade, which made it hotly contested territory. 

When the region was conquered by the mysterious Tangut people, who established the Western Xia Dynasty (1038–1227), the temple was renamed once again to the Huguo or “State Protecting” Temple. This strange new name was in large part due to the fact that, during their reign, the Tanguts faced opposition from the south in the form of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and the southwest in the form of the Kokonor Tibetans, particularly in a place as strategically located as Wuwei. The renaming of the temple reflected the Tanguts anxiety about their ability to effectively protect their new territory from rival groups. 

Tragically it seems that the temple’s new name wasn’t enough to protect itself, as it was destroyed during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and had to be rebuilt during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Its bad luck didn’t end there, however, as it was reduced to rubble yet again thanks to a colossal earthquake that took place during the Republic of China period (1912-1949). In its heyday, the temple was comprised of the Gantong stupa, the Northern and Southern meditation halls, the bell-tower, and a chamber dedicated to the translation and copying of sacred scriptures. Nowadays, the bell-tower is all that remains of this once venerable house of worship. Within the bell-tower, visitors will find a bronze bell that supposedly dates all the way back to the Tang Dynasty and serves as the only lasting relic of this temple’s long history. 

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The Wuwei Confucian Temple

While Confucian temples are common throughout cities in China, the one in the city of Wuwei is considered to be particularly special. Known alternately as the Wuwei Confucian Temple and the Wenmiao Temple, this ancient architectural complex was originally built in 1439, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and has been extended several times throughout its venerable history. The temple complex itself faces south and is constituted of three main parts: the Wenchang Hall in the east; the Confucius Temple in the middle; and the Liangzhou Confucian Academy in the west. 

Covering a surface area of around 1,500 square metres (16,145 sq. ft.), the Wuwei Confucian Temple boasts the reputation of being the largest Confucian school in Gansu province. It historically served as a place for scholars to study and pray to Confucius, and it remains an important site of worship to this day. In particular, it is common for parents to pray for their children at the temple on the run up to examinations. After all, who needs luck when you have the backing of the wisest man in Chinese history! 

The Wenchang Hall can be accessed via the “Shanmen” or Mountain Gate and contains a stage for dramatic performances, alongside a plethora of sacred shrines. On the left and right hand sides of the hall, there are shrines dedicated to Master Niu and Master Liu respectively. At the back of the hall, opposite the entrance, sits the Chongsheng Shrine, also known as the Shrine of Worship. The hall’s courtyard is resplendent with lush pine trees and houses a veritable forest of beautifully preserved stone steles, some of which are famous throughout China. In fact, the highly prized Western Xia Tablet was once located within this courtyard, but has since been moved to the Wuwei Museum within the temple complex. 

The aptly named Confucius Temple naturally occupies the central position within the temple complex and is the location where offerings can be made in honour of Confucius. This expansive hall also contains memorial tablets dedicated to a handful of Confucius’ most well-known and revered students, including Mencius, Zengzi, Zisi, and Yan Hui. In-keeping with the scholarly theme, the Liangzhou Confucian Academy would have been where literati historically studied and exchanged ideas within the complex, although nowadays it simply acts as another beautiful component of the temple. Alongside these core sections of the temple, there are number of elaborate structures throughout the complex that deserve special mention, such as the Ji Gate, the Lattice Gate, the Bridge of the “Number One Scholar,” and the half-moon shaped Banchi Pool. 

The crowning jewel of the temple complex, however, is arguably the Wuwei Museum. As mentioned before, it currently houses the Western Xia Tablet, which contains inscriptions in both Chinese and the extinct language of the mysterious Tangut people. It’s one of the very few remnants left of this enigmatic ethnic group and has been an invaluable tool for linguists in decoding the Tangut language. Alongside this tablet, the museum boasts a staggering collection of over 36,000 cultural artefacts comprised of ancient books, scriptures, works of calligraphy, and paintings. A few other notable items within the museum include: bamboo writing slips dating back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD); a bronze cannon from the Western Xia Dynasty (1038–1227); porcelain from the Ming and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties; and remnants of ancient coins, such as Western Xia silver coins.

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Yongtai Ancient Town

Known locally as “Turtle City”, Yongtai Ancient Town acquired its unusual nickname due to its shape, which is said to look like that of a turtle from an aerial perspective. The gate at its south represents the head and the overall oval-shape of the town bears an uncanny resemblance to the shell of a turtle. Much like its reptilian counterpart, Yongtai Ancient Town was historically protected by defensive structures that once made it practically impenetrable! This garrison town was built in 1602, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), in order to protect against invasions and attacks from nomadic groups in the north. During its heyday, it was home to around 2,000 infantrymen and 500 cavalry units!

It was originally surrounded by a 6-metre (20 ft.) wide and approximately 2-metre (7 ft.) deep moat. This was in turn backed by a formidable 12-metre (39 ft.) high wall, which was punctuated by 12 defensive forts and four gate-towers. While the moat has unfortunately dried up, the imposing city walls and the ancient houses that lie within them have been beautifully well-preserved and offer a stunning insight into China’s history. What is perhaps most impressive is that many of these constructions were made used loess soil, which has been packed together tightly to form a stable structure.

By the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), however, the town’s military importance began to wane and the population gradually declined. Nowadays, the town has been largely abandoned due to desertification and its remote location, meaning that its population has dropped from around 1,500 in the 1950s to less than 400 people today. For this reason, it’s imperative that you visit the town as soon as possible, so that you can see the locals’ traditional way of life before it is deserted entirely. 

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Zhangye

Zhangye is a prefecture-level city situated in the northwest of Gansu province, resting at the heart of the legendary Hexi Corridor. The misty Qilian Mountains lie to its north, while to its south you’ll find Mount Heli and Mount Longshou. The Hei River flows directly through the city and has formed a number of oases, endowing the region with its remarkably luxurious greenery. It acted as a frontier town throughout China’s history, sitting at the centre of the historic natural passageway between the Far East and Central Asia. The name “Zhangye” (张掖), which literally means “to extend the arm”, is an abbreviation of the ancient Chinese saying “to extend the arm of the country, through to the Western Realm” (国臂,以通西域). Yet what it fails to mention is that they weren’t just extending the arm, but also the army!

