As the capital of Jiangxi, Nanchang represents the cultural and economic heart of the province. Yet the city itself has something of a chequered past. Most of the time, it remained an urban centre of little significance but, at times, it found itself the stage for some of the most pivotal events in Chinese history. It was founded as early as 201 BC and was given the name Nanchang or “Southern Flourishing”, which was derived from a statement by Emperor Gaozu of the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) about the importance of expanding his influence in southern China. However, it wasn’t until the Tang Dynasty (618-907) that the city saw its first major developments.

In 653, the magnificent Tengwang or “Prince Teng” Pavilion was constructed and, although it would find itself destroyed and rebuilt several times, it soon came to be known as one of the Three Great Towers in southern China. This was in part due to a poem written by the illustrious Wang Bo in 675, known as “Preface to the Pavilion of Prince Teng”. This literary masterpiece extols the beauty of the pavilion and helped skyrocket the city into national fame. Wang’s work is living proof that the pen is truly mightier than the sword!

In 959, Nanchang experienced another spot of good fortune when it was made the southern capital of the Kingdom of Southern Tang (937–976). However, as the old saying goes, all good things come to an end! Towards the close of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), the city became a battleground between Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and a local warlord named Chen Youliang. Similarly, at the start of the 16th century, it was used as a power base from which Zhu Chenhao, the Prince of Ning, launched a rebellion against the Ming government.

The tragedy deepened when the city was further damaged during the brutal Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) and, in the late 19th century, its commercial importance began to decline as overland routes were gradually replaced by coastal steamship services. Yet this was all set to change on August 1st 1927. The city became the site of a series of revolts, led by pro-communist Kuomintang[1] officers and organised by the Chinese Communist Party, known as the Nanchang Uprising.

Although they only managed to hold the city for a few days, the soldiers involved provided a core of troops and a method of organisation which eventually inspired the founding of the People’s Liberation Army. For this reason, the Communist Party often regard Nanchang as “the place where the People’s Liberation Army was born”, and the city itself holds a coveted place in the history of Communist China. It is now a popular destination for Red Tourism, but the city has so much more to offer than that!

Situated along the right bank of the Gan River and just 40 kilometres (25 mi) south of Lake Poyang, the largest freshwater lake in China, it is an ideal base for those wishing to embrace the natural beauty of Jiangxi province or experience the migration of some half a million birds that flock to Lake Poyang every year. During winter, the lake is a focal bird-watching spot, as it becomes home to a substantial number of rare Siberian cranes.

If you’re more interested in the city’s ancient history, then the Tengwang Pavilion and the Bada Shanren Memorial Hall are must-see attractions. Although the most recent manifestation of the pavilion was built during 1989 after it was virtually destroyed in 1926, it follows the Song Dynasty (960-1279) style and was based off of Song paintings of the pavilion at the time. These same paintings also served as the inspiration for the corner-towers in the Forbidden City, which were designed to imitate the Tengwang Pavilion. Talk about one serious claim to fame!

From one famous work of art to another, the Bada Shanren Memorial Hall is dedicated to the celebrated painter Zhu Da, who adopted the pseudonym Bada Shanren during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) in order to hide the fact that he was a descendant of the Ming Dynasty prince Zhu Quan. The memorial hall itself is based on the design of the Qingyunpu Taoist Temple, which is where Zhu Da took refuge during the early years of the Qing Dynasty.

For over 300 years, his ink wash paintings have been regarded as some of the finest masterpieces of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Walking through the tranquil gardens of the complex and marvelling at his delicate brushwork, you’ll be sure to lose yourself in the beauty of Nanchang. That being said, if you’re after a little more excitement, you can always take a turn on the 160-metre (525 ft.) tall Ferris wheel known as the Star of Nanchang!

[1] Kuomintang: Also known as the Chinese Nationalist Party. They were the ruling party from 1928 until their defeat at the hands of the Communists in 1949. They retreated to Taiwan, where they still play an active political role.

