Tunxi Old Town

Resplendent with white-washed walls, coal black roofs, horse head eaves, and a level of ornamental decoration befitting a palace, the buildings that flank the Old Street of Tunxi Old Town are some of the finest in Anhui province. This street, one of the last remnants of a bygone area, sits at the centre of Tunxi District in Huangshan City and was originally established during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Though a handful of buildings reflect this dynastic style, the most famous ones were built during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties.

It all began when Emperor Huizong of the Song Dynasty moved his seat of government to the city of Lin’an (modern-day Hangzhou) and commissioned droves of architects and workmen to help build his new capital. Several of them came from Tunxi and, when they finally returned home, they chose to imitate the style of architecture that they had seen in Lin’an. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!

At the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, in a bid to expand the town and add to his growing wealth, a local Hui merchant invested money into building 47 stores along Tunxi’s Old Street. This helped open up the town to trade with businessmen from neighbouring provinces and, by the Qing Dynasty, the town had become one of the major distribution centres for the ancient region of Huizhou. The town is truly a testament to the old saying; you have to spend money to make money!

Nowadays many of these old stores have retained their original characteristics and maintain the traditional layout of “shop in the front and living quarters in the back”. Many of these buildings are between two to three storeys high and are beautifully decorated with Hui wood carvings and red lacquered shop signs. The street itself starts in the west at Zhenhai Bridge, which was built during the Ming Dynasty, and ends at the magnificent Memorial Archway in the east. It is about 1.5 kilometres (1 mi) long and is paved by stunning rust-coloured flagstones that have been worn smooth by centuries of use.

There are even two delightful museums along the street. One, known as Tunxi Museum, has a plethora of Ming and Qing dynasty artefacts on display, as well as a charming exhibition of paintings, calligraphy, and porcelain on its second floor. The other, known as Wancuilou, is a privately-owned, four-storey affair with famous examples of the Four Treasures of the Study (the writing brush, ink stick, ink stone, and paper). These ancient, elaborately carved calligraphy articles will surely put your ballpoint pen and notepad to shame!

The street itself is teeming with all kinds of shops, some of which have been plying their wares for over one hundred years. A variety of curios, such writing brushes, delicately carved ink stones, and locally picked tea, can all be found within this tiny slice of ancient China. A few examples include Tongderen, a Chinese medicine store, Tonghe, a steelwork store, and Chengdexin, a sauce and pickle makers, who have all operated on the street for over one hundred years and still use the same, archaic methods of production.

Just off of the main Old Street, but still within Tunxi Old Town, you’ll find the households of the Cheng family. These gorgeous mansions were built in the traditional Huizhou-style during the Ming Dynasty and have stood tall for centuries.


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

Eight Outlying Temples

The Eight Outlying Temples are part of the Chengde Mountain Resort but rest outside of its walls. They were designed by the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) emperors to help keep the peace and appease people from the numerous resident ethnic minorities. In order to achieve this aim, the architects incorporated features from several styles, including those of the Han, Mongolian, Manchu, Man, and Tibetan ethnic groups. The name rather misleadingly suggests that there are only 8 temples, but there are in fact 12. The term “Eight Outlying Temples” comes from the fact that they were under eight different administrations. Many of them are over 200 years old and contain thousands of the most elaborate and stunning Buddhist statues in the country.

The most well-known is the Putuo Zongcheng Temple, which was built during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor (1735-1796) and was modelled after Potala Palace in Lhasa. Its Golden Pavilion, heavily inlaid with golden decorations, was where the emperor regularly worshipped. Xumi Fushou Temple was similarly inspired by Tashilhunpo Monastery in Tibet and was constructed to make the Panchen Lama[1] feel comfortable during his stay in 1780. You know you’re important when a whole temple is built just for your summer visit!

Pule Temple or Temple of Universal Joy was designed primarily by Tibetan advisors and bizarrely the rear of the temple is an almost exact copy of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests in the Temple of Heaven. Finally the Puning Temple or Temple of Universal Peace, which was built in 1755, contains the world’s largest wooden statue of the Buddhist goddess Guanyin, resplendent with her 42 outstretched arms and towering in at a height of 22 metres (73 ft.). The statue is so huge that you can even climb to the third-storey of the temple and look her straight in the eyes. Just don’t try to give her a high-five!