During the Han Dynasty (206 BC– 220 AD), Zhangye rose to prominence as one of the focal trade hubs along the Silk Road and was thus fiercely defended by the Chinese army against the invading Xiongnu people. It was given its current name in 111 BC but Zhangye Prefecture was originally known as Ganzhou, which is where the “Gan” of Gansu province was derived. Evidently coming up with original names wasn’t the Emperor’s strong point! By the Sui Dynasty (581-618), it had rapidly developed into a metropolis for international trade and, during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the famous monk Xuanzang even passed through the city on his way to India. 

Sadly this would mark the end of the imperial court’s stronghold on the region, as a Tibeto-Burman-speaking people known as the Tanguts soon dominated northwest China and established the Western Xia Dynasty (1038–1227). It wouldn’t return to imperial control until the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), which is coincidentally also when Italian traveller Marco Polo decided to settle there for an entire year. He remarked in his travel notes on the city’s impressive size and the magnificence of its religious buildings so, if it was good enough for Marco Polo’s proverbial gap year, we’re sure you’ll agree it’s worth a visit!

Of these magnificent religious buildings, the Five Elemental Pagodas are perhaps the most strikingly unusual. They are all designed after the five elements of ancient Chinese philosophy: metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. The most famous of these is arguably the Wooden Pagoda of the Sui Dynasty which, rather misleadingly, was not actually built during the Sui Dynasty (581-618)! It was originally constructed during the Northern Zhou Dynasty (557–581), but underwent a long period of reconstruction during the Sui Dynasty and required further repairs during the Tang, Ming (1368-1644), and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties. It seems wood wasn’t the sturdiest of the five elements after all! 

Nowadays it is stunningly well-preserved and contains the Zhangye Folk Customs Museum, where visitors can learn about the city’s resident ethnic minorities. Over 26 of China’s recognised ethnic minorities call Zhangye home, including large constituencies of Hui, Yugur, and Tibetan people. This means that large parts of the prefecture, such as Sunan Yugur Autonomous County, are entirely dominated by a plethora of unique cultures, where visitors are privy to the fascinating customs of these ethnic peoples. 

The Clay Pagoda, one of the other Five Elemental Pagodas, is part of a spectacular complex known as the Giant Buddha Temple. It is widely considered the finest relic of the Western Xia Dynasty and contains China’s largest statue of the reclining Buddha. As a matter of fact, the entire temple was constructed simply to house this giant Buddha! The statue in question is approximately 35 metres (115 ft.) long and 8 metres (26 ft.) wide at the shoulders, making it over 11 times longer than a fully grown anaconda. It has been beautifully painted and gold-plated, which only adds to its overall grandeur. Yet this isn’t the temple’s only claim to fame, since Kublai Khan, founder of the Yuan Dynasty and grandson of Genghis Khan, was supposedly born within its halls.  

Just 65 kilometres (40 mi) south of the city proper, the Mati or “Horse’s Hoof” Temple is etched into the cliff-face of Linsong Mountain and houses still more sacred relics, including the legendary hoof-prints of a horse deity. Nowadays it is home to a large Yugur community and is the perfect place to engage with their nomadic lifestyle. That being said, if you’re in the mood for something a little less manmade, you may want to consider a trip to the Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park or the Zhangye National Wetland Park. 

Resplendent with rolling hills of multiple colours, the Danxia landform rests just 30 kilometres (19 mi) west of Zhangye proper and offers up a unique geological landscape, described by many as a living watercolour painting. The Zhangye Wetland Park is a little closer to home, as it rests on the northern outskirts of the city and offers stunning views of verdant marshes, flowery meadows, and winding rivers. This breath-taking natural scenery, coupled with the many interactive exhibitions on the history of the Silk Road, the plant and animal species that inhabit the wetlands, and the ecological importance of preserving them, is sure to awaken the conservationist in you!

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Wuwei

The city of Wuwei is located within a historic pathway known as the Hexi Corridor, which is flanked by the towering Tibetan Plateau in the north and the inhospitable Gobi Desert to the south. The dangerous and impenetrable nature of the surroundings meant that travellers along the Silk Road were forced to exclusively use this route, as it was the only safe way to enter central China from western China. Thus, as an ancient oasis city, Wuwei had something of a captive audience! In particular, Wuwei sits at the centre of the three provincial capitals of Lanzhou, Xining, and Yinchuan, meaning it remains a nexus for trade and travel in western China.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the Wuwei area was inhabited by primitive people over 4,000 years ago, during the Neolithic Era, although the first settlement did not appear there until around 2,100 years ago. This settlement was a town known as Zang and was occupied by a nomadic tribe called the Xiongnu, who ruled the region during this period. The city was not formally established, however, until the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), when Emperor Wu sent a military general named Huo Quobing to attack the Hexi Corridor in 121 BC. After General Huo’s forces had successfully defeated the Xiongnu and captured the territory within the Hexi Corridor, Emperor Wu renamed Zang to Wuwei in honour of General Huo’s heroism, as the name “Wuwei” (武威) literally translates to mean “Martial Prestige.”

Throughout its history, it served as the capital for a number of smaller dynasties, such as the Former Liang (317-376 AD), the Later Liang (386-403 AD), the Southern Liang (397-414 AD), and the Northern Liang (401-439 AD).  In fact, many of these dynasties derived their name from the alternative name given to Wuwei during the Han Dynasty, which was “Liangzhou” (凉州) or “Cold Prefecture.” For a brief period, it even served as the provisional capital for the Western Xia Dynasty (1038–1227), which was led by a mysterious ethnic group known as the Tangut people. To this day, very little is known about the Tangut people and the relics that have been unearthed near Wuwei have been integral to our understanding of this enigmatic culture.  

