The Yungang Grottoes

Yungang Grottoes01

At the southern foot of the Wuzhou Mountains, deep within the Shi Li River Valley, the Yungang Grottoes stretch for over a kilometre and are etched indelibly into the rock-face. Just 16 kilometres west of Datong City, this group of 53 caves, 252 grottoes, and over 51,000 statues and statuettes have inspired visitors from all religious backgrounds for centuries.

They were carved sometime between 453 and 525 AD, during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534 AD), and are categorised as one of the “Four Grand Groups of Grottoes” in China. The grottoes combine features from traditional Chinese art with those from foreign art styles, such as Greek and Indian, while the statues themselves range in height from 2 centimetres (0.7 in.) to 17 metres (56 ft.). So if you thought you were short, imagine being a thimble-sized statue next to one the size of an oak tree!

Yungang Grottoes04Unsurprisingly the grottoes were listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 2001 and are currently divided into three major groups open to the public: the east section (caves 1-4); the central section (caves 5-13); and the west section (caves 14-53). Cave No. 6 is the largest, with a height of about 20 metres (65 ft.), but it is Cave No. 5 that contains the exemplary 17-metre-tall statue of Buddha. Unfortunately, over a period of more than 1,500 years, many of the statues have been damaged by war, pollution, and natural disasters, so parts of the complex are periodically shut down for maintenance. After all, at the grand old age of 1,500, they certainly deserve a little face lift every now and then!

The construction of the grottoes can be split into three time periods: the Early Period (460-465 AD); the Middle Period (c. 471-494); and the Late Period (494-525). Those constructed in the Early Period are considered the most magnificent and contain the five main caves masterminded by the revered monk Tan Yao (caves 16-20). These particular caves are between 13 to 15 metres in height and are generally U-shaped with an arched roof, imitating the thatched sheds that were prolific in ancient India. Each cave has a door and a window, while the main part of the cave is taken up with the central statue and the walls are bedecked with carvings of thousands of smaller Buddhist statuettes. Just imagine all of those tiny eyes staring down at you!

Throughout the Middle Period, the artistic style became more traditionally Chinese and the caves themselves reflect the hall arrangement that was popularised during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). By the Late Period, the caves and statues had become much smaller in size and simpler in style, giving them a certain stately elegance. Perhaps they’d come to the realisation that, when it comes to spiritual enlightenment, size doesn’t matter!

The history of the Yungang Grottoes is inextricably tied with that of the Northern Wei Dynasty. After the fall of the Jin Dynasty (265-420), a Turkic nomadic tribe known as the Tuoba clan took control of northern China and established their own dynasty. With the exception of Emperor Taiwu, the Tuoba clan were devout Buddhists, predominantly for political reasons as the religion helped them maintain control of their territory. Sometime between 398 and 494, Emperor Xiaowen established Pingcheng (modern-day Datong) as their capital and it would remain this way until 523, when Pingcheng would be abandoned due to warfare.

Yungang Grottoes03Originally the emperor only commissioned five caves, to be built by Tan Yao and to depict the first five Wei emperors in Buddhist forms or as Buddha. These are now known as caves number 16 to 20 and were completed in 465 AD. From 471 to 494 the second phase of construction began and it is thought that caves 5 through 13 were built during this time. All of these grottoes were built under imperial patronage, but that unfortunately ended when the Wei court abandoned Pingcheng and moved their capital to Luoyang. In short, like water in the surrounding sands, the money dried up! All of the caves built after 494 are thought to have been financed privately, which may explain why they’re so small!

During the Liao Dynasty (907-1125), wooden structures were built in front of the grottoes in an attempt to shield them from weather damage and incorporate them into temples. These were known as the Ten Famous Temples but were tragically destroyed due to warfare in 1122. The stunning wooden temples that can be found in front of caves 5, 6, and 7 were built for a similar purpose during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) but appear to have survived intact. From the 1950s onwards, numerous restorations and preservation projects have been implemented to protect the grottoes from further damage.


The Yungang Grottoes is one of the many wonderful stops on our Cultural Tour in Shanxi.