[1] The Panchen Lama: The highest ranking lama after the Dalai Lama according to Tibetan Buddhism.


In the sleepy countryside of Yongding County, surrounded by lush green forests and misty mountains, the village of Hongkeng may not be the liveliest place in Fujian, but its certainly one of the most unique. This village is home to over 100 tulou of various shapes, styles, and sizes; of which 13 were built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and 33 were established during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).

These tulou are gigantic, fortress-like buildings made of packed earth that were initially designed to protect inhabitants from bandits and wild animals. They resemble fortified villages and come in a variety of styles, from those of a square or rectangular shape to round and oval ones. With all of these unusually shaped buildings, Hongkeng must surely feel like a square peg in a round hole!

The first of these tulou were constructed by the Lin family during the 13th century but tragically several of the originals, including Chongyu Lou and Nanchang Lou, have since collapsed. Yet it seems the Lins were trendsetters, because it wasn’t long before other branches of the Lin clan started building their own tulou in the village. Of the many earthen structures that rise up out of the village grounds, Zhengcheng Lou, Fuyu Lou, Kuiju Lou, and Rusheng Lou have garnered the most fame.

Zhengcheng Lou was built in 1912 according to the Eight Diagrams of Bagua theory. The two wells within this tulou represent Yin and Yang, while its three gates symbolise heaven, earth and human beings respectively. The external ring of the compound is a four-storey building that has been divided into eight units or “gua”. The branch of the Lin family that established Zhengcheng Lou had also studied abroad in Europe and thus incorporated many Western features into their tulou to make it stand out. It seems T. S. Eliot’s famed proverb “good poets borrow, great poets steal” can also be applied to architects!

Fuyu Lou, on the other hand, is a completely different style of tulou known as a “Wufeng” or “Five Pheonix” tulou. Built in 1882 by three brothers, it was designed to look like a phoenix spreading its wings and its appearance was heavily influenced by Han-style architecture. The exterior supposedly looks like three mountains rising towards the sky, as the brothers wanted to imply that they were as magnificent as mountains. Modesty evidently wasn’t a family trait!

From mountains to mansions, Kuiju Lou is a large, square-shaped tulou that was built to resemble a palace, earning it the alternate name “Potala Palace”. Unlike many of the other earthen buildings, the interior is bedecked with sculptures, colourful murals, and complex architectural features. After all, a man’s house is his castle, and a family’s tulou is their palace!

Size may have mattered to the owners of these first three tulou, but Rusheng Lou is famous precisely because it is the smallest tulou in existence. It was built sometime between 1875 and 1908, and is just 17 metres in diameter, with only three-storeys and 16 rooms to house its inhabitants. The name “rusheng” means “as if to rise”; perhaps because the optimistic owner hoped it would grow over time!


The city of Chengde boasts the largest royal hunting grounds, royal garden, royal temple group, and wooden Buddhist statue in the world. Not to mention it’s also home to the shortest river in the world that does not freeze in winter. Though that last one may seem a little tenuous, this long list of achievements means you’d be hard pushed to find a reason not to go to Chengde! This prefecture-level city, just north of Beijing, is home to large constituencies of the Mongol and Manchu ethnic minorities and has been a melting pot of nomadic cultures for centuries.

Historically the city was known as Rehe, which literally means “Hot River”. It was named after the local river which, in spite of the icy cold temperatures, never freezes during winter thanks to the many hot springs that feed into it. That being said, “not frozen” hardly counts as “hot”, so perhaps “Lukewarm River” would have been a more appropriate name!

The surrounding landscape is an idyllic mixture of plateau and mountainous regions, with numerous rivers flowing through the city. Amongst these verdant meadows, the Mulan Paddock is the most famous and represents the world’s largest imperial hunting grounds. Its jade hued grasslands appear to be boundless, stretching out over 2,300 square kilometres (888 sq. mi). With Mongolian yurts dotted like small pearls across its expanse and with the vast blue sky above it, it appears like a scene from a watercolour painting.

It was supposedly on a hunting trip through these charming grasslands that the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) took notice of Rehe. He decided that this should be the location for his summer resort and began construction of the complex in 1703. Yet it would be 89 long years before this sneaky summer getaway was finally finished. I can’t imagine the Kangxi Emperor’s summers here were too relaxing, considering it must have looked like a construction site 90% of the time!