Nowadays, the city of Wuwei is unsurprisingly renowned for its wide variety of historical attractions, from imperial tombs to elaborate Buddhist grottoes. Arguably its greatest claim to fame is the Leitai Han Tomb, where a bronze statue known as “Matafeiyan” or “Horse Galloping, Flying Swallow” was found. The tomb dates back to the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 BC-220 AD) and belonged to General Zhang of Zhangye, who had once been responsible for maintaining imperial defences on the western frontier and was buried sometime between 186 BC and 219 BC.

The tomb itself wasn’t discovered until 1969, when a group of local people were tasked with digging air-raid shelters near the city of Wuwei. They came upon the tomb by accident and alerted the local authorities to their discovery not long thereafter. Once the tomb had been properly excavated, archaeologists unearthed a chamber that contained over 200 valuable bronzes, including the famed statue of the horse with its foot planted delicately on the back of a flying swallow. This statue has become somewhat iconic throughout Gansu province and is currently housed within the Gansu Provincial Museum, which is in the city of Lanzhou.

The Leitai Han Tomb, however, has been opened as a tourist attraction and can be found within the peaceful expanse of Leitai Park. While it may no longer be home to the coveted bronze horse, the tomb now serves as a sprawling underground museum, which is comprised of three main chambers and six smaller annexes. There are over 200 artefacts currently on display within the tomb, including a variety of elegant gold, silver, copper, iron, and jade wares, along with a series of 99 ceremonial figurines that were buried with General Zhang. The name “Leitai” literally translates to mean “Thunder Platform” and, as grandiose as this name sounds, it simply refers to the fact that the platform atop the tomb was once a sacrificial altar for the God of Thunder in ancient times. There is even a Taoist temple on-site that is dedicated to the Thunder God, which dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and is also open to visitors. 

Alongside the Leitai Han Tomb, visitors to Wuwei can also pay a visit to one of the many wonderful temples dotted throughout the city. In particular, the Wuwei Confucian Temple, also known simply as the Wenmiao Temple, has been an integral site for worship and education in the city for centuries. It was originally constructed during the Ming Dynasty and is famed for its stele courtyard, where famous stone steles can be found nestled within lush green pines. Amongst these steles, the most highly prized is the Western Xia Tablet, which dates back to the Western Xia Dynasty and is one of very few such steles still in existence. Within the temple, you will also find the Wuwei Museum, which houses a vast collection of over 36,000 books, paintings, inscriptions and other cultural relics.

Lovers of nature will want to gravitate towards the east of the city, where the Wuwei Desert Park can be found. This lush expanse of greenery, inlaid like an emerald within the Tengger Desert, is the largest desert park in China and was originally established in 1986. It is designed primarily to showcase the natural beauty of the desert, grasslands, and gardens. The north of the park is connected to the Endangered Wild Animals Research Centre, while Changcheng or “Great Wall” Town can be found on its eastern border. 

If you’re already feeling intoxicated by thoughts of Wuwei, that may be by design! According to historical records, people in Wuwei began growing grapes and making wine over 2,000 years ago. In fact, it is often described as “the hometown of Chinese wine” for this reason. Thanks to its continental climate and long hours of sunshine, the countryside surrounding Wuwei is the ideal place to plant grapes and has earned Wuwei the nickname of “China’s Bordeaux.” 

Wuwei also serves as the perfect stopover on the way to visit the Tiantishan Grottoes, which rank as one of the main Buddhist sites along the Silk Road. This Buddhist grotto complex has been etched directly into the snow-capped Tiantishan Mountains and was first excavated during the Northern Liang Dynasty, although they were added to right up until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Its most notable feature is undoubtedly the 15-metre (49 ft.) tall statue of Shakyamuni Buddha that sits within the largest cave of the complex. To put that into perspective, this statue is nearly three times the size of a fully grown giraffe!

The Dayun Temple or (Great Cloud) Temple is widely considered to be the oldest Buddhist temple in the city of Wuwei. Although the exact date remains a mystery, the temple was originally founded during the Eastery Jin Dynasty (317–420).

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Gansu Provincial Museum

Based in the provincial capital of Lanzhou, the Gansu Provincial Museum is renowned throughout China for its comprehensive collection of stunning artefacts. It was originally founded in 1939 as the Gansu Scientific Education Centre and was renamed the Northwest People’s Science Museum in 1950, yet during this time it was dedicated entirely to the history of Gansu province. It wasn’t until 1956, after three years of renovations, that it would be re-purposed and become the sprawling museum that we see today. Nowadays, the museum covers an area of 18,000 square metres (193,750 sq. ft.) and is home to over 350,000 artefacts, making it one of the largest and most impressive museums in western China. 

The most famous artefact housed in the museum is undoubtedly a bronze statue known as the “Flying Horse of Gansu.” Its English name is somewhat misleading, as its Chinese name of “Matafeiyan” (马踏飞燕) or “Horse Galloping, Flying Swallow” represents a far more accurate description of what it actually is. Dating back to the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 BC-220 AD), this bronze statue depicts a horse galloping, with three legs in the air and one hoof planted on the back of a flying swallow. The swallow itself has its head upturned in surprise to look at the horse, since it is understandably shocked by the situation!

The statue was discovered accidentally in 1969 near the city of Wuwei, when a group of local people were tasked with digging air-raid shelters. In the process, they unearthed a Han tomb belonging to General Zhang of Zhangye, who had once been responsible for maintaining imperial defences on the western frontier. It seems the general was not able to take his secrets to the grave after all! After alerting the provincial authorities to the discovery, the tomb was properly excavated by a team of archaeologists and the statue was found inside a chamber along with over 200 other bronze figures. 

