Jinan

jinan Daming Lake

Resting at the northern foothills of the Mount Tai massif, Shandong province’s capital of Jinan is an urban centre embedded in nature. Even its nickname, the City of Springs, stems from the 72 artesian springs that add a touch of natural beauty to this bustling metropolis. Historically speaking, relics unearthed at the nearby Chengziya Archaeological Site have proven that the area was a centre for the Neolithic Longshan Culture and was settled over 4,000 years ago. Back when most of us were still bashing rocks together, the people of Chengziya were crafting unbelievably delicate black “egg-shell” pottery!

jinan yellow riverDuring the Spring and Autumn Period (c. 771-476 BC), Jinan found itself split between two rival states: the State of Lu in the west and the State of Qi in the east. As a result of this rivalry, the State of Qi built the Great Wall of Qi in 685 BC. Portions of this wall still stand today and can be easily reached from the city centre. Although they are not part of the Great Wall, they represent the oldest Great Wall in China. In short, the State of Qi was building Great Walls before it was cool!

The Warring States Period (c. 476-221 BC) saw the rise of a bold, new philosopher in the city, known as Zou Yan. It was Zou who applied the pre-existing concepts of Yin-Yang and the Five Elements,  which have been integral features of Chinese philosophy ever since their conception, to real life in a scientific and organized manner. As the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) took over, Jinan became the capital of the Kingdom of Jibei and continued to evolve as a cultural and economic hub in eastern China. The last King of Jibei, Liu Kuan, was buried at nearby Shuangru Mountain and his tomb represented a veritable treasure trove for archaeologists. Having been virtually untouched by grave robbers, the tomb contained over 2,000 precious artefacts such as jade swords, jade masks, and jade pillows, many of which are currently on display in the city’s Shandong Provincial Museum.

Thousand-Buddha MountainBy the 5th century, Buddhism had begun to flourish in Jinan, as is evidenced by the ancient Lingyan Temple and the spectacular carvings at Thousand-Buddha Mountain. Another important local celebrity emerged during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), a woman named Li Qingzhao. To this day, Li is widely regarded as the greatest female poet in Chinese history, and her work mainly reflects on the anguish she felt after she was forced to abandon her home when the Jurchen-led Jin Dynasty[1] (1115-1234) conquered Jinan.

However, it wasn’t until much later in its history that Jinan would be firmly regarded as one of China’s major cities. The name Jinan literally means “south of the Ji” and refers to the city’s position, which used to be south of the Ji River. As if by divine intervention, in 1852 the Yellow River shifted its course and overtook the bedding of the Ji River, effectively replacing it. Since the Yellow River was connected to the Grand Canal[2], this meant that Jinan was suddenly linked to the imperial capital of Beijing in the north and the agriculturally rich regions to the south. This catapulted Jinan from just another city to a major stop along one of the most lucrative trading routes in the country.

Baotou SpringNowadays, water still plays a crucial role in Jinan, as its 72 springs continue to provide a tranquil space where locals can indulge in a relaxing slice of nature. Baotou Spring, Black Tiger Spring, Five Dragon Pool, and Pearl Spring are regarded as the finest of the springs, and are popular tourist attractions in the city. In particular, Baotou Spring was described by the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) as “the number one spring under Heaven”.

Most of the city’s springs feed into the shimmering Daming Lake, the largest lake in Jinan and one of its major landmarks. The lake itself contains nine small islands and is surrounded by a scenic park, replete with historical buildings and verdant gardens. Of particular interest is the Moon-lit Pavilion, which is linked via bridge to a large hall. This hall was once connected to the outer city by a secret escape tunnel constructed by military governor Han Fuju. It provided the perfect retreat if the city was under siege, and also a fantastic shortcut to the lake!

Alongside these natural and historical delights, Jinan is also heralded as the gastronomic centre of Shandong province. The local cuisine, known as Lu or Shandong-style cuisine, is celebrated as one of the Eight Great Culinary Traditions of Chinese Cooking. The style in Jinan is considered to be emblematic of Lu cuisine, and has heavily influenced modern favourites like Beijing-style cuisine. It’s well-known for its use of flavourful broths, perfect for a wintry evening or a cool spring morning!

