The Mukden Palace

If you thought the Forbidden City was the only imperial palace in China, think again! While the Mukden Palace in Liaoning’s provincial capital of Shenyang is only one twelfth of the size of its Beijing cousin, it’s certainly no less grand. It was constructed in 1625 by a Manchu leader named Nurhaci not long after he conquered the city. His son, Hong Taiji, expanded the palace and went on to found the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). From 1625 to 1644, it served as the living quarters for the Qing emperors, until the Manchu conquered the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and moved their capital to Beijing. However, the Qing Emperors would routinely return to Mukden Palace and spend some leisure time there each year. As the old saying goes, there’s no place like home! 

When imperial rule collapsed, the palace was converted into the Shenyang Imperial Palace Museum and, by 2004, it had been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was originally built to resemble the Forbidden City in design, but is unique in that it also exhibits features of Manchurian and Tibetan style architecture. The complex itself covers over 60,000 square metres (71,760 sq. yd.), incorporating more than 300 luxuriously decorated rooms and 20 vibrant gardens. The front part was built on the ground, while the rear is suspended on 4-metre (13 ft.) high supports, simulating the Manchu custom of living on mountain slopes. 

It is divided into three sections on a north-south axis: the eastern section being the oldest and boasting the most distinctly Manchurian buildings; the western section containing the theatre and the palace library; and the middle section consisting of the main residences for the Emperor, Empress, and the imperial concubines. High walls not only surround the palace but also divide the site so that each section, courtyard, or garden is blissfully private. With only three entrances, all located on the southern wall, entry was heavily restricted. Although Beijing’s palace may be known as the “Forbidden City”, public access to Mukden Palace was actually under much stricter control!

In the oldest section of the palace, the most outstanding structures are undoubtedly Dazheng Hall and the Shiwang or “Ten King’s” Pavilions. The hall is a colossal octagonal building where the high throne of the Emperor is located. A long road leads from the hall’s entrance to a gate in the opposite wall, with the ten pavilions flanking either side. The two pavilions closest to the hall, known as the East King’s and West King’s Pavilions respectively, belonged to the Emperor. However, the other eight pavilions served as the official offices for the leaders of the Eight Banners, the main administrative and martial organ of the Qing Dynasty. Even in ancient times, having your own office was the height of career success!

Qingning Palace, located in the middle section of the complex, was the place where the Emperor and Empress used to live. It was split into two halves, the east side serving as living quarters and the west side for use during sacrificial ceremonies. Nearby Chongzheng Hall was where the Emperor would attend to his political affairs, while the tower behind it, known as Fenghuang or “Phoenix” Tower, is where his concubines lived. Evidently being locked up in a high tower isn’t just for princesses! 

Though one of the “newer” structures in the complex, the Wensu Pavilion is no less spectacular and is certainly the highlight of the western section. It is the only building in the complex with a black roof because, according to Chinese tradition, black is the colour of water. Since the pavilion acted as the palace library and contained several priceless literary works, it was believed this roof would protect the building from fire. 

In ancient times, these halls and pavilions would be bustling with action, as royal family members, government officials, and military officers rushed to fulfil the Emperor’s every order. Nowadays, they house over 10,000 relics from the Qing Dynasty, from fearsome swords and wooden bows to intricate paintings and delicate works of calligraphy. Notable among these artefacts are the Tiger-Veined Double-Edged Sword of Nurhaci and Nurhaci’s Imperial Jade Seal. Wandering through the halls and admiring these beautiful relics, you’re sure to be transported back to an ancient time, where Emperors decked in splendour secluded themselves behind the walls of their opulent palaces.

Fuling Tomb

Located in the provincial capital of Shenyang in Liaoning province, Fuling Tomb serves as a monument to an illustrious Manchu leader known as Nurhaci and his wife, Empress Xiaocigao. Although Nurhaci was never officially acknowledged as Emperor, the power that he amassed in his lifetime allowed his son, Huang Taiji, to eventually establish the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), the last imperial government to rule China. He was posthumously honoured with the title of Emperor and, true to custom, was buried in a lavish imperial mausoleum complex. This invaluable historic site has been beautifully preserved and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. It’s proof that, even after death, you can keep on achieving your dreams!