Where the river Fen leaves the mountains and winds its way through the grasslands of Shanxi, the provincial capital of Taiyuan, aptly named “The Great Plains”, rests on the riverbanks. Just over 4 million people call this city home but, in a place as expansive as this, there’s definitely room to spare! At first glance, this coal-mining city may appear industrial and modern, but its historical pedigree stretches back over 2,000 years. Evidence suggests that the area was settled as early as 859 BC by the Rong people, who were driven out of the region by the Beidi people in 662 BC.

During the late Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), Taiyuan was established as the capital of the ancient province of Bing. When the Eastern Wei (534-550) and the Northern Qi (550-577) dynasties ruled over northern China respectively, they nominated the city as their secondary capital and under their reign it grew into a large and prosperous city. In fact, in its history Taiyuan would receive nearly as many promotions as the Emperor had concubines!

Li Yuan, the founder of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), was from Taiyuan and began his conquest of China with the city as his base. The support he received from the local aristocracy was integral to his success because actions may speak louder than words, but money talks the loudest of them all! Not long after the Tang Dynasty was established, the cave temples at Mount Tianlong were constructed just southwest of the city. Eventually Taiyuan was designated as the Tang’s northern capital and was developed into a heavily fortified military base.

When the Song Dynasty (960-1279) reunified China in 960, Taiyuan continued to resist and was eventually destroyed during warfare in 979. In 982 a new city was established on the banks of the Fen River, just a short distance from the ruined old city. Throughout the Song and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties, it enjoyed a higher status as a prefecture-level city and received a further upgrade during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties when it became the capital of Shanxi province.

From the Xinhai Revolution in 1911 to the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, Shanxi was under the control of a warlord named Yan Xishan. Under his guidance, the province flourished and expanded industrially by consistently avoiding conflict during the major battles throughout the 1910s and 1920s. With that in mind, the title of warlord hardly seems befitting!

In 1937, the Japanese army occupied Taiyuan but worked with Yan to help advance the city’s industries further. When the Japanese finally surrendered in 1945, the troops that were stationed in the city decided to fight for Yan rather than return to Japan. However in 1949, after a bloody and destructive battle, the Communists took control of the city and it has remained largely unchanged to this day.

Nowadays the city’s symbol is that of two pagodas and is based upon the local Yongzuo Temple, which contains the tallest pair of twin pagodas in China. They were both built during the Ming Dynasty but, while the West Pagoda is 55 metres tall, the East Pagoda is only 53 metres in height. So not exactly identical twins!

Another ancient staple of the city is Chongshan Temple, which was originally built during the Tang Dynasty. Sadly, during the 19th century, much of the temple was destroyed but several of the halls still remain intact. The main hall is renowned for its magnificent statue of the goddess Guanyin, who is depicted with a thousand hands and a thousand eyes. Bear in mind, the statue does not literally have a thousand of each, as that would be far too creepy!

Jinci TempleJust 25 kilometres (16 mi) southwest of the city, at the foot of Mount Xuanweng, lies the glorious Jinci Temple. It was founded nearly 1,400 years ago and was subsequently expanded during each dynasty, meaning it contains over 100 sculptures, buildings, and other architectural pieces that reflect the styles of several different eras. The Hall of the Holy Mother, which was constructed in 1032, is the oldest surviving building in Taiyuan Prefecture and has vivid carvings of wooden dragons winding their way up its eight pillars.

Venture out a little further, about 40 kilometres (25 mi) southwest of the city proper, and you’ll find the Tianlong Mountain Grottoes. This series of 25 manmade caves carved into the mountainside contain some spectacular Buddhist statues and decorations. At the grand old age of 1,500 years, caves number 2 and 3 are the oldest and are currently enjoying a long and much deserved retirement!

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


Datong is known as the “City of Coal” and, due to its status as a major coal-mining region, it has managed to garner an unfortunate reputation as one of the most polluted cities in the country. Yet, much like Beijing, hidden behind the smog are wondrous historical treasures unmatched throughout China. The city lies at the northernmost point of Shanxi province and, thanks to various environmental measures and a burgeoning tourist trade, the smoke appears to be clearing and revealing some of the finest sights the country has to offer.