 

 

[1] Jurchen Jin Dynasty (1115-1234): Led by the Jurchen clan, who were of Manchu descent and controlled most of northern China but were ultimately defeated by the rising Mongol Empire. Not to be confused with the imperial Jin Dynasty (265-420).

[2] 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).

 

 

Shandong Cuisine

Shandong Cuisine

While you may not have directly heard of Shandong-style cuisine, chances are you will have felt its influence. As one of the oldest styles in northern China, it has had a direct and palpable impact on other well-known styles of Chinese cuisine, such as that of Beijing and Tianjin. It is held in such high regard that it is not only considered one of the Eight Great Culinary Traditions of Chinese Cooking, but is regularly shortlisted as one of the top four. Its venerable history dates all the way back to the Spring and Autumn Period (c. 771-476 BC), when Shandong as a province had yet to exist and the region was split into two vassal states: the State of Qi and the State of Lu.

The style is often referred to as Lu Cuisine, since the State of Lu was home to Shandong province’s most revered citizen, the great philosopher Confucius. Although Confucius is most renowned for his teachings on morality and education, he wasn’t above philosophising about food! In his Analects, he states: “Do not consume food which looks spoiled, smells spoiled, is out of season, is improperly butchered, or is not made with proper seasoning”. This may seem like common sense now, but over 2,000 years ago food hygiene was still a mystery to the citizens of Lu!

His statements indicate that, all those years ago, the people of Shandong province had already achieved a certain level of refinement with regards to food preparation. However, much of modern-day Shandong cuisine was developed from the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) onwards. The style can be roughly split into three sub-styles: the seafood heavy Jiaodong-style along the Jiaodong Peninsula; the soup-centred dishes of the inland Jinan-style; and the elaborate banquets of Confucius’ Mansion cuisine. While these sub-styles tend to differ in their preferred ingredients, they share many similar characteristics when it comes to preparation and flavour.

Liberal use of seasonings such as onions, spring onions, and garlic endow many signature dishes with their distinctive pungency, while a serious dose of salt and soy sauce add a smack of saltiness. Yet Shandong’s star seasoning will always be its vinegar, which is made using centuries-old recipes and traditional local methods. It is much darker and more complex than other types of Chinese vinegar, and is so beloved by the locals that some of them even drink it on its own!

These seasonings may sound a little overbearing, but the main aim of Shandong cuisine is to capture the natural colour, taste, and essence of the main ingredients. To this end, over 30 different cooking methods are deftly used in order to maximise the potential of each ingredient. The most popular cooking methods are known respectively as “bao” and “zha”. The “bao” technique involves allowing oil to boil at an extremely high temperature before tossing the ingredients into the wok and quickly stir-frying them.

The heat of the oil means that the ingredients are slightly singed, but their natural flavour is locked in. Once the ingredients are fully cooked, the oil is removed and seasonings are added, although sometimes the oil will be incorporated into the dish’s sauce. The “zha” technique, on the other hand, is another frying method where meat is covered in flour and then stir-fried to make it wonderfully crisp on the outside but tender and flavourful on the inside.

Dezhou Stewed Chicken (德州扒鸡)

Dezhou Stewed ChickenDezhou Stewed Chicken is essentially exactly what it says on the tin! It originates from the city of Dezhou, its primary cooking method is stewing, and its main ingredient is a plump chicken. Its traditional name of “Dezhou Five-Fragrant Boneless Stewed Chicken” is far more misleading as it’s not boneless and, while it does indeed smell appetising, saying it boasts five fragrances might be a bit ambitious! According to local rumour, the dish was developed by the Deshunzhai Restaurant during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). By the 1950s, it was so popular that it was even served to Chairman Mao himself.

The dish involves first rubbing caramelised sugar all over a chicken and deep-frying it until its skin turns a crisp golden brown. The chicken is then stewed in an aromatic soup made from soy sauce, Sichuan peppercorns, ginger, cinnamon, aniseed, nutmeg, cloves, fennel, soy sauce, angelica root, black cardamom, dried orange peel, and galangal. Since this dish can take upwards of eight hours to make, it is usually only served in specialist restaurants. While the chicken retains its original shape, it’s so perfectly cooked that the tender meat practically melts off of the bone.