When most of us think of a summer home, we think of somewhere balmy and warm, backing onto a silvery beach. Yet, as illogical as it may seem, the Kangxi Emperor chose Chengde because its climate was cooler than that of his home! The resort’s official name literally translates to mean “Mountain Estate for Escaping the Heat”, as Chengde’s summer was far more temperate than that of Beijing and so royals would flock to the resort in an attempt to escape the oppressive heat.

Since the seat of government always followed the emperor, Chengde became one of China’s political centres and people soon flocked to the city, meaning it began to grow exponentially. Mongol vassal princes would assemble at the resort every year for a great feast, and it soon became the place for the emperor to receive foreign envoys. Yet, by 1821, the resort had largely fallen out of favour and the practice of summering there was gradually discontinued. You know you’re too rich when you can afford to abandon a summer home that’s twice the size of most theme parks!

The complex covers a staggering area of 5.6 square kilometres (2.2 sq. mi) and is separated into four areas: the palace area, the lakes area, the plains area, and the hills area. Unsurprisingly, the palace area hosts the main palace and the lakes area consists of 8 lakes, while the plains area was once used by the emperor to host horse races and hunts. The hills area is arguably the most elaborate, as it is the site of hundreds of palaces and temples within the complex. The whole resort, including the Eight Outlying Temples, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.

The Eight Outlying Temples lie outside of the resort’s walls and were built by incorporating features of Tibetan, Manchu, Man, Han, and Mongolian architecture. The most well-known is the Putuo Zongcheng Temple, which was built during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor (1735-1796) and was modelled after Potala Palace in Lhasa. The nearby Puning Temple, which was built in 1755, contains the largest wooden statue of the Buddhist goddess Guanyin, resplendent with her 42 outstretched arms and towering in at a height of 22 metres (72 ft.).

Sledgehammer Peak is another popular attraction in Chengde and is made up of a large rock formation that greatly resembles an inverted sledgehammer. It sits among a variety of other mountains along the borders of the city that are just waiting to be explored!

Chengde Mountain Resort

The Chengde Mountain Resort is just north of Chengde and is about 230 kilometres (143 mi) from Beijing. Although it is also known as Rehe Temporary Palace, it has in fact stood tall for nearly 300 years. After all, in a country where some of the bridges are over 1,000 years old, 300 years may still count as temporary! This monumental imperial palace was built during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) and was designed to mimic the layout of the country, making it a proverbial mini-China. With its rolling hills, verdant grasslands, shimmering lakes, and dense forests, it incorporates scenery from across the country. This magnificent remnant of China’s feudal pasts was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.

The History

According to local legend, the Kangxi Emperor was hunting in nearby Mulan Paddock when he first set eyes on the ancient town of Rehe (modern-day Chengde). He decided to make it the site of his summer resort and began construction in 1703. Eighty-nine years and three emperors later, the complex was finally completed!

The Emperor’s ancestors had been from the grasslands, so Rehe seemed like a natural choice for his summer resort. Not to mention, its Chinese name literally translates to mean “Mountain Estate for Escaping the Heat”, as Rehe’s summer was far more temperate than that of Beijing and so royals would flock to the resort in an attempt to escape the oppressive heat. Yet the motives for building here, though partially personal, were actually far more political.

Mulan Paddock had been established as a way for the Emperor to keep an eye on the northern borders and strengthen his control of the Mongolian region. Every year the Emperor would bring his ministers and royal army, along with his family and concubines, to hunt on these grounds and thus reassert his claim to the territory. This entourage could consist of thousands of people and thus, in an effort to accommodate them, 21 temporary palaces were built. This was the beginning of the Chengde Mountain Resort.

Since Chengde rests further north of Beijing and thus closer to the border between China and Mongolia, the summer resort predominantly functioned as a stronghold to reaffirm the Emperor’s dominance over the Mongolian people and to help him manage defence of the northern borders. Since the seat of government always followed the emperor, Chengde became one of China’s political centres and soon began to grow exponentially.