Alongside Zhaoling Tomb and Yongling Tomb, it is considered emblematic of Qing Dynasty funerary architecture, are sometimes referred to as the Three Tombs at Shengjing (modern-day Shenyang) or the Qing Tombs Outside of the Pass. Its numerous edifices, statues, carvings, and murals seamlessly combine traditional Han Chinese features with those of the Manchu people. Construction of Fuling Tomb began in 1629 and was completed in 1651, with the tomb site itself being laid out into three main sections from south to north. The front section consists mainly of a grand red gate, which is surrounded by two elaborately carved stone lions, ornamental columns, memorial archways, and stone tablets. 

The stone tablets bear inscriptions carved in Manchu, Mongolian, and Chinese which instruct all visitors to dismount their horses at this point and continue on foot as a sign of respect to the deceased. In ancient times, any visitors caught horsing around would be swiftly punished! Once you pass through the red gate, you arrive at a path known as the Sacred Way. This path is flanked by pairs of stone animals that are designed to protect the tomb, such as lions, horses, camels, and tigers. At the end of the Sacred Way, a colossal 108-step stairway leads to the last section of the complex. 

The top of this stairway is home to the Square Castle, the largest structure in Fuling Tomb. It is approximately 5 metres (16 ft.) in height and has four small towers resting on its four corners. Grand though this castle may be, this is not the final resting place of Nurhaci. Located just behind the Square Castle, the Bao or “Treasure” Castle is where you’ll find the interred remains of Nurhaci and his wife. Though the complex’s many pavilions, steles, and statues are undeniably impressive, the greatest treasure of all is Nurhaci’s undying legacy. 


Though not as well-known as Beijing or Shanghai, Shenyang has one of the most colourful histories of any city in China. As the capital of Liaoning province and the largest city in the Northeast, it represents the cultural and economic centre of a region once known as Manchuria. Archaeological findings have shown that the area surrounding the city was populated over 8,000 years ago and the remains of a Neolithic society, known as the Xinle culture, take pride of place in the city’s Xinle Site Museum. By 300 BC, the city had been firmly established, but it wouldn’t reach its full potential until many years later. 

In 1625, the Manchu leader Nurhaci captured Shenyang and made it his administrative centre. By 1626, he had already begun constructing an imperial palace in the city and, in 1634, he renamed it “Mukden” in Manchu or “Shengjing” in Chinese, which meant “rising capital”. Built to resemble the Forbidden City, the Mukden Palace boasts over 300 luxuriously decorated rooms and 20 gardens, demonstrating the power and grandeur of the Manchu regime. By the early 17th century, the Manchu controlled all of northeast China and began plotting to conquer the reigning Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). 

In 1636, Nurhaci’s son Hong Taiji founded the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), thus formally announcing his intention to become Emperor. Though he technically never succeeded, the Manchu did supplant the Ming Dynasty and, in 1644, his son took the throne as the Shunzhi Emperor. They transferred their imperial capital to Beijing, but Shenyang maintained its prestige since the tomb complexes of both Nurhaci and Hong Taiji were located there. 

Alongside the Mukden Palace, these tombs, known as the Fuling Tomb and the Zhaoling Tomb respectively, were collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. All of these historic sites are unique in that their architecture is a perfect intermingling of traditional Han Chinese and Manchurian styles. While these are undoubtedly the most popular attractions in Shenyang, there’s definitely more to the city than lavish palaces and dusty mausoleums! 

For example, the city is home to a variety of museums, such as the Liaoning Provincial Museum, the Shenyang Steam Locomotive Museum, and the 9.18 Museum. The latter is shaped to look like a giant calendar and is entirely dedicated to the Mukden Incident. On September 18th 1931, a small quantity of dynamite was detonated close to a railway line near Shenyang that was owned by the Japanese South Manchuria Railway Company. The blast was largely believed to have been orchestrated by the Imperial Japanese Army, who accused Chinese dissidents of the act and used it as an excuse to launch a full invasion of the city. 

Using Shenyang as their base, they went on to occupy the rest of northeast China and established the puppet state of Manchukuo. It is widely regarded as one of the most unpleasant chapters in Chinese history, and the museum unflinchingly documents the events and war crimes that took place from the Mukden Incident onwards. While it’s not for the faint of heart, it provides an invaluable window into the country’s modern history. 

Don’t be disheartened, not all of the sites in the city are quite so sombre! At the centre of Heping District, Zhongshan Square boasts one of the largest statues of Chairman Mao, and is tantalisingly close to the city’s Korea Town. Thanks to its proximity to Korea, many ethnic Koreans live in Shenyang and this vibrant area, lined with golden gingko trees, is the ideal place to sample some delicious Korean barbecue or soak in the city’s nightlife.