Sweet and Sour Yellow River Carp (糖醋鲤鱼)

Sweet and Sour Yellow River CarpSweet and Sour Yellow River Carp, which is unsurprisingly made of grass carp fished from the Yellow River, is arguably one of the most iconic dishes in the Shandong canon. It is said that carp from the Yellow River taste different from any other river fish in the country, and it’s been a popular delicacy at imperial banquets for hundreds of years. This particular dish is well-known for its unusual presentation, as the fried fish is served with its tail curved up in the air. This is to give the illusion that the fish has been caught jumping out of the water!

To make Sweet and Sour Yellow River Carp, incisions are made along a whole carp to ensure that the skin remains crispy and the flesh stays moist when it is breaded and deep-fried. Before it is fried, the fish is seasoned with pepper, salt, and soy sauce to give it a pleasant tang. Meanwhile, the sweet and sour sauce is made by mixing vinegar and sugar with ginger, spring onions, Shaoxing rice wine, and soy sauce. The fish is fried first and then removed from the pan when its scales have turned a rich golden brown. The sauce is then added to the pan and cooked at a medium heat for approximately one minute before the fish is re-added and stirred to thoroughly coat it in the sauce. The sweet, tangy sauce complements the soft and subtly flavoured flesh of the fish beautifully, resulting in a dish that is both light and flavourful.

Nine Procedure Large Intestines (九转大)

Nine Procedure Large IntestinesWhen it comes to Chinese cuisine, you should never judge a dish by its name! Although Nine Procedure Large Intestines may not sound like the most appetising of meals, it has been a wildly popular staple in Shandong province since the Qing Dynasty. A long strip of pig’s intestines is first cleaned, prepared, and boiled so as to remove the unwanted odour of offal. Once they are soft and tender, the intestines are removed from the boiling water and cut into small sections before being deep-fried until they are deliciously crispy.

The dish’s sauce is made by frying a mixture of onion, garlic, and ginger in a wok until it becomes aromatic. From there, chicken broth, soy sauce, salt, sugar, Shaoxing rice wine, and vinegar are added to give the sauce depth. Finally, the pork intestines are stir-fried in the sauce and garnished with coriander to serve. The name “Nine Procedure Large Intestines” has absolutely nothing to do with the cooking method, and in fact refers to the Nine Procedures in Taoism used to refine the pills of immortality. In other words, scholars considered this dish so difficult to perfect that they likened it to man’s never-ending quest to achieve eternal life!

Braised Sea Cucumber (葱烧海参)

Braised Sea CucumberAs a coastal province, seafood plays a major role in Shandong cuisine. Braised Sea Cucumber is one of the classic dishes in the Shandong canon and is emblematic of the locals’ love for seafood. Although the sea cucumbers are phenomenally fresh and have a rich umami flavour, the real power behind this sumptuous dish comes from the sauce. This sauce is made simply by caramelising a mixture of chopped onions, spring onions, and soy sauce in oil and sugar. Meanwhile, the sea cucumber is gently braised in chicken stock, salt, and Shaoxing rice wine.

Once the sauce is prepared and the sea cucumber is thoroughly cooked, the two are mixed in a pan along with a hearty helping of ginger and brought to a boil before starch is added to thicken the sauce. While this dish can look a little unusual and somewhat unappetising, the smooth texture of the sea cucumber is perfectly complemented by the sour tang of the sauce, offering up a taste sensation that is sure to confuse and delight your taste-buds in equal measure.

Braised Abalone with Shells (扒原壳鲍鱼)

Braised Abalone with ShellsAbalone is another aquatic favourite in Shandong province that we rarely see in Western cuisine. In this signature dish, the abalone is served with its shell to give diners the impression that they’re sampling a little bit of the ocean. The abalone itself is relatively bland, but absorbs the light sauce beautifully and provides a wonderfully chewy texture. In order to make the sauce, an aromatic mixture of Shaoxing rice wine, rice vinegar, sugar, salt, ginger, garlic, spring onions, chicken stock, and starch is brought to a boil and then quickly removed from the heat.