Throughout summer and autumn of every year, the Kangxi, Qianlong, and Jiaqing emperors would spend vast quantities of time at the resort handling military and government affairs, as well as receiving the leaders of ethnic minority groups and foreign envoys. In fact, they spent so much time at this summer retreat that the Jiaqing and Xianfeng emperors would both die here in 1820 and 1861 respectively. They died as they had lived; surrounded by beautiful architecture and even more beautiful women!

The Layout

Chengde Mountain Resort covers an area of 5.6 square kilometres (2.2 sq. mi), making it the largest surviving royal garden in the world. To put that into perspective, this makes it about five times the size of the original Disneyland! The resort is surrounded by a colossal wall that is 10,000 metres (32,800 ft.) long and the complex is separated into four areas: the palace area, the lakes area, the plains area, and the hills area.

The Palace Area takes up the southern part of the resort and was designed to resemble the Forbidden City in Beijing, in an effort to help the emperors feel at home. It is split into four parts: the Main Palace, where the emperor would receive officials, nobles, and foreign envoys; the Pine-Crane Hall, which was built by the emperor to house the empress dowager; the East Palace, which was tragically destroyed by a fire in 1945; and the Pine Soughing Valley, which was used by the emperor and his officials as a reading room. The main bed chambers, where the imperial family would stay, can be found in the rear and the main palace has now been converted into a museum, where articles used by the Qing Dynasty emperors are encased in wonderful displays.

The Lakes Area can be found in the south-east portion and is laid out according to traditional Chinese landscape gardening. The area consists of 8 islets and 8 lakes which have each been given a fanciful name to reflect their appearance, such as Mirror Lake, Silver Lake, and Half-Moon Lake. They are surrounded by groups of buildings in an effort to imitate the scenery south of the Yangtze River.

The Plains Area rests in the north of the resort and can be divided into two parts: the western grasslands and the eastern forests. The former was used for horse-racing while the latter was known as the Ten Thousand Tree Garden and served as a political centre where the emperor would receive visitors. The Wenjin Hall, one of the largest imperial libraries in China, sits in the western part of this forest, while other buildings can be found dotted throughout. Another outstanding feature of the plains area is a 70 metre-high (230 ft.) stone pagoda that was built in 1751 and is one of the tallest of its kind.

The Hills Area in the north-west is the largest section of the resort and consists of four huge ravines: Zhenzi, Songlin, Lishu, and Songyun. These fanciful names translate to mean Hazelnut, Pine, Pear, and Pine-cloud Valley respectively. The 40 groups of halls, pavilions, temples, and monasteries that once decorated this vast expanse have now tragically been lost and are evidenced only by their ruins.

The Hanging Temple

The Hanging Temple is one of few places in the world that matches up to its unusual name, as it truly is the stuff of legends. Also known as Xuankong Monastery, this teetering temple has been literally embedded into the side of Mount Heng and hangs precariously from the cliff-face. Yet, in spite of its perilous appearance, the temple has stood firm for over 1,500 years. Not only is its placement unique, it is also one of the only temples in the world that is dedicated to more than one religion, combining teachings of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. After all, when you’re literally hanging from the side of a cliff, you probably need the help of more than just one god!

The temple complex itself is about 65 kilometres (40 mi) from Datong City and hangs a staggering 75 metres (264 ft.) above the ground. It’s so high up that you could fit Buckingham Palace under it three times with room to spare! This architectural feat was achieved by chiselling holes into the cliff and then fitting large, load-bearing oak beams into the holes. The stilts below the temple are actually just for show and are there to make visitors feel more comfortable about its stability, as the beams wedged into the rock-face have safely held the structure up for centuries. Since it is located beneath a prominent outcropping in the rock, the temple is sheltered from sunlight and erosion, which is why it has remained in such spectacular condition. I doubt I’d look as good at 1,500!

No one knows precisely who built the temple or who organised its construction, but many historians believe it was likely to have been masterminded by the King of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534 AD). However, according to one local legend, the original temple was built by a single monk named Liao Ran. Either he must have been very tall or very brave! The temple has undergone several rebuilds and restorations throughout the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties to achieve its current glory. The temple complex itself is made up of 40 halls containing around 80 sculptures of copper, iron, terracotta, and stone. A stone staircase chiselled deep into the rock allows access to the temple, while the 6 main halls are connected by staircases, walkways, and boardwalks that provide a dizzying view of the drop below. Just don’t look down!