The town was first founded under the name Pingcheng in 200 BC, during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), and its location near the Yanmenguan Pass of the Great Wall meant that it flourished as a trade port between northern China and Inner Mongolia. Unfortunately, the town was sacked towards the end of the dynasty and was largely left until it became the capital of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534 AD) around about the year 398. It was from this capital that the Wei court oversaw the construction of the magnificent Yungang Grottoes.

In 1048 the city was renamed Datong and became the western capital of the Jurchen Jin Dynasty[1] (1115–1234) but was tragically sacked by the Mongols during its fall. This rather unlucky city would be sacked yet again in 1649, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), before being promptly rebuilt in 1652. After being destroyed three times, it’s a small wonder Datong has any buildings left!

Within the city itself, the Nine Dragon Screen, Huayan Temple, and Shanhua Temple are the three main places of interest. The 600-year-old screen, resplendent with glazed dragons of vibrant colours, is the oldest and largest of its kind. It was built during the Ming Dynasty and is over 45 metres (149 ft.) long with over 400 specially-fired glazed bricks making up its sparkling surface. After all, if you can’t have real dragons, make beautiful fake ones!

On the southwest side of the city, the Huayan Temple houses five large statues of Buddha and over 18,000 volumes of Buddhist scripture. It was built during the Liao Dynasty (907-1125) according to the Huayan branch of Buddhism and is the largest Liao temple in existence. It is unique in that it’s the only temple of its kind to face east instead of south. During the Ming Dynasty, it underwent large scale renovations and has thus remained well-preserved to this day. After all, every good celebrity needs a little face lift once and a while!

The Shanhua Temple, which was founded during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), has also undergone several repairs. Thanks to these renovations, the Daxiongbao Hall, the largest of its kind in China, has managed to remain well-preserved since it was built during the Liao Dynasty. Evidently Datong’s ancient buildings have found the elixir of youth, and its all thanks to a little plaster and some TLC!

Yet some of the most spectacular sights can be found just beyond Datong’s borders. About 16 kilometres (10 mi) west of the city, the Yungang Grottoes have weathered the sandstorms for over 1,500 years. This collection of over 51,000 statues of Buddha has long been inducted as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and is truly a testament to the industrious nature of the ancient Chinese people.

In the lush scenery surrounding Mount Hengshan, just 60 kilometres (37 mi) southeast of Datong, you’ll find the Hanging Temple embedded deep into the cliff-face. This stunning monastery has clung to the side of the mountain for over 1,500 years and is one of the only houses of worship to acknowledge more than one religion. If the Hanging Temple represents ancient China’s religious tolerance, then the nearby Yanmenguan Pass, one of the most important gatehouses along the Great Wall, is a subtle reminder of the darker, bloodier side of its past.

In Yingxian County, about 70 kilometres (43 mi) south of Datong, the Pagoda of Fogong Temple looms over the surrounding countryside and is the largest and oldest wooden building in China. It is over 67 metres (220 ft.) tall and over 950 years old, making it over twice size of Buckingham Palace and three times as old! It goes without saying that this pagoda is a no-smoking area; if you accidentally burnt it down, I don’t think your travel insurance would cover the cost!

[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).

Datong is one of the many wonderful stops on our Cultural Tour in Shanxi.

The Loess Plateau

The Loess Plateau, sometimes referred to as the Huangtu Plateau, is made up of terrain that is unlike anywhere else in the world. The arid, dusty countryside, covered in sparse vegetation, looks almost surreal and certainly uninhabitable. Yet locals of Shanxi and Shaanxi province have made the Loess Plateau their home for hundreds of years. It is one of the focal destinations of the Silk Road and thus its presence and history is delicately intertwined with that of China’s development. Another fact is that it serves as a wonderful destination for tourists to experience a completely alien landscape that has morphed and adapted over thousands of years.