Lake Poyang

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Fed by the rippling Gan River that cuts through Jiangxi province, Lake Poyang is the largest freshwater lake in China. Or at least most of the time it is! In fact, the “lake” is actually a system of lakes and swamps that are subject to change throughout the seasons, fluctuating in size dramatically depending on the weather conditions. In winter, the entire area transforms into a dense marsh, crisscrossed with waterways and speckled with verdant hills. In summer, when the region floods due to heavy rain, these hills become islands and the lake swells to its full grandeur.

Tragically, its size has drastically decreased in recent years due to drought and the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. To put it into perspective, the provincial capital of Nanchang once rested on the shores of the lake, but is now 24 kilometres (15 mi) away from it! In spite of this unfortunate change, the lake remains an important habitat for migratory birds and over half a million birds take refuge on its shores every year.

During winter, it becomes home to over 90% of the planet’s Siberian crane population. The Siberian crane is one of the most critically endangered species in the world, with their population dwindling to approximately 3,000 individuals. Since they mate for life and typically live for upwards of 30 years, they have become symbols of longevity and prosperity in Chinese culture. With their pure white feathers and elegant long legs, it’s unsurprising that these delicate creatures draw crowds of bird-watchers to Lake Poyang every year.

Lake Poyang01Researchers have surmised that the lake was formed sometime around the year 400, when the Yangtze River switched to a more southerly course, causing the Gan River to back up and form Lake Poyang. Tragically this triggered mass flooding in Poyang County and Haihun County, forcing innumerable people to abandon their homes and relocate to Wucheng Township (modern-day Yongxiu County). However, as the old saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining! Thanks to this sudden influx of people, Wucheng grew to become one of the wealthiest and most prominent townships in Jiangxi province, which spawned the local phrase: “Drowning Haihun County gives rise to Wucheng Township”.

Yet this isn’t the lake’s only historical claim to fame. It was also the site of the epic Battle of Lake Poyang, which represented one of the greatest naval battles in Chinese history. On the fall of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), numerous rebel groups sought to seize control of the throne, the most powerful of which were the Ming, the Han, and the Wu. In 1363, the Han leader Chen Youliang besieged the city of Nanchang with his formidable navy of tower ships.

In response, the Ming leader Zhu Yuanzhang sent his naval forces, which were smaller but also more nimble. After six harrowing days of fighting on the lake, the Ming achieved a glorious victory, which all but cemented their position as the leading rebel group. Five years later, Zhu finally took power and established the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) under the title the Hongwu Emperor.

Alongside these historical events, legends abound regarding the lake and its many scenic spots. One such legend recounts why Dagu Hill, a small island nestled in the lake’s clear blue waters, resembles a giant shoe. Many years ago, it’s said that a young fisherman named Hu Qing lived on the hill. One day, he was fishing on the lake when he came across a box containing a beautiful pearl. On his way home that day, he saw a young girl dressed in green, who was softly weeping. He asked her what was wrong, and she told him that she had lost her precious pearl. Without a second thought, he returned the pearl to her and went on his way.

Lake Poyang 02The next day, Hu was once again fishing on the lake when a huge storm eclipsed the shore. He knew he was in grave danger. As he fought the storm, he suddenly saw a maiden dressed in green holding a glowing pearl. Using the light of the pearl, he was able to navigate his way safely back to shore. The girl explained that she was actually a fairy named Da Gu, but she had been exiled to earth because she had violated the holy rules of heaven. As with all good fairy-tales, Hu and Da Gu fell madly in love and got married. However, it seems happily ever after wasn’t in the cards for them!

The Jade Emperor learned that Da Gu had married a mortal man and sent his army to capture her. Meanwhile, a vicious overlord named Sheng Tai had become captivated by Da Gu’s beauty and wanted to make her his own. As the Jade Emperor’s army captured Da Gu and began carrying her back to heaven, she looked down and saw her husband being tortured by Sheng and his cronies. In a desperate attempt to save him, she slipped off one of her shoes. As it fell to earth, it transformed into a huge piece of rock, crushing Sheng’s men and saving Hu. This rock supposedly forms the shoe-like cliff that makes Dagu Hill so unique!