What makes the horse within the bronze statue particularly special is that it was based on a historically famous breed known as the Ferghana Horse. These “celestial horses” were highly prized throughout China as a status symbol and were renowned for their agility, which is why the galloping horse in the bronze is shown to be capable of outrunning a bird in flight. In fact, these horses were so valuable that Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) waged a war with the Greek Kingdom of Dayuan in the Ferghana Valley to get them, which came to be known as the War of the Heavenly Horses (102-104 BC). In short, there was no horsing around when it came to this much sought-after breed! Nowadays, the “Flying Horse of Gansu” has become a popular symbol throughout Gansu province, as evidenced by the huge replica of the statue that can be found outside of Lanzhou Railway Station.

The museum itself is spread out over three floors and is home to three permanent exhibitions. The first floor of the museum is made up of a temporary exhibition space, where the museum hosts a variety of different themed exhibitions throughout the year. Alongside this temporary space, the three permanent exhibitions are: the Silk Road exhibition and the Palaeontological Fossils of Gansu Province exhibition on the second floor; and the Painted Pottery of Gansu Province exhibition on the third floor. 

According to historical records, the Silk Road was officially established after Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty dispatched an envoy named Zhang Qian to the Western Regions in the 2nd century BC. Over time, however, this simple trade route between China and Central Asia grew into a vast network of pathways that connected China to places as far-reaching as Africa and Europe. The term the “Silk Road” was first used in the 1870s by a geographer named Ferdinand Von Richthofen and was unsurprisingly so-named because of the Chinese merchants’ penchant for trading with silk, which was highly prized in ancient times. 

The Silk Road exhibit within the Gansu Provincial Museum mainly focuses on the section of the Silk Road that was located within the Hexi Corridor, which can be found in Gansu province. The Hexi Corridor was a focal part of this historic trading route, as it was flanked by the desolate Tibetan Plateau in the north and the hostile Gobi Desert to the south. This meant that travellers along the road were all channelled through this corridor, which was littered with integral market towns such as Dunhuang and Wuwei.

The museum’s sprawling exhibit contains over 420 artefacts related to China’s trade relations with other countries, as well as detailed historical accounts of how the Silk Road was established. A few examples of these ancient treasures include: a pair of bells that date back to the Han Dynasty; wooden tablets that were used to relay messages along the Silk Road during the Han Dynasty; mural paintings from tombs belonging to the Northern Wei (386-535 AD) and Jin (265-420 AD) dynasties that were found near Jiayuguan in the Hexi Corridor; triple-coloured porcelain from the Tang Dynasty (618-907); a 2,000-year-old gilded silver plate embossed with an image of Bacchus, the Greek god of wine; and Buddhist statues from grottoes that were established along the Silk Road.  

Once you’ve finished diving into the history of the Silk Road, the Palaeontological Fossils of Gansu Province exhibition is sure to satisfy the rest of your historical cravings. This exhibit is unsurprisingly dedicated to the numerous fossils that have been found throughout China, including dinosaur bones, fossilized plant specimens, and the contours of animals or plants that have been imprinted on stones. The exhibit itself is separated into four sections: the Palaeolithic Era; the Mesolithic Era; the Cenozoic Era; and the Department of Anthropology, which is dedicated to the evolution of prehistoric people who inhabited regions along the Yellow River. 

Its most startling display, however, is undoubtedly the fully reassembled skeleton of a stegodon, also known as the Huanghe or “Yellow River” elephant. This colossal skeleton is 4 metres (13 ft.) tall and 8 metres (26 ft.) in length, with staggering 2-metre (6.5 ft.) long tusks! Alongside this exceptional elephant, the exhibit is also home to fossils belonging to the Mamenchisaurus sinocanadorum, which once roamed the region of modern-day Sichuan province and is believed to be the largest prehistoric animal to have inhabited China. Based on fossil evidence, it is estimated that the Mamenchisaurus sinocanadorum was nearly 15 metres (49 ft.) tall and 35 metres (115 ft.) long. To put that into perspective, that’s over twice the length of the average bus! 

The third and final floor of the museum is home to a vast exhibit containing some of the most beautiful painted pottery from throughout Gansu province’s history. Gansu province is often regarded as the “hometown” of coloured pottery, as it is the place where the oldest coloured pottery in China was found. In fact, some of the ceramics on display originate from the Dadiwan culture (5800-5400 BC) and are over 6,000 years old, which attests to the venerable history of porcelain production in the region. 

White Pagoda Mountain Park

White Pagoda Mountain Park

Resting on the northern bank of the Yellow River in the city of Lanzhou, the White Pagoda Mountain Park is unsurprisingly named for the startling White Pagoda Temple that sits on its summit. While the park was opened to the public in 1958, the architectural masterpieces that can be found throughout its vast expanse date back to ancient times, the most notable of which is the titular White Pagoda Temple. The history of the original pagoda is shrouded in mystery, although there is a local legend about how it came to be constructed.

According to this legend, Genghis Khan wrote a letter to the King of Tibet, within which he expressed his desire that Tibet be peacefully reunited. As an act of gratitude, the King of Tibet sent a highly-respected Lama from the Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism to pay a formal visit to Genghis Khan in Mongolia. This Lama, however, tragically died of illness in Lanzhou and never made it to his final destination. During this time, the Western Xia Dynasty (1038–1227) controlled much of Gansu province, including the city of Lanzhou. The city was eventually annexed by the Mongolian Empire in 1226 and, not long thereafter, the White Pagoda Temple was erected in honour of the Lama. Yet it seems as though the pagoda was doomed to suffer from the same bad luck that befell the Lama for whom it was built!

The original pagoda collapsed sometime towards the end of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and so the pagoda that we see atop the mountain today was actually rebuilt under the direction of a government official named Lou Yongcheng during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It was also extended during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) at the behest of Chuo Qi, the governor of Lanzhou, in 1715.

The current pagoda towers in at 17-metres (56 ft.) in height and is composed of seven storeys, with its white exterior being complemented beautifully by an emerald-green spire at the top. It is octahedral in shape and each of its sides is decorated with elaborate Buddhist patterns. Small iron bells hang from the eaves of each storey of the pagoda, which produce a soothing sound whenever a breeze blows across the mountain.