The juicy slices of abalone are fried in hot oil with chopped chilli peppers for approximately two minutes, until the abalone is fully cooked. The oil is then removed from the pan and the abalone is re-added along with the sauce, which is swiftly brought to a boil. Once the dish is piping hot, it’s taken off the heat and served immediately. The light sauce virtually glances off of the tongue, while the thick slices of abalone provide you with something to really sink your teeth into!

 

 

Shandong Local Snacks

As one of the Eight Great Culinary Traditions of Chinese Cooking, it should come as no surprise that Shandong province offers a plethora of snacks that are as unique as they are delicious. Shandong cuisine is renowned for its liberal use of pungent ingredients such as garlic, onion, and spring onions, its saltiness, its crispy textures, and its locally produced vinegar, which is much darker and more complex than other Chinese vinegars. Seafood is a popular ingredient in this coastal province, but Shandong chefs are so skilled that they are able to bring out the natural flavour and essence of whatever they cook, from delicate river fish to simple vegetables. In short, you’ll never be too far away from a satisfying snack in this province!

Shandong-style Dumplings (山东饺子)

Shandong-style DumplingsWhen it comes to Chinese cuisine, dumplings are always a fan favourite. Sumptuously soft dumpling skins, moist morsels of pork mince, mouth-wateringly aromatic dipping sauce; what’s not to love? Shandong-style dumplings utilise a dumpling skin fashioned from a simple mixture of rice flour and water, with a hearty filling made from pork mince, dried shrimp, soy sauce, salt, Shaoxing rice wine, sesame oil, shredded ginger, and chopped spring onions. In the coastal Jiaodong region, a special version of these dumplings is made using a species of fish known as a Spanish mackerel as its main ingredient.

A liberal dollop of filling is ladled into each dumpling skin before they are sealed and placed in a large pot of boiling water. Cold water must be periodically added to the pot and stirred in order to make sure none of the dumplings burst. When the dumplings are thoroughly cooked, they are delicately scooped out of the water and served with a fragrant dipping sauce made from soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil, and chilli paste. Each dumpling is packed full of flavour, and the dipping sauce adds a pleasantly sour tang that glances off of the tongue.

Four-Joy Meatballs (四喜丸子)

Four-Joy MeatballsWhile many of us associate meatballs with Italy, you’ll be surprised to hear that they actually originated from Shandong province! The recipe for Four-Joy Meatballs is one of the oldest in the world, dating all the way back to the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). Very few dishes can match its pedigree, and still fewer can compete with its simple but hearty flavour. The meatballs are rolled from a mixture of pork mince, diced onions, ginger, lotus root, Shaoxing rice wine, pepper, soy sauce, eggs, and starch. They are then fried before being steamed with more soy sauce and Shaoxing rice wine until they are perfectly cooked.

The result is a bite-sized snack that is crispy on the outside but irresistibly moist on the inside. The crunchy texture of the lotus root is complemented by the softness of the pork mince, while the umami flavours of the meat intermingle beautifully with the aromatic ginger. The round shape of the meatballs is said to symbolise gathering and union in Chinese culture, and the meatballs are always served in fours to signify the Four Joys of Life traditionally marked by family gatherings: Courtship, Marriage, Child-Rearing, and Aging.

Penglai Noodles (蓬莱小)

Penglai NoodlesPenglai Noodles are a famous traditional snack hailing from the coastal city of Penglai. The noodles are made and stretched by hand in order to ensure that they’re thin but retain their toughness and durability. According to the locals, these noodles are so thin that they simply melt in your mouth without you having to chew. So, if you’re feeling particularly lazy, this might be just the snack for you! The noodles are first boiled before being served in a light broth made from red snapper. They are often eaten for breakfast, because there’s nothing quite like a steamy bowl of noodle soup to ward off the brisk sea breeze.