It is called the Loess Plateau because it is an elevated plain of flat land that is covered in loess. Loess is a type of soil made up of silt and sediment that has been deposited on the plateau over time by wind storms. This type of soil is very easily eroded by water and wind, making the landscape of the plateau very unstable and changeable. The Loess Plateau itself surrounds the upper and middle reaches of the Yellow River and covers an area of approximately 640,000 km². To put this into perspective, it is roughly the size of the whole of Afghanistan. This massive plateau covers parts of Shanxi Province, Shaanxi Province, Gansu Province, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and Inner Mongolia. The climate in the plateau is semi-arid, meaning the winters are cold and dry, while the summers are very warm and in many places can be very hot. The rainfall tends to be heavily concentrated in summer, bordering on monsoon-like, and the plateau receives a substantial amount of sunshine all year round.

loess plateau02The earliest records of this area are from people travelling along the Northern Silk Road. After the return of the explorer Zhang Qian during the first millennium BCE, the Han Dynasty began trading with the Western Regions by travelling through the southern part of the Loess Plateau, which formed part of the Northern Silk Road. They would exchange goods such as gold, rubies, jade, coral and ivory with bronze weapons, furs, ceramics and cinnamon bark.

In ancient times, the fact that the soil in the Loess Plateau was extremely fertile and easy to farm, coupled with the appearance of the Silk Road, meant that the Loess Plateau became heavily populated by farmers. These farmers took shelter in constructions known as Yaodong or Loess Cave Houses. These are houses that are carved directly into the cliff-face and are naturally air-conditioned in the summer and heated in the winter, meaning they are cheap and easy to live in. During the 1930s, the Communist Party led by Mao Zedong used several Yaodong in Yan’an as there headquarters and most Yaodong in China are still in use today.

The ancient Yaodong in the Loess Plateau are a must-see and are unlike any other building on earth. Their cultural significance dates back all the way to the Silk Road and leads right up to the Cultural Revolution. The fact that they are still used as homes today gives any visitor an insight into how people in ancient times would have lived and farmed crops or animals in the Loess Plateau. The Yaodong and the Loess Plateau act as a time-capsule that transports you back to what life was like after the establishment of the Silk Road.

loess plateau01

Join a travel with us to discover the amazing land view of the Loess Plateau in Shanxi Province: Explore Chinese Culture through the Ages

Traditional Shanxi Dough Cuisine

There is an old saying in Shanxi province which states: “China has the best flour-based foods in the world, and Shanxi province has the best flour-based foods in China”. For over 2,000 years, the people of Shanxi have used their skill and imagination to develop more than 1,000 different kinds of flour-based dishes, so you’re bound to find something that suits your fancy! While noodles are regarded simply as a staple food in other parts of China, in Shanxi province they are the star attraction. The noodles can be pulled, torn, cut, rolled, or shaved to form a variety of shapes and sizes, which are in turn boiled, stir-fried, or quick-fried with a myriad of toppings and other ingredients. The signature dishes of Shanxi cuisine are characterised by their saltiness, with a touch of sourness endowed by the locally produced vinegar.

This special type of vinegar, known as Shanxi aged vinegar or Shanxi mature vinegar, is so integral to the local culture that there is even a Shanxi Vinegar Culture Museum located in Qingxu County! Although pork and chicken are used prolifically, lamb remains the most popular meat in the region and serves as a reminder of the strong cultural connections that the province has with the nomadic cultures of northwest Asia. For example, the most common dumpling filling in Shanxi is lamb mince with carrots, which you’ll struggle to find outside of the province. The signature dishes of Shanxi cuisine may not feature on any gourmet menus, but their traditional cooking methods and authentic flavours are sure to leave you in noodle heaven.

Knife-Cut Noodles (刀削)

The act of making Knife-Cut Noodles is as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the stomach! The noodles are produced by mounting a giant block of dough either on a washboard or simply hoisted over the noodle-cutter’s shoulder. Skilled noodle-cutter’s will use a special knife to deftly shave beautifully tapered noodles straight off the block of dough and into a pot of boiling water. It takes years to master the art, and an experienced chef can supposedly shave off noodles at a rate of 200 per minute! This has given rise to the local saying: “One noodle in the boiling water, one flying in the air, and one just being cut”. Another variation, known as Scissor Cut Noodles (剪刀面), involves using a giant pair of scissors to cut the dough instead.