Compared with other Buddhist pagodas, the White Pagoda has a highly unique shape. Most Buddhist pagodas are a combination of two main structural features: a multi-storied tower on the bottom; and a roof in the shape of an inverted bowl on top. The White Pagoda reverses this design, as its multi-storied tower is founded on top of huge inverted-bowl shaped segment, which is in turn supported by a large Sumeru pedestal that rests on a square base. In short, the pagoda’s structure is as complex as its history! From the top of the pagoda, visitors can enjoy a stunning panoramic view of Lanzhou and the surrounding countryside. 

Alongside the pagoda itself, the temple complex was historically famed for its three treasures: the Elephant Leather Drum, the Bronze Bell, and the Chinese Redbud Tree. The Chinese redbud trees that once populated the mountain have unfortunately all withered and died due to their water sources drying up, but the Elephant Leather Drum and the Bronze Bell have stood the test of time. The Elephant Leather Drum is a huge drum that was reputedly donated to the temple by an unknown Indian monk, while the Bronze Bell was cast during the Qing Dynasty and weighs a colossal 153 kilograms!

The White Pagoda Mountain Park encompasses the entire temple complex and stretches from the summit of the mountain right down to Zhongshan Bridge at its base, which in turn crosses the Yellow River and was historically used by travellers along the Silk Road. The foot of the mountain is also marked by Jincheng Pass and Yudie Pass, which once served as military fortresses in ancient times. The park itself is dotted with a number of breathtakingly beautiful sights, such as decorative pavilions, roofed corridors, elaborate archways, and ancient trees. Some of the highlights of the park include: the Yellow River Stone Hall, which is a small exhibition dedicated to stones that have been taken from the Yellow River; the Yugur Reception Tent, where visitors can engage with the culture of the Yugur ethnic minority; and the Gongbei Mosque, which is one of the largest mosques in Lanzhou.

The term “gongbei” actually refers to the style of roof and derives from the Persian word gonbad or “dome.” It is a term used specifically by the Hui ethnic minority in China to denote a Muslim shrine that centred on the grave of a Sufi master. Since the term “gongbei” is popularly used in reference to Hui mosques, the Gongbei Mosque in Lanzhou is sometimes called Lingming or “Spiritual Life” Hall to differentiate it from others. It is important to note that, unlike other attractions in the park, the Gongbei Mosque is closed to the public and can only be enjoyed from the outside. 

Xitang Water Town

The picturesque water town of Xitang has served as the muse for countless artists throughout Chinese history. Even in the modern day, its undeniable beauty meant it was used as a set for the film Mission Impossible III! The history of this venerable ancient town stretches all the way back to the Spring and Autumn Period (c. 771-476 BC), when it rested on the border between the State of Wu and the State of Yue. This was a time before China had been officially unified by the Emperor Qin Shi Huang, and so Xitang’s strategic location on the border meant it became integral to the development of Wu-Yue culture. Nowadays, it is widely considered by historians to be one of the birthplaces of traditional Wu-Yue culture.

It was formally developed into a market town during the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties, although it wouldn’t reach the peak of its prosperity until the Yuan (1271-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties. For this reason, many of its buildings date back to the Ming Dynasty and incorporate many of the characteristically fashionable features of that time, such as white-washed walls and black-tiled roofs. If you look closely at the roofs of the buildings, you’ll see that many of them are so old that they even have grass growing out of them, which is sometimes over 30 centimetres (12 in.) tall! 

During the town’s long and illustrious history, it has been known by many names, including “Xietang” or “Oblique Pond,” Pingtang or “Flat Pond,” and “Xutang” or “Xu Pond.” Even “Xitang” literally translates to mean “West Pond,” so it seems that a pond by any other name still looks as wonderful! Its aquatic name is directly linked to its location, as Xitang rests at the confluence between nine separate rivers. Thanks to its river connections and the fertile soil of its surrounding countryside, it swiftly rose to become one of the wealthiest market towns and water transportation hubs in the country. Since the town is crisscrossed with canals, it naturally has a number of traditional stone bridges so that people can navigate the waterways with ease.

There are currently 104 bridges in Xitang that split the town into 8 distinct areas. Most of these bridges were built during the Ming and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, although there are 11 older bridges that date all the way back to the Song Dynasty. What makes these bridges so special is that they each have their own unique identities. For example, Yongning Bridge is popular with photographers, as it offers a breathtakingly beautiful view of the town’s canals and ancient mansions. Wolong Bridge is arguably the most famous, due in part to its touching history. It was originally a wooden bridge where, on rainy days, many people would slip and get badly hurt. A local man named Guangyuan spent over 10 years raising money so that he was finally able to tear down the wooden bridge and replace it with a safer stone one. 

The grandest backstory, however, is undoubtedly attached to the Songzi Laifeng Bridge, which was originally constructed in 1637. According to legend, a phoenix flew over the bridge and decided to rest on it just as it was being completed. Once the bridge was finished, the local couple living near the bridge gave birth to a son, so the bridge was named “Songzi Laifeng” or “Gifting a Son, Phoenix Arriving” Bridge. Nowadays, couples flock to Xitang in order to visit this lucky bridge, as they believe it will bless them with children.

Alongside these decorative bridges, Xitang is famed for its elaborate covered corridors, which were designed to shelter pedestrians from inclement weather. In essence, they are simply lanes with roofs, which are typically constructed from bricks or wood and covered in black tiles. Altogether, there is nearly 1,000-metres (3,300 ft.) worth of covered corridors in Xitang, with each one having been elegantly decorated with carvings or murals. Long benches have been arranged along the riverside under some of these covered corridors, so that people can rest and admire the view without fear of getting caught out by the pouring rain or burnt by the searing sun!