After entering the temple gate, you will arrive at the main building, which is made up of three floors. The upper floor hosts the Three Buddha Hall, the Taiyi Hall, the Guandi Hall, and four side rooms with intricate statues of Bodhisattvas. Behind the main building, there are two “flying buildings”, which are so-called because the top floors are connected to the main building by a narrow wooden walkway and the bottom floors are linked by a narrow path that has been dug into the cliff-face. From the bottom to the top, the southern building contains the Chunyang Hall, the Sanguan Hall, and the Leiyin Hall. The northern building consists of the Four Buddha Hall, the Sansheng Hall, and the Sanjiao Hall respectively.

The Sanjiao Hall is of particular interest, as inside this hall you’ll find statues of Confucius, Lao Tzu, and Sakyamuni Buddha all sat side-by-side, representing the respective religions of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. With their watchful eyes and serene faces, they remind us all that, no matter our differences, we should all try to get along.

Yet the wealth of information about this temple tends to leave researchers with more questions than answers, such as; why build it like this? And why dedicate it to not one religion, but three? Its strange appearance seems to be less for sacred reasons and more for practicality. The temple is so high up that it’s shielded from floods, while the rock-face above it protects it from heavy rainfall, snow, and long-term damage from sunlight. According to the principles of Taoism, all temples should be built far away from earthly noises, such as roosters crowing or dogs baying. This may also explain why it was built so far up, as I doubt any roosters are going to try flying that high!

The prevalence of religion in ancient China meant that travellers were reluctant to stay in temples that worshipped religions different from their own. Some theories about why the Hanging Temple enshrined three of China’s major religions was to encourage travellers of all kinds to stay there, as its remote location meant that any weary traveller who passed up the opportunity might not make it to the next safe haven. After all, we may have different religious beliefs, but we all get hungry and tired after a long trip!

[1] It is important to note that Confucianism is not widely regarded as a religion, but is instead considered a school of thought

The Hanging Temple is one of the many wonderful stops on our Explore the Ancient Tradition of Tai Chi tour


Encompassed by towering mountains, dense forests, and bubbling brooks, the village of Gaobei in Yongding County may seem like the most unlikely place to meet royalty. Yet here, hidden like a gem within the countryside, lies Chengqi Lou; the “King of Tulou”. Around the streams that wind through Gaobei, a cluster of these fortress-like earthen dwellings rises up and adds new magnificence to the landscape. They resemble fortified villages and were initially designed to protect the inhabitants from bandits and wild animals, although nowadays the only thing threatening them is the occasional door-to-door salesman!

The grandest and largest in Gaobei is Chengqi Lou, which is four-storeys high and over 62 metres in diameter. Construction of this tulou began in the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) but it wasn’t completed until 1709, during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). It took three generations of the local Jiang family to build this spectacular tulou. In three generations, my family have barely managed to pay off a house, let alone build a fortress! Chengqi Lou is a circular tulou and is renowned for its four concentric rings; one that surrounds the complex and three within it.

The first or outer ring is four-storeys high, with the ground floor made up of kitchens, the second floor acting as grain storage rooms, and the third and fourth floors being used as living quarters and bedrooms. In its heyday, this complex could support over 800 people, and nowadays it still houses an impressive 57 families and 300 people. The second ring is two-storeys high and is comprised of 80 rooms for general use. The third is only one-storey high and its 32 rooms make up a community library. After all, when you’re being besieged by bandits and the tulou is locked down, how else would you entertain yourself? Nothing like a good book to get you through a potentially hostile takeover!

The final ring is just a covered corridor that surrounds the ancestral hall, where inhabitants still worship their venerated ancestors. In total, Chengqi Lou contains a staggering 370 rooms. This means that, if you spent one night in each room, it would take you over a year to get through the whole complex!

Other famous tulou in the area include Wuyun Lou, which was built during the Ming Dynasty and is currently uninhabited, and Qiaofu Lou, which was constructed during the 1960s and acts as a hotel for tourists. So if you fancy a real tulou experience, don’t forget to book a room at Qiaofu Lou. Or perhaps just squat for free in the empty Wuyun Lou!