Nowadays, the hill is a popular tourist spot, offering panoramic views of the glistening lake and boasting the magnificent Heaven Flower Palace. That being said, the mystical forces at play on Lake Poyang aren’t always quite so benevolent! Known as China’s “Bermuda Triangle”, the waters surrounding Laoye Temple on the lake’s northern shore are notorious as a place of supernatural activity. On April 16th 1945, a Japanese troop ship and its 20 sailors vanished without a trace while sailing on the lake. Over a period of 30 years, more than 200 boats have mysteriously sunk in these waters, never to be seen again. So, if you’re taking a trip to the temple, be sure to stay on the shore!


The White Deer Grotto Academy

The White Deer Grotto Academy01

Resting at the base of Wulao or “Five Old Men” Peak on Mount Lu, the White Deer Grotto Academy acts as a testament to the importance of education throughout Chinese history. It is regarded as one of China’s Four Great Academies and, in many ways, it helped to shape the education system we see in the country today. Yet this illustrious seat of learning had humble beginnings. It was once simply a cave, where the Tang Dynasty (618-907) poet Li Bo and his brother secluded themselves as hermits and dedicated themselves to the pursuit of knowledge.

When Li Bo rose to prominence as the Governor of Jiangzhou (modern-day Jiujiang), he expanded the cave into a complex of study halls, libraries, and temples. Since Li Bo was famous for keeping a white deer as a pet, he was known as Master White Deer and the complex was named the White Deer Grotto. After Li’s death, it was tragically damaged during the collapse of the Tang Dynasty.

At the beginning of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the complex was restored and transformed into a school known as the White Deer Grotto Academy. It was particularly favoured by Emperor Taizong, who donated innumerable books to its libraries and awarded an official rank to the academy’s headmaster. However, it seemed that history was tragically doomed to repeat itself, as warfare eventually led to the academy falling into disrepair yet again.

It wasn’t until 1179 that it was rebuilt and expanded by a revolutionary philosopher named Zhu Xi. Zhu is widely regarded as the founder of Neo-Confucianism, one of the most influential schools of thought in East Asia, and thus he played a pivotal role in Chinese history. At the time, he was serving as prefect of Nankang Prefecture (modern-day Nankang), and decided to redesign the academy based on the layout of the Temple of Confucius in Qufu, Shandong province. By 1180, the new academy opened its doors to its eager students, and Zhu personally taught several classes there.

The White Deer Grotto Academy02Its main function was to educate its students, collect and preserve books, act as a site for religious sacrifices, offer lectures from notable scholars, and expand on established philosophies. Throughout its venerable history, celebrated scholars such as Lu Jiuyuan, Lü Zuqian, and Wang Yangming would give lectures in its halls. Thanks to Zhu Xi’s admirable efforts, the prestige of the academy lasted for over eight centuries and it became the model for Neo-Confucian institutions throughout East Asia.

Nowadays the academy acts as one of the many spectacular scenic spots that can be found scattered throughout Mount Lu. Its main buildings include Lingxing Gate, Lisheng Gate, Lisheng Hall, Zhuzi Temple, the White Deer Grotto, and the Imperial Writing Pavilion. Zhuzi Temple was constructed in honour of Zhu Xi and contains over 120 stone tablets, some of which were engraved with inscriptions by the philosopher himself. At the back of the temple, there is a large cave with a stone statue of a white deer lying inside it, acting as a reminder of the complex’s original founder. After all, Zhu Xi’s story may be inspiring, but Li Bo’s relationship with his beloved pet is positively en-deering!