If you want to experience the beauty of the river first-hand, you can hire a Wupeng boat and take a leisurely cruise throughout Xitang. The word “wupeng” means “black awning” and refers to the traditional boats that have been used as a means of transport in the town for centuries. Nowadays, they are predominantly used by visitors for sightseeing, although they occasionally carry joyful bridal parties on the way to their wedding. 

Getting lost among the labyrinthine lanes of Xitang is simply part of the charm and the town’s careful layout means that you’ll always find your way back to somewhere recognisable. The most distinctive of these lanes is known as “Shipi” or “Stone Skin” Lane, which is so-named because the slabs used to construct the lane are only about 3 centimetres (approx. 1 in.) in width. The lane itself is also incredibly narrow, with widths ranging from 1-metre (3 ft. 3 in.) at its widest to 0.8-metre (2 ft. 7 in.) at its narrowest. For this reason, only one person is able to pass through Shipi Lane at any given time. It was originally constructed during the Ming Dynasty and enclosed on either side by two high walls, giving the lane its notoriously narrow appearance.

Alongside its scenic beauty, Xitang is home to a handful of traditional gardens, the most famous of which are the Zui Garden and the West Garden. Located at Tawan Street, the Zui Garden dates back to the Ming Dynasty and is made up of a succession of five courtyards, within which are delicate rockworks, paintings, and carefully arranged plants. The main courtyard boasts the most delightful attraction of all: a tiny bridge made of bricks that is largely ornamental but can accommodate one person at a time. The garden is so-named for the Zuijingtang (醉经堂) or “Hall of Intoxicating Books,” which was built by a prominent Qing calligrapher and painter named Wang Zhixi. His works are still exhibited throughout the garden that provided him with countless years of inspiration.

By contrast, the “Xiyuan” or “West Garden” originally served as the villa of the Zhu family during the Ming Dynasty, but eventually became the property of the Sun family. It is widely considered to be the most beautiful garden in Xitang, as it is resplendent with rockworks, decorative pavilions, artificial waterfalls, ponds, flowers, trees, and all manner of ornamental objects. It is even home to its own teahouse, which is known as the Ting Tao Pavilion. The garden has attracted such nationwide attention that it was even visited by the famous Chinese poet Liu Yazi (1887-1958).

Aside from these stunning gardens, the town is also home to a wide variety of museums that are each dedicated to a particular aspect of the town’s history, including the China Button Museum, the Jiangnan Eave Tiles Exhibition Hall, the Root Carving Hall, the Ming & Qing Woodcarving Exhibition Hall, and the Chinese Wine Culture Museum. While most of these museums are relatively self-explanatory, there are a few that definitely stand out as rather unusual!

Xitang was once one of the foremost producers of buttons in the country, so the China Button Museum is dedicated to the town’s long history of button production and boasts six exhibition halls, which showcase a wide variety of ancient buttons that were made in the town. In fact, the modern town of Xitang is still home to over 600 button factories, which produce more than 1,600 types of buttons and around 60 billion buttons overall per year. When it comes to expert craftsmanship, you could say the people of Xitang are as bright as their buttons!

In ancient times, Xitang was also considered a “wine town.” This does not mean it produced wine, but refers to the fact that Xitang would attract several famous scholars and literati, whose main pursuits were writing poetry and drinking fine wine. The Chinese Wine Culture Museum thus offers visitors an insight into the wine culture that became an integral part of these literati circles throughout Chinese history. Arguably the strangest sounding museum of all, however, has to be the Root Carving Museum. It is centred on the famous root-carving artist Zhang Zheng, who was born in Hangzhou but ended up living in Xitang for a period of time. Over 500 of his masterpieces are housed in the museum and represent some of the most breathtakingly beautiful works of folk art in China, making it arguably the most fascinating and underrated museum in the town!

Make your dream trip to Xitang Water Town come true on our travel: Explore Traditional Culture in Picturesque Ancient Villages

Gongfu Tea

In China, there is an old saying which states: “Wherever people from Chaozhou live, you’ll find Gongfu Tea.” While the art of Gongfu Tea or “Kung-Fu Tea” is popular throughout China, it is widely believed to have originated from the city of Chaozhou in Guangdong province. To this day, most families in Chaozhou will have a special tea table in their home and a traditional tea set that is specifically designed for serving Gongfu Tea. Now you’re probably thinking: What’s so tea-rrific about Gongfu Tea?

This style of tea, which has been popular among the locals of Chaozhou since the Song Dynasty (960-1279), is known for its formidably strong and bitter flavour, earning it the nickname the “espresso of Chinese teas.” Traditionally Gongfu Tea is served before and after a meal in most restaurants throughout Chaozhou, but it can also be savoured on its own in one of the city’s many teahouses. The term “gongfu” or “kung-fu” does not refer to any tea-related martial arts, and instead is used to mean “making tea with skill.” This term extends even further, as the art of tasting the tea is similarly believed to require a certain level of skill. There’s no time to relax when it comes to this cup of afternoon tea!

Gongfu Tea is not a type of tea specifically, but is in fact a style of tea ceremony that involves the ritual preparation and presentation of tea. Nowadays, this method of making tea is popular throughout Chinese tea shops and is used by tea connoisseurs worldwide in order to maximize their tea drinking experience. For lovers of Gongfu Tea, it is as much about self-cultivation as it is about the preparation of the tea itself. By focusing on the movements of the tea ceremony, as well as the taste, aroma, and appearance of the tea, the practitioner of Gongfu Tea will become aware of what is known as the “cha qi” (茶气) or “tea energy” and will thus gain greater insight into how the tea affects both their body and mind.

When it comes to the tea ceremony itself, black teas such as oolong and pu’er are preferred. White and green teas can also be used, but their delicate flavour means there is little benefit to brewing them in this way. It is also imperative to use the best grade of tea possible, as good quality tea will yield between 6 to 10 brews with consistent flavour. Lower quality tea may have a pleasant taste for the first couple of brews, but its flavour will significantly weaken thereafter, meaning you’ll have to use more tea leaves in the long run.