 

 

Mount Tai

Mount Tai

Through misty climes and dense forests the emperors of old would navigate Mount Tai, making the harrowing climb in order to offer sacrifices to the gods. For nearly 3,000 years, it has been a hallowed and sacred place. As the Eastern Mountain of China’s Five Great Mountains, it is often regarded as the foremost of the five. East was believed to be the holiest point since it was the direction from which the sun and the moon would rise, leading it to be associated with birth and renewal. There is even an old Chinese proverb which states: “If Mount Tai is stable, so is the entire country”. While the mountain range’s natural beauty is undeniable, its cultural importance is immeasurable. As early as 1987, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Archaeological evidence from the nearby Dawenkou site indicates that the area was settled and may have been a place of worship as early as the Neolithic Period (c. 8500-2100 BC). By the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600-1046 BC), it was firmly believed to be the home of powerful spirits that could influence the weather, the harvest, and the prosperity of any hopeful dynasty. However, it wasn’t until the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1045-256 BC) that it became the site of highly ritualised ceremonies, during which feudal lords would make sacrifices of food and decorative jade items. Many of these sacrifices would be buried on the mountain, so be sure to keep your eye out for any precious artefacts whilst you’re hiking!

Mount TaiThese rituals reached a peak during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), when Qin Shi Huang conquered the warring states and became the First Emperor of a unified China. In 219 BC, he held a ceremony on the mountain’s summit where he proclaimed the unity of his empire. He paid tribute to Mount Tai using an imperial rite known as the Fengshan sacrifices. The “feng” or “heaven” part of the rite would take place on the summit, while the “shan” or “earth” portion would be made at the base. In this way, the emperor paid homage to both heaven and earth in what was considered one of the most important imperial rituals in history. At the end of the ceremony, an inscription would be carved marking the event and the supposed attainment of the “great peace”.

By the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), Mount Tai was so highly regarded that it was believed to be the place where the souls of the deceased returned for judgement. Yet, in spite of the mountain’s significance, the Fengshan ritual was carried out at very rare intervals. From the Han Dynasty to the Tang Dynasty (618-907), it was only performed on seven separate occasions. After all, mountain climbing may seem hard now, but imagine trying to do it over a thousand years before the invention of hiking boots! Emperors would have to climb a flight of 6,660 steps, which winds its way passed fourteen archways and four pavilions, all decked out in traditional Chinese grandeur and seamlessly incorporated into the natural landscape. The summit itself is known as Jade Emperor Peak and is a breath-taking 1,545 metres (5,069 ft.) tall.

Moon tai 02As time went on, Mount Tai’s holiness manifested not only in the imperial inscriptions, but also in a collection of 1,800 stone tablets and 22 temples that can be found throughout the mountain range today. Most famous of these is the Dai Temple at the southern foot of the mountain, which is dedicated to the God of Mount Tai and was originally built during the Qin Dynasty. Its architecture is largely considered to be a prototype of the imperial palace style and its design greatly influenced the construction of other major palace structures in China, such as the Forbidden City in Beijing and the Confucius Temple in Qufu.

The temple itself is made up of five major halls and numerous satellite buildings. Its star attraction is a Taoist painting known as “The God of Mount Tai Making a Journey”, which was completed in 1009 and is widely regarded as a masterpiece of traditional Chinese art. This epic mural is over 3 metres (10 ft.) high and 62 metres (203 ft.) long, extending across the eastern, western, and northern walls of the Palace of Heavenly Blessings. This makes it roughly the same height as an African elephant and approximately 15 times the length of an anaconda!

While the God of Mount Tai was arguably the mountain’s central spiritual figure in early Chinese history, he was swiftly overtaken in popularity during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) by his daughter, the Lady of Mount Tai. She is often known by her alternate name of Bixia Yunjun or “Goddess of the Colourful Clouds” and the Azure Cloud Temple was erected in her honour during the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

Both of these temple complexes boast a myriad of ancient trees, which attest to the intermingling of man-made and natural elements on Mount Tai. In particular, there is one pagoda tree that is approximately 1,300 years old, and six cypresses that are over 2,000 years of age! With 72 caves, 130 streams, 72 springs, and a staggering 64 waterfalls, Mount Tai is a paradise for nature lovers. After spending a day hiking up its verdant slopes, you’ll understand why ancient people believed it was blessed by the gods!