Mount Lu

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Rising up mistily in the countryside of Jiangxi province, Mount Lu was once one of the major cultural and spiritual centres of ancient China. In fact, its undeniable historical significance meant that it was honoured as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996. Located approximately 20 kilometres (12 mi) south of Jiujiang City in the northern part of Jiangxi province, it forms the eastern extremity of the Mufu Mountains and culminates in the 1,474 metre (4,836 ft.) tall Dahanyang Peak. To the north, it offers spectacular views of the Yangtze River, while to the south it overlooks the shimmering Lake Poyang.

mount lu 03In ancient times, this mountain range was known as Mount Kuanglu and was regarded as a holy place. As early as the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), a prominent Taoist priest named Zhang Daoling travelled to the mountain in order to worship there. During the Jin Dynasty (265-420), the Donglin or “Eastern Wood” Temple was established on the mountain’s northern slope by a celebrated monk named Huiyuan, who founded the Pure Land Sect of Buddhism. From then on, numerous temples dedicated to Buddhism and Taoism began cropping up across the mountain, until there were over 300 of them. Talk about prime spiritual real estate!

Arguably the mountain’s greatest claim to fame is the White Deer Grotto Academy at the base of Five Old Men Peak, named for its supposed resemblance to five old men sat side-by-side. The academy was originally established during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) by the poet Li Bo and was so-called because he kept a white deer as a pet. However, it didn’t become truly famous until the Song Dynasty (960-1279), when it was revived by a celebrated philosopher named Zhu Xi.

Zhu was the founder of Neo-Confucianism, which is widely regarded as one of the most influential schools of thought in Chinese history. Thanks to his efforts, the academy rose to prominence as one of the Four Great Academies of China and, by the 19th century, it had expanded into a colossal complex, complete with its own temples, study halls, and libraries. Over time, countless writers, artists, and calligraphers have sung the mountain’s praises, immortalising it in over 900 cliff inscriptions and more than 300 steles[1] that can be found throughout the range.

Before the Second World War, Mount Lu became the official Summer Capital of the Republic of China (1912-1949) and was a popular retreat for expats throughout the country. Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Kuomintang[2], would often spend his summers there and it became the setting for a number of major political events, including in 1937 when Chiang announced his intention to fully mobilise for war against the Japanese and in 1946 when he met with the US General George C. Marshall. The mountain continued to play a major political role in Communist China, when Mao Zedong led three large meetings in 1959, 1961, and 1970 known as the Lushan (Mount Lu) Conferences.

Mount Lu waterfallNowadays, with its beautiful scenery and elegant temples, the mountain range is a popular tourist attraction. Geographically speaking, it’s known as a horst-style block mountain, meaning it’s a narrow section of land that lies between two fault lines and has been pushed up as a result of tectonic pressure from either side. Scattered throughout its expanse, you’ll find rippling streams, deep ravines, rocky outcroppings, mysterious caves, and rushing waterfalls.

Of the mountain’s 12 main scenic areas and 37 attractions, the Three Step Waterfall is undoubtedly one of the most magnificent. On its way down, the waterfall spills over three natural, glaciation-formed terraces and drops approximately 155 metres (509 ft.). It’s considered so integral to the mountain range that an old local saying states a visit to Mount Lu would be wasted if you missed seeing the Three Step Waterfall. After all, three is the magic number!

Hanpo Pavilion, which is located at the top of Hanpo Pass, is the ideal place to enjoy a panoramic view of the entire area surrounding the mountain. Marvel at aerial views of Lake Poyang glistening in the sunlight or absorb the breath-taking vistas of the peaks as the sun slowly rises behind them. If you fancy staying on the mountain to ensure you capture the beauty of the sunrise, there’s a village located at the heart of the mountain range known as Guling. The village’s name, which translates to mean “bull”, is derived from the fact that its layout supposedly resembles the shape of a bull. After a long hike up the mountain, nothing is sure to relax you more than a cup of locally grown Yunwu tea in one of the village teahouses!

[1] Stele: An upright stone slab or pillar that bears an inscription and usually marks a burial site, like a tombstone.

[2] Kuomintang: Also known as the Chinese Nationalist Party. They were the ruling party from 1928 until their defeat at the hands of the Communists in 1949. They retreated to Taiwan, where they still play an active political role.