In essence, the purpose of Gongfu Tea is to utilize the best materials, instruments, and methods to brew the tea in order to get the maximum flavour and maximum number of brews out of the tea leaves themselves. Its thoroughly practical nature means it is distinctly different from the well-known Japanese tea ceremony known as Chanoyu, where the focus is on the symbolic meaning behind each step rather than on its functional purpose. The history behind these two tea ceremonies, however, is delicately intertwined.

During the 12th century, Japan began growing and producing tea following Chinese models. Towards the end of the 14th century, loose leaf tea became a popular household product in China and it was eventually used by the imperial government during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Once the status of loose leaf tea was raised, related teaware such as the teapot became an essential item. More attention was thus being paid to the act of brewing tea, which resulted in the Gongfu Tea ceremony becoming popularised sometime during the 18th century. This had a major impact on tea-drinking culture in Japan and their tea ceremony began taking shape almost simultaneously.

Arguably, the most important instrument for making Gongfu Tea is the teapot. The best teapots are unglazed clay teapots made from special “Yixing clay” from the county of Yixing in China’s Jiangsu province. This clay comes in three types that influence the colour of the teapot: purple, red, and green. The porous nature of these teapots and their heat handling properties mean they are superior to glass, porcelain, and glazed teapots. The main downside, however, is that one teapot should only be used to brew one type of tea and Yixing teapots are generally quite expensive. Over time, the Yixing teapot will absorb the flavour of the tea and thus enhance the tea-drinking experience. High-fired teapots with thinner and finer clay work best with green, white, and oolong teas, while low-fired teapots with thicker and more porous clay should be used for pu’er and black teas. 

When it comes to the brewing of the tea itself, there are two essential factors that need to be considered: the water being used; and the temperature the water is boiled at. It should come as no surprise that water which tastes or smells bad will not yield a pleasant tasting tea. However, distilled or extremely soft water can be equally unpleasant, as it lacks minerals and can results in a “flat” or flavourless brew. That being said, high content mineral water should similarly be avoided, as it can overwhelm the flavour of the tea. Local and natural spring water is ideal, although bottled spring water will suffice. 

When it comes to boiling the water, the optimal temperature varies between different types of tea. For example, water used to brew oolong tea should be heated to 95 °C (203 ℉), while water used to brew compressed teas such as pu’er should be boiled at 100 °C (212 ℉). Most tea masters don’t need to use a thermometer and can accurately gauge the temperature of the water based on both the timing and the air bubbles in the kettle. According to Chinese tradition, the bubbles formed at between 75 to 85 °C (167-185 ℉) are known as “crab eyes” due to their size and are typically accompanied by loud, rapid sizzling noises. At 90 to 95 °C (194-203 ℉), the bubbles are called “fish eyes” because they are much larger and they are accompanied by a slower, quieter sizzling noise. Once the water has reached boiling point, there should be no visible air bubbles and no discernible sizzling sounds. 

The complexity of the ceremony means that any tea master must be equipped with an arsenal of instruments at their disposal! The main instruments used in Gongfu Tea are: the teapot or a covered bowl known as a gaiwan; the tea pitcher or decanting vessel, which is used to ensure the flavour of the tea is consistent when its poured into multiple cups; the kettle; the brewing tray, which is specially designed to hold spills; a tea cloth; a tea spoon or tea pick, which is used to clear excess tea from the spout of the teapot; the timer; the tea strainer; a special type of wooden tea spoon that is used to measure the correct amount of tea leaves required; and tea cups, preferably three that are of matching size and style.

If that wasn’t complicated enough, there are also several optional instruments that are believed to enhance the tea-drinking experience. These are: the tea basin, which serves as a receptacle for used tea leaves; a set of scales to weigh the tea leaves; a scent cup, which is solely used to appreciate the tea’s aroma and is never drank from; a pair of tongs known as “jia” (挟) that are used to pick up and empty the tea cups; and a calligraphy-style tea brush, which can be used to spread the wasted tea across the tea tray and ensure that the tea soaks into the tray evenly, endowing it with a pleasant colour. 

While all of these instruments are considered necessary for the proper preparation of Gongfu Tea, there is one addition to the ceremony that is purely aesthetic. Most tea shops and tea masters will have at least one “tea pet,” which is a small statue that is typically made from the same unglazed clay as a Yixing teapot. The use of tea pets dates all the way back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and they are often modelled after classical Chinese figures, such as the dragon, the zodiac animals, the lion turtle, and the toad. Each tea pet will have a special symbolic meaning and they are believed to bring good luck to their owners. The first brew of the tea and any leftover tea is poured over the tea pet as an offering, but it has the added benefit of preventing the water from splattering on the tea tray. After all, the last thing you want during a leisurely tea ceremony is to end up in the splash zone!

Finally, you’re probably wondering: What actually happens during Gongfu Tea? First, the teapot is filled with boiling water and allowed to sit until it has become warm. The boiling water is then poured over the strainer and the tea cups in order to sterilize them. Once the teapot is emptied, the tea leaves are measured and placed into the teapot. Boiled water is then added to the teapot until it is overflowing and, after the lid has been placed back on, this water is immediately poured off either onto the tea tray or the tea pet. This process is believed to “wake up” the tea leaves in preparation for the second brew. 

After that, the water is heated to the requisite temperature, added to the teapot, and left for few seconds. Warm water should be poured over the teapot while the tea is brewing, in order to maintain an even brewing temperature. Once the tea is finished brewing, it is poured into the tea pitcher or decanter and the lid is placed on top. The teacups should now be emptied of the warm water used to sterilize them, preferably with a pair of tongs. When the teacups are empty, the tea can be served from the pitcher. Ideally the tea cups should be placed close together and filled continuously in a circle, so that the strength of the tea is the same in each cup.