If you’re looking to escape the raucous crowds, the Shenyang International Expo Garden is a refreshing slice of nature in this bustling metropolis. It was once the Shenyang Botanical Garden but, after hosting the 2006 International Horticultural Exposition, it was expanded to include international themed gardens, amusement park rides, and the magnificent Lily Tower, a massive structure shaped like its namesake flower. In fact, the city itself is renowned for its numerous green spaces, including six large parks and eighteen riverside gardens. So, if you’re looking for a real urban jungle, Shenyang is the place for you!

Wunü Mountain City

Hidden high within the Wunü Mountains of Huanren County in Liaoning province, Wunü Mountain City is one of the last known remnants of the Korean-led Goguryeo Kingdom (37 BC–668 AD). As a place of invaluable historical significance, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. Until 668 AD, the Goguryeo Kingdom was the largest of the three kingdoms into which ancient Korea was divided. Little historical records remain regarding the kingdom and its origin is shrouded in mystery, resulting in a chaotic mixture of fact and myth.

Historians believe it was founded in 37 BC by a prince named Jumong from the Kingdom of Buyeo (c. 200 BC–494 AD), who was enthroned as King Dongmyeong or the “Holy King of the East”. Talk about a fancy job title! According to legend, he was the son of Hae Mosu of Buyeo and Yuhwa, who was the daughter of the river god Habaek. The river god did not approve of Hae Mosu, so he drove Yuhwa away to the Ubal River, where she met and became the concubine of King Geumwa of Eastern Buyeo (86 BC–410 AD).

However, Yuhwa was already pregnant, and she promptly gave birth to an egg! King Geumwa tried desperately to destroy the egg and even attempted to feed it to animals, but they instead protected it. Eventually, he returned it to Yuhwa and from it hatched a baby boy, who was named Jumong or “Skilled Archer”. In the interest of literally living up to his name, Jumong went on to become an archer of unparalleled talent! After being driven away by his jealous step-brothers Daeso and Yongpo, he managed to establish a territory spanning most of the Korean Peninsula and parts of northeastern China, known in ancient times as Manchuria. It was here that he founded his kingdom and constructed his first imperial capital, Wunü Mountain City.

The unusual cuboid shape of the Wunü Mountains and its sheer vertical cliffs made it nearly impermeable to any kind of attack, which protected the capital from opposing armies. Deep within the valley, a treacherous 938-metre (3,077 ft.) long zigzagging earthen road was the only way in or out. Since it was so difficult to reach, many historians argue that the Goguryeo King and nobility would not normally reside there, but would instead use it as a shelter during times of war. Even during peak times, the city could only accommodate about 100 people at most.

Wunü Mountain City represents a perfect blend of manmade structures and nature. It swiftly became the archetypal mountain city of its time, being imitated by numerous cultures thereafter thanks to its virtually impenetrable defences. During its entire history, it was never once successfully invaded or captured by enemy forces. Even when the Goguryeo capital was transferred from Wunü to Guonei City (modern-day Ji’an, Jilin province), it remained an important transportation hub and was continuously added to.

The main peak of the Wunü Mountains is over 800 metres (2,600 ft.) high, and its near flat top stretches for 1,500 metres (4,921 ft.) from south to north and 300 metres (984 ft.) from east to west. The ruins of the city itself are mainly located on the eastern slope and on a small plateau at the peak. While the cliff-faces were exploited for defence, the city was also surrounded by a stone wall on its east and southeast sides, which was punctuated by three gates. All of the constructions in the city were built by wedging stones, which did not decay like bricks or tiles. Thanks to this archaic method, the remains of the imperial palace, city walls, military barracks, watchtowers, houses, and warehouses can still be seen today, many of them dating back over 2,000 years ago!

Alongside these ancient structures, archaeologists have unearthed iron arrowheads, fragments of armour, and a pair of iron shackles from what was believed to be the military barracks. A nearby observation platform was once used to give the local soldiers a wider field of vision, but nowadays is the ideal place to soak in stunning panoramic views of the surrounding countryside and the Huanren Reservoir, the largest reservoir in Liaoning province.

On the mountain range, there are two water sources that once supplied the city. One lies on the western side of the city centre and is known as Heavenly Pool. This rectangular stone pool is 12 metres (39 ft.) long, 5 metres (16 ft.) wide, and approximately 2 metres (7 ft.) deep. The other source, known as Yinwa Cove, is situated on the eastern side of the mountain and is actually connected to the mouth of a natural spring. Regardless of the season, these two wells never dry up and supply drinking water throughout the year. Wunü Mountain City may have been remote, but it certainly didn’t lack in modern amenities!