Bai Architecture

The Bai people who inhabit villages surrounding Dali Ancient Town have become well-known for three characteristic styles of architecture, which are as beautiful as they are complex. These are known as “one house with two cottages”, “three rooms and one wall screening”, and “four houses and five courtyards”. The “one house with two cottages” design is the least popular and simply consists of a two-storey main room flanked by two smaller rooms.

The “three rooms and one wall screening” style is the most popular and is probably the most complicated. The house is made up of one main room and two long side rooms, which are arranged in a U shape. The front entrance is covered by a fourth wall, known as the “wall screening” or “shining wall”. This wall is designed to reflect light back into the main room at sunset and provide a little extra privacy.

bai architecture It is normally inscribed with a meaningful Chinese proverb, such as “fortune, longevity, and good health” (福寿安康), although in some instances there are only single characters, such as “happiness” (喜), and sometimes whole poems may be used! You can always tell if a mansion belonged to a specific clan because their slogan will cover the shining wall. For example, the Yang family wall reads “Generations of Righteousness”, while the Zhang family wall is inscribed with the words “A Tradition of Tolerance”. It’s the perfect way for your family to be remembered as courageous, wise, and open-minded, even if they were never necessarily any of those things!

Finally, the “four houses and five courtyards” style is made up of four long rooms that have been arranged in a square shape. In each of the square’s four corners there will be a courtyard and the space in the middle of the square makes up the fifth, largest courtyard. The walls of all these homes are made using slaked lime and are painted white, giving them their characteristically bright appearance.

The exteriors are beautifully decorated with hexagonal honeycomb patterns made up of white, black, and dark blue glazed tiles, proving that beehives are a source not only of honey but of architectural inspiration! The interiors are similarly bedecked with colourful paintings, marble ornaments, and elaborate stone inscriptions, making Bai homes some of the most stylish in China.

In a Bai home, even the doors are a work of art! The wooden gates are skilfully carved and the lattices of the main doors are engraved with lively patterns of legendary figures, birds, animals, and flowers. The upturned eaves, stunning woodcarvings, crisp white exterior, and interior decoration combine to give these homes a simple elegance.

The homes in the village of Xizhou are considered some of the most well-preserved and have remained largely changed since they were built during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). Many of the local mansions were founded by famous Bai clans and the Yan Family Compound has now been converted into a delightful museum.

Perhaps the most spectacular architectural achievement of the Bai people is the Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple. It was built sometime between 823 and 840 AD and has survived numerous natural and man-made disasters over a period of more than 1,000 years. Towering over Dali at over 70 metres (227 ft.) in height, the central pagoda is one of the tallest of its kind in China!

Jingjiang Princes City

Jingjiang Princes City01

If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to be a Chinese royal, or ever wanted to see just how difficult the imperial examinations used to be, Jingjiang Princes City is the ideal place to find out. It is commonly referred to as Jingjiang Princes Palace or Wang Cheng which, though similar in pronunciation, we assure you bears no connection to the 1980s band “Wang Chung”. This small “city within a city” was built during the Ming Dynasty, from 1372 to 1392. However, it tragically suffered heavy damage during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) and the second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). Nowadays, many of the ancient buildings have been rebuilt and, though it may not all be authentic, it’s still as beautiful as it was hundreds of years ago.

It is located within Guilin City and greatly resembles its larger cousin; Beijing’s Forbidden City. Jingjiang City’s history stretches back over 630 years, which actually makes it older than the Forbidden City. It was originally built for the royal Zhu Shouqian, who was the great-nephew of the first Ming Dynasty Emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang. Zhu Shouqian was declared Prince of Jingjiang by his granduncle and it was decided his palace would be set in Guilin. The placement of the palace was specific, as Zhu Shouqian was expected to keep tabs on the southern regions of the Chinese empire and thus aid his granduncle’s rule. Over the course of 257 years, 14 princes from 12 different generations would rule from this palace. Considering only 6 monarchs have lived in Buckingham Palace, managing to last long enough to house 14 of them is no mean feat!