Multiple brews can be yielded by simply repeating the process of adding water to the teapot. When the process is finished, the leaves are removed and the teapot should be rinsed with hot water before being allowed to air-dry. In order to ensure that all of the instruments remain clean, they should also be rinsed and allowed to air-dry.  

Try cups of Gongfu Tea on our travel: Explore the Ancient Fortresses of Southeast China

Teochew People

Chaozhou City and Shantou City on the map

The history of the Teochew people has long been shrouded in mystery and, although there are many theories about their origins, there is still desperately little that is known about where they came from. Known alternatively as the Chaozhou people, they are a sub-group of the Han Chinese ethnic majority that are native to the Chaoshan region, which is largely made up of the cities of Chaozhou, Shantou, and Jieyang in Guangdong province. Nowadays, however, vast contingencies of Teochew people can be found throughout Southeast Asia, including Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia. There are even some small communities of Teochew living in places as far-flung as the US, Canada, Australia, and France!

Alongside the Hakka and the Cantonese people, the Teochew are estimated to have lived in the Chaoshan region for hundreds of years. According to the most widely believed theory, their ancestors originally lived in modern-day Henan province, but were forced south when the north was repeatedly invaded and captured by nomadic groups during the Jin Dynasty (265-420). Initially they settled in Fujian province, yet unfortunately it seems tragedy was doomed to follow them! They were uprooted again during the 13th century when Kublai Khan and his Mongol army invaded the area, which is when they finally moved to the sparsely populated Chaoshan region. At first, it seemed they were safe in their new home, but fate had more trouble in store for the Teochew!

After the First Opium War (1839-1842), the coastal regions in which the Teochew lived were ravaged by bandits and plagued with famine. Many Teochew people decided to immigrate abroad via one of the four treaty ports established along the southern coast, so that they could enjoy a better quality of life and send money back home to their families. It is these people that served as the ancestors for the Teochew diaspora that we find throughout the world today. In fact, due to this mass migration, the Teochew people are now the second largest ethnic group in Singapore!    

Like most sub-groups of the Han ethnic majority, the Teochew people have their own distinct language and culture. In fact, the dialect that they speak is widely considered to be the oldest and most well-preserved of all the Chinese languages. This is largely because the dialect spoken by the Han Chinese living in northern China was influenced by the languages of the Mongolian people, who ruled during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), and the Manchu people, who ruled during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). The Teochew people, who were living down south by this point and were thus not as heavily impacted by these changes, were able to preserve a more primitive version of the language. That being said, the Teochew dialect is not a uniform language and there is thus substantial variation between different Teochew communities. In their own dialect, the Teochew people refer to themselves as “gaginan,” which translates to mean “my own people.” 

In the Chaoshan region, Teochew culture has been fiercely preserved and ancestor worship in particular plays an important role in daily life. Many elderly members of the Teochew community believe that their departed ancestors are capable of protecting them from danger and misfortune, while simultaneously blessing them with wealth and other boons. Throughout the year, clan elders will lead other descendants through rituals to show reverence to the deceased at ancestral tombs, particularly on special occasions such as the Qingming or “Tomb Sweeping” Festival.

On dates of minor significance, the family will make modest offerings to their ancestors, including bowls of steamed rice, cups of tea, incense, and baskets of fruit. On the more important occasions, however, lavish offerings such as whole roasted pigs and goats are paraded through the streets before being placed on the ancestral shrine. During these grand rituals, firecrackers will be lit, a band of drums and wind instruments will be playing as loudly as possible, and the family may even hire a professional emcee to announce the festivities. 

Alongside ancestor worship, the Teochew people are well-known for their style of opera, music, tea culture, and woodcarving. Teochew Opera, also known as Chaozhou Opera, has a history that stretches back over 500 years ago and was heavily influenced by Nanxi Opera, which is one of the oldest styles in China and dates all the way back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). This style of opera is well-known for its fan dances and acrobatics, which add a touch of vivacity to each performance.

Traditional Teochew music often serves as the accompaniment for these performances and is based predominantly on plucked or bowed string instruments and wind instruments. Each ensemble typically utilises three different types of two-stringed bowed lutes known as the rihin, tihu, and yehu, along with a plethora of other traditional instruments, such as the pipa (a four-stringed plucked lute), the erhu (a two-stringed bowed fiddle), and the guzheng (a 21-stringed zither). In order to keep the music as even as possible, it is common to only have one of each instrument within an ensemble. 

The best place to hear traditional Teochew music, however, is arguably in one of the many teahouses scattered throughout the Chaoshan region. It is widely believed that a traditional style of tea ceremony known as Gongfu Tea originated from Chaoshan and it has become an integral part of tea culture for the Teochew people. This ritual method can theoretically be used to prepare any type of tea, but the Teochew people have a preference for a type of oolong tea known as Tieguanyin or “Iron Buddha.” It is conventional for Teochew people to enjoy a cup of tea before and after every meal, and no Teochew home would be complete without a traditional tea-set. 

Drinking bittersweet tea such as Tieguanyin after a meal is also believed by the Teochew people to be a palate cleanser, as several signature dishes in Teochew cuisine utilise pork lard. That being said, Teochew cuisine, more commonly known as Chaoshan cuisine, is renowned for its freshness and quality of ingredients. They rarely use oil or stir-frying techniques, and instead prefer to braise or steam ingredients in order to enhance their natural flavour. Since Chaoshan is a coastal region, it should come as no surprise that seafood is an integral part of Chaoshan cuisine. In particular, the oyster omelette is a beloved snack that can be found at any night market in Chaoshan.  

The attention to detail and quality in their cuisine is matched only by their woodcarving, which is breathtakingly intricate and is often incorporated into traditional Teochew buildings. This style of woodcarving dates all the way back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and typically features tableaus from ancient daily life, such as imperial scholars musing under trees or wealthy families enjoying an evening of festivities. 

Get more stories about Teochew people on our travel: Explore the Ancient Fortresses of Southeast China