 

Shandong Province

Temple of Confucius

Shandong province is best known as the birthplace of two of the greatest philosophers in Chinese history: Confucius and Mencius. The province itself played a pivotal role in the establishment of Chinese civilisation along the Yellow River and is home to some of the most influential religious sites in the country. From the ancient Buddhist temples near Jinan to the lofty heights of sacred Mount Tai, Shandong’s historical and spiritual pedigree is undeniable. So, if you’re looking for enlightenment, you’ve come to the right place!

The province itself can be roughly divided into two distinct segments: the inland zone and the Shandong Peninsula. Within the inland zone, the North China Plain was once home to a succession of Neolithic cultures, including the Houli (6500–5500 BC), the Beixin (5300–4100 BC), the Dawenkou (4100–2600 BC), the Longshan (3000–2000 BC), and the Yueshi (1900–1500 BC). Inscriptions found on clay pots that were unearthed at the Dawenkou site are believed to be the earliest examples of written language in the country!

Jiaozhou BayBy the Spring and Autumn Period (c. 771-476 BC), Shandong had risen to become a centre for political and military activity. During the Warring States Period (c. 476-221 BC), it was separated into two autonomous territories: the State of Lu, where Confucius and Mencius originated from; and the State of Qi, which was the larger and more powerful of the two. Since the State of Qi controlled the Shandong Peninsula, it swiftly became an influential hub for early maritime trade. From the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) onwards, Shandong rose to become northern China’s focal maritime trading centre and was an indispensible contributor to the country’s development as an ancient civilisation.

Yet it wasn’t just the Chinese imperials who understood the value of this coastal province. In 1897, German troops landed in Shandong and the German government eventually forced the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) to sign a treaty that ceded access to Jiaozhou Bay and its islands. On top of this, Germany was also granted the right to construct a naval base in the city of Qingdao. Nowadays, this Germanic influence can be felt throughout the province and is particularly prevalent in Qingdao, where the internationally renowned Tsingtao Brewery is located. In fact, this link is so well-established that the Qingdao International Beer Festival is often referred to as Asia’s Oktoberfest!

Shandong PeninsulaWhile the Shandong Peninsula is now famed for its spectacular beach resorts, the western part of the province is dominated by the North China Plain and the centre is characteristically hilly, culminating in the magnificent Mount Tai complex. This has resulted in two geographically diverse regions that are each served by different climates, oscillating between humid continental and humid subtropical. Temperatures in the inland zone average at a chilly −4 °C (25 °F) in winter, but rise to a comfortable 28 °C (82 °F) in summer. By contrast, winter temperatures along the peninsula rarely drop below 0 °C (32 °F), and summer temperatures average at around 26 °C (79 °F).

With its geographical diversity, Shandong boasts attractions to suit every disposition! For the avid hiker, there’s the towering Mount Tai, one of China’s Five Great Mountains. According to the religion of Taoism, it is the most sacred site in the world and over 250 temples are scattered throughout its expanse. The mountain was deified as early as the Han Dynasty, and was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. Alongside this spiritual behemoth, Mount Lao and Mount Kunyu also enjoy a venerable reputation as places of significant natural beauty.

Mount Tai01As the ancestral home of both Confucius and Mencius, it goes without saying that Shandong is a haven for the historically inclined! The Temple of Confucius, the Cemetery of Confucius, and the Kong Family Mansion are all located in the city of Qufu and were collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, while the temple and mansion of Mencius can be found in the city of Zoucheng. The province is also home to one of the oldest existing Great Walls in China: the Great Wall of Qi. It was originally built in 685 BC and many of its existing sections date back to 500 BC, making them over 2,000 years old!

That being said, sometimes all you want is a bit of rest and relaxation! Tourists flock to the provincial capital of Jinan every year to visit its 72 Famous Hot Springs, while Qingdao and Penglai are heralded as some of the province’s finest beach resorts. Not to mention, Shandong-style cuisine is ranked as one of the Eight Great Culinary Traditions of Chinese Cooking, so you’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to spoiling yourself!