Nowadays the palace acts as part of the Guangxi Normal University campus and as a tourist attraction. The current city is made up of 4 halls, 4 pavilions, and 40 smaller buildings, with a 1,500-metre-long city wall made up of beautiful blue flagstones. Like the Forbidden City, the layout of the buildings is symmetrical and focuses on a central axis, so sometimes it may feel as though you’re walking through a geometric puzzle! The Solitary Beauty Peak is at the northernmost point of the axis. From north to south you’ll find the Imperial Burial Place, Chengyun Palace and Chengyun Gate, and from east to west there’s the Imperial Divine Temple and the Ancestral Temple. All of the other buildings are around these main buildings in a symmetrical pattern. In-keeping with this symmetry, there are four gates on the four points of the compass, known as “Tiren” (Donghua Gate), “Duanli” (Zhengyang Gate), “Zunyi” (Xihua Gate) and “Guangzhi” (Hougong Gate).

Chengyun Palace

This palace was built in 1372 and functioned as the administration office of the city. However, the palace was burned down twice; once during the Qing Dynasty and once during the Japanese invasion. It was rebuilt in 1947 but the carved balustrades and marble steps are all that remain of the original palace.

Solitary Beauty Peak

Most poets write about beautiful women, but the Song Dynasty (420-589) poet Yan Yanzhi evidently had a thing for mountains. In one of his poems he described this peak in the line “the beauty of this solitary peak surpasses all those around it”, and this is how the peak earned its name. It looks like a column jutting out of the earth and makes for quite the sight in a princes palace. Its summit is about 216 metres (about 709 ft.) above sea level and rewards any visitor with a panoramic view of Guilin.

At the foot of the peak, you’ll find the crescent shaped Yueya Pond. The Sun Yat-sen[1] Memorial Tower, built in 1921, rests on the bank of this pond. Moving up the peak, you’ll find Xuanwu Pavilion, Kwanyin Hall, Sanke Temple, and Sanshen (Three Deities) Ancestral Temple. Climbing the peak will hardly feel like a chore when you have so many places to stop and rest.

Study Cave

This cave sits at the east foot of the peak and has become famous for the engravings on its interior, which include an inscription of Yan Yanzhi’s poem and an 800-year-old carving of the famous Chinese saying “the scenery in Guilin is the greatest under heaven”. It is rumoured that, over 1,500 years ago, Yan Tingzhi, the governor of Guilin, often studied here. If you thought your schoolrooms were bad, imagine working inside a cave!

The Examination Rooms

These rooms were established during the Qing dynasty and are supposedly blessed with very good Feng Shui[2], which the residents of Guilin believe was responsible for the success of their local scholars. Guilin’s scholars were so successful at the imperial examinations that it spawned the popular saying “eight Jinshi[3] from one county and two Zhuangyuan[4] from one city”. Many of the attractions in the city, such as the “Sanyuan Jidi” Hall and the “Zhuangyuan Jidi” arch, are dedicated to these scholars. This site has recently been restored and tourists can now take a simulation of the imperial examination. Visitors must enter the hall, use ink brushes to answer the test papers, and then wait to receive their results. If they succeed, they are dressed in the traditional garb of a scholar and rewarded with a certificate.

The Confucian Temple

The Confucian Temple served as an adjunct to the Examination Rooms. In ancient times, before the scholars took the imperial examination, they would first offer sacrifices to Confucius. It was believed that the success of local scholars was in part due to this temple.

The Fortune Well

Many students arriving to take the imperial examination believed that this well would bring them good fortune and would often drink the blessed water beforehand. Perhaps you should have a drink too; you might end up with a Nobel Prize!

The Couple Tree

A locust tree and a banyan tree that have grown together like an embracing couple. They are said to have branches in the shape of a tiger and a horse.

Secret Underground Corridor

In 1977, a secret corridor was discovered within the compound that leads to the Li River. The last prince of the Ming Dynasty used this corridor to carry his treasures and flee the city when the Ming Dynasty collapsed. You never know, you might find some hidden treasure down there!

[1] Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925): A Chinese revolutionary who played an instrumental role in overthrowing the Qing Dynasty, abolishing imperial rule and founding the People’s Republic of China.

[2] Feng Shui: This theory is based on the premise that the specific placement of certain places or objects will bring good luck.

[3] Jinshi: These were advanced scholars who passed the three-yearly court exam, the highest level of imperial examination.

[4] Zhuangyuan: These were the highest ranking of all the scholars, as they were the ones who ranked first nationwide in the three-yearly court exam, the highest level of imperial examination. In the space of just 4 years, Guilin produced two zhuangyuan, which was considered nothing short of a miracle.