Liaoning Province


Liaoning is often regarded as something of an “outsider” when compared to other provinces in China. Although nowadays its population is dominated by the Han Chinese, this region frequently found itself under non-Han rule throughout the course of history. Whether it was the Khitans of the Liao Dynasty (907–1125), the Jurchens of the Jin Dynasty (1115–1234), or the Mongolians of the Mongol Empire, Liaoning was passed around between different ethnic groups faster than a hot potato! It even formed part of several Korean kingdoms, such as Gojoseon, Goguryeo, and Balhae. In particular, it played a focal role as the main political centre from which the Manchu people of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) conquered the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

On the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, Liaoning soon found itself embroiled in yet another power struggle! During the early 20th century, it was occupied by Russia and Japan, who both contributed to the development of heavy industry in the region. Nowadays this mingling of numerous ethnic influences can be seen in Liaoning’s cosmopolitan nature, which sets it apart from many other provinces in China. From the ruins of the Goguryeo imperial capital on Wunü Mountain to the Japanese- and Russian-style architecture in the port city of Dalian, the effect of foreign cultures is clearly palpable throughout the province.

The province itself is located in a northeastern region of China that was formerly known as Manchuria. Since it is bounded by North Korea to the east, the Yellow Sea to the south, and Inner Mongolia to the northwest, it is sometimes referred to as the “Golden Triangle” because of its strategic trading location. The Liao River, which flows through the centre of the province, is where the name “Liaoning” is derived. When literally translated, the name means “Peace on the Liao”, which hints at the province’s turbulent past. Geographically, it can be divided into four main regions: the central plains, the Liaodong Peninsula, the western highlands, and the eastern mountainous zone.

Its varied topography means that Liaoning’s climate suffers from extremes, which depend on the proximity to the coast. On average, the temperature oscillates from a comfortable 23 °C (74 °F) to 25 °C (77 °F) in summer, but drops to a chilly −5 °C (23 °F) to −12 °C (10 °F) in winter. Summer rainfall is usually torrential, but there is a marked lack of rain in spring. Its mild weather makes it the ideal rest-stop for migrating birds, which annually flock to a nature reserve on Mount Laotie during the autumn. Thousands of birds from over 200 different species take refuge here every year, making it a haven for bird-watching.

Benxi Water CaveIn fact, Liaoning boasts a plethora of gorgeous natural attractions, including the Benxi Water Cave National Park and the Qianshan National Park. The Benxi Water Cave is the largest water cave in Asia and contains a 3-kilometre-long (1.8 mi) underground river, which is supposedly so clear that the riverbed is always visible. Visitors can take a scenic boat ride along the river and admire the many strange rock formations within the cave, or spend the day exploring the numerous other areas in the national park, such as misty Mount Tiecha and the lush Tanggou Valley.

WUNV MOUNTAINSimilarly, Qianshan National Park is centred on the celebrated Qianshan Mountains. The name “Qianshan”, which literally means “A Thousand Mountains”, is an abbreviation of the original name “A Thousand Lotus Flower Mountains” and is an allusion to a famous legend, which states that the mountains were formed when a goddess dropped her beautiful lotus flower embroidery to earth. Alongside the mountain range, the park is littered with stunning Buddhist and Taoist temples, monasteries, and nunneries that are just waiting to be explored.

Yet the crowning jewels of the province are undoubtedly its three UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Mukden Palace in Shenyang, the three imperial tombs near Shenyang, and the ruins of the ancient Goguryeo capital on Wunü Mountain. In addition, the easternmost section of the Great Wall cuts across the southwestern corner of the province.

shenyang-palace01The Mukden Palace was built for the Qing Dynasty emperors before they conquered the rest of China, and was designed to be a smaller version of the Forbidden City. It provides a fascinating insight into palace architecture at the time and exhibits Han Chinese, Manchu, and Tibetan architectural features, making it relatively unique among imperial buildings in China. It has now been converted into a museum, where visitors can delve into the history of the Manchu emperors. In the same vein, the three imperial tombs near Shenyang were all dedicated to different Manchu emperors and are known as the Zhaoling Tomb, the Fuling Tomb, and the Yongling Tomb respectively. With such a wealth of historical sites on offer, Liaoning may be the cultural “outsider”, but it certainly isn’t an underdog!