Jiangxi Province

Jiangxi province has long been renowned for the blue-and-white porcelain that has been produced in the region for over 1,800 years. You could almost say that this province puts the china in China! Yet it has much more to offer than just fine teacups and saucers. Bounded by the Huaiyu Mountains in the northeast, the Wuyi Mountains in the east, the Jiulian and Dayu ranges to the south, and innumerable mountain ranges to the west and north, Jiangxi has long been celebrated as a haven of great natural beauty. Lake Poyang, the largest freshwater lake in China, shimmers at its southern tip, while the Gan River winds its way gracefully through the province from south to north.

Surrounded by mountain ranges as it is, you’d expect Jiangxi to be reasonably isolated from its neighbouring provinces. However, as if by design, these mountains rise in disconnected masses and contain numerous corridors, which allow access to the nearby provinces of Hunan, Hubei, Anhui, Zhejiang, Fujian, and Guangdong. Historically, this meant that Jiangxi played a crucial role as the connecting province between the maritime trading hub of Guangdong in the south and the Grand Canal[1] in the north. Armies, traders, monks, and migrants; all invariably passed through Jiangxi on their way north or south.

Throughout history, its importance as a cultural and commercial hub meant that Jiangxi gave birth to numerous celebrated talents, including the great Jin Dynasty (265-420) poet Tao Qian and the Song Dynasty (960-1279) philosopher Zhu Xi. It was Zhu Xi who pioneered the development of Neo-Confucianism, arguably one of the most influential schools of thought in Chinese history. The White Deer Grotto Academy where he once taught is still a popular tourist attraction in the province. With such a strong tradition of Confucian principles, it may come as quite a surprise that Jiangxi was also notorious for its peasant rebellions!

The provincial capital of Nanchang was even the site of the Nanchang Uprising in 1927, the first major clash between the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang[2]. The Communists used the Ruijin area in southeastern Jiangxi as their first major revolutionary base, from which they began their famous Long March in October of 1934. Thus the province has long been a hot spot for Red Tourism, with numerous attractions catering to those fascinated by China’s modern history.

In terms of climate, Jiangxi’s southerly location means that it’s largely subtropical, with long humid summers and short damp winters. Winter temperatures average at a mild 3 to 9 °C (37 to 48 °F), while the sweltering summer heat can reach elevations of 27 to 30 °C (81 to 86 °F). This climate, coupled with the mountainous terrain and marshy areas, makes Jiangxi the ideal home for numerous animal species, including the endangered Chinese giant salamander, the South China tiger[3], and the Siberian crane. Nearly 3,000 white cranes migrate to Lake Poyang every winter, creating a scene that looks as if it was taken straight from a watercolour painting!

Other areas of exceptional natural beauty include Lushan National Park and Mount Sanqingshan National Park, which were both designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1996 and 2008 respectively. From the Tengwang Pavilion in Nanchang to the Donglin Temple near Jiujiang, you’ll be spoilt for choice among the more than 2,400 scenic sites dotted throughout the province. Yet the highlight of Jiangxi has always been its unparalleled handicrafts.

During the Song Dynasty, Emperor Zhenzong decreed that the town of Fouliang should be made the country’s centre for porcelain production, and renamed it Jingdezhen. For over a thousand years, this quaint town has supplied the Chinese people with porcelain wares of impeccable quality, ranging from everyday items to artistic works of spectacular beauty. It is such an ingrained part of their culture that most modern-day residents of Jingdezhen are still involved in the porcelain industry. The nearby city of Jiujiang is famous for its yunwu or “cloud-and-fog” tea, which is grown on Mount Lu. So, if you’re traveling in Jiangxi, be sure to treat yourself to a cup of yunwu tea in a Jingdezhen teacup!

[1] The Grand Canal: It is the longest canal in the world and starts in Beijing, passing through the provinces of Hebei, Shandong, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang before eventually terminating in the city of Hangzhou. It links the Yellow River to the Yangtze River and the oldest parts of it date back to the 5th century BC, although most of its construction took place during the Sui Dynasty (581-618).

[2] Kuomintang: Also known as the Chinese Nationalist Party. They were the ruling party from 1928 until their defeat at the hands of the Communists in 1949. They retreated to Taiwan, where they still play an active political role.

[3] South China tigers have not been sighted in the wild for more than 25 years, so they are classified as functionally extinct.