The Golden Temple

Atop the delightfully named Mingfeng or “Singing Phoenix” Hill in Kunming’s Jindian Park sits the majestic Golden Temple. It is the most famous Taoist temple in China not only because of its tranquil setting and impressive size, but predominantly because it is the largest bronze temple in China. From the doors to the roof tiles, everything in the temple has been made entirely out of bronze! Its official name is Taihe Palace or the Hall of Supreme Harmony, but its glittering appearance has earned it the names Tongwa or “Bronze Tile” Temple and the Golden Temple. Made from a whopping 250 tonnes of bronze, the Golden Temple is an architectural wonder unmatched throughout China.

The history of the Golden Temple stretches all the way back to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), during the reign of the Wanli Emperor (1572-1620), when it was initially built almost by accident. The imperial government had ordered Yunnan province to send large quantities of bronze ore from its mines in Dongchuan to Central China so that it could be used to make coins. However, on the long and arduous path to the mint, the roads were made impassable due to the on-going wars at the time, so the cargo was trapped in Kunming.

The governor of Yunnan, Chen Yongbing, was a devout Taoist and ordered that the bronze ore be used to build a replica of the Golden Temple in the Wudang Mountains of Hubei province. The replica was promptly built but bizarrely, in 1637, Yongbing’s temple was moved for political reasons to the Jizu Mountains of western Yunnan, leaving behind only the marble base. If you think your workout at the gym is hard, imagine moving a 250-tonne solid bronze temple up a mountain!

It wasn’t until 1671, during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), that Wu Sangui, the then governor of Yunnan, decided to build yet another replica of Yongbing’s Golden Temple on the old marble base that was left behind in Kunming. We have to believe that if a temple is so great it’s worth building three times, then it’s definitely worth a visit! Whilst the original temple in the Jizu Mountains sustained irreparable damage in the 1960s, the Golden Temple in Kunming stands tall to this day. It was damaged slightly during the Muslim rebellion in 1857, but since its restoration in 1890 it has remained largely unchanged. Its walls, columns, rafters, roof tiles, altars, statues, decorations and banners are all made from bronze, and have dazzled visitors with their beauty to this day.

Nowadays, if you want to visit the Golden Temple you must first scale the many marble steps of Mingfeng Hill and pass through a series of Heavenly Gates. The three Heavenly Gates that lead directly into the temple are considered the most beautiful, as they have been intricately decorated and painted. After your long and, hopefully, rather spiritual trial up the hill, you’ll come upon a miniature, medieval city wall raised on a platform. Near to this wall, the Lingxing Gate marks the entrance to the temple.

In the temple itself, you’ll find a number of fascinating artefacts relating to the history of the temple, including a double-edged sword with the Big Dipper engraved on it. This sword, which weighs more than 22 kilograms (44 pounds), is supposedly the legendary magical sword of the Taoist deity Zhen Wu, who is said to guard Mingfeng Hill. Alongside this colossal sword, Wu Sangui’s 12-kilogram (25 pound) broadsword seems markedly less impressive. Next to the temple, there’s a stunningly beautiful camellia tree that has signalled the approach of Spring every year for over 600 years. Every time this ancient tree blossoms, its burst of colour is no less magnificent.

Just behind the temple, you’ll find a three-storey high Bell Tower that was built in 1984. Although the tower itself is rather new, it is home to the “Great Bell of the Ming Yongle Era”, which is over 580 years old. This bell is nearly 4 metres (17 ft.) high and weighs a monumental 14 tonnes. It once hung in the Xuanhua Mansion and was used to announce the time, but was moved to the temple when the city of Kunming began expanding. We’re not 100% sure, but we’re pretty certain that every bell ringer unfortunate enough to work in the Xuanhua Mansion must have gone deaf rather fast.

In recent years, the temple has been expanded to include the Parrot Garden, Camellia Garden, and Orchid Garden. Its verdant hillsides and blooming orchards play host to a multitude of pine trees, evergreens, hardy cypresses, and other plants, all helping to earn it the nickname the “Fairyland of Mingfeng”. No matter what you find here, be it historical knowledge, spiritual enlightenment, inner peace, or just a very big bell, we’re sure you’ll enjoy your trip to the Golden Temple.