The noodles are typically served in a mild meat-based broth that has been seasoned with a dash of Shanxi aged vinegar. They are then topped with a plethora of tantalisingly fresh ingredients, including cucumber, leek, mung bean sprouts, soybean sprouts, pickled green beans, cubed tofu, and pork slices. In some restaurants, the noodles may be served with a thick sauce that resembles a ragout. In a province known for its excellent noodles, these are the most popular, so use your noodle and try a bowl!

Kaolaolao (栲栳)

If you want to try something oat-tilly different, Kaolaolao might be just the noodle for you! Unlike other popular types of noodle in Shanxi province, the dough used in Kaolaolao is made from oat flour instead of wheat flour. The dough is kneaded and moulded into tubular-shaped noodles, which are long, wafer thin, and slightly light yellow in colour. Their unusual name is derived from their circular shape, as a “kaolao” is a traditional type of bucket used by farmers and made from bamboo sticks or willow twigs. Speaking of buckets, sampling these delectable noodles is definitely something you want to cross off your bucket list!

The noodles are placed side-by-side in a steamer and, from above, they resemble a neat little honeycomb. Once they are thoroughly steamed, they are served with one or more dipping sauces. Rich tomato and garlic sauce, fabulously tart Shanxi aged vinegar based sauce, or spicy chilli sauce all form a perfect accompaniment to these delicate noodles. Some restaurants offer an alternative variety known as Ganbian or “Dry-Fried” Kaolaolao, where the noodles are quickly dry-fried with a mixture of garlic, onion, and fiery chillies.

Sorghum Fish (高粱面鱼鱼)

Much like Cat’s Ear Noodles, Sorghum Fish are named for their shape rather than their content. The short, fat noodles are thought to resemble a school of plump fish, and are made using sorghum flour. It’s really that simple! This dish is particularly popular in the region surrounding the city of Xinzhou, where sorghum is a major crop. The sorghum dough is cut and rolled by hand into its distinctive shape before being steamed. Once the noodles are cooked through, they are usually served with a simple sauce made from Shanxi mature vinegar, although they are sometimes stir-fried with lamb and a smattering of fresh vegetables. Even in a landlocked province, you can still make fish the dish of the day!

Cat’s Ear Noodles (猫耳朵)

Don’t worry; no cats were harmed in the making of these noodles! Cat’s Ear Noodles are named for their distinctive shape, which supposedly resembles tiny cat’s ears. According to local legend, one day the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) dressed himself in ordinary clothes and hired a boatman from Shanxi province to take him to West Lake in Hangzhou. They suddenly became caught in a violent storm and the rains were so heavy that they had to stop their journey. After some time, the weather did not improve, and the Emperor was racked by a painful hunger.

He asked the old boatman for some food, and the boatman replied: “All I have is some flour, but I don’t have a rolling pin to make noodles for you”. The boatman’s daughter looked down at the little kitten in her arms and swiftly thought of an idea. She began making the noodles by hand and used her fingers to create small indents in each noodle. Once they were finished, the old boatman cooked them and served them to the Emperor with a simple sauce. The Emperor was overwhelmed by how tasty the noodles were and, when he asked the boatman’s daughter what she wished to call the dish, she decided on “Cat’s Ear Noodles”. When the Emperor returned to his palace, he hired her to be his chef and, from that day onwards, her family wanted for nothing. What a purr-fect ending!

To this day, traditional Cat’s Ear Noodles are made by hand and their characteristic shape is produced by the chef pressing their thumb into the dough until it naturally rolls up. Much like Knife-Cut Noodles, they can be served with a wide variety of soups or sauces, although they reputedly taste best when sautéed with cabbage, soy sauce, and Shanxi aged vinegar. After all, as the old saying goes, less is more!

Taste Traditional Shanxi Dough Cuisine on our travel: Explore Chinese Culture through the Ages

Shanxi Grand Compound

shanxi compound

Shanxi Grand Compounds were magnificent courtyard houses that were originally built during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties by prosperous families hailing from Shanxi province. Many of them are scattered throughout Qi County, including the Qiao Family Compound, the Wang Family Compound, the Cao Family Compound, and the Qu Family Compound. These families largely skyrocketed to untold wealth by becoming merchants or bankers, which enabled later generations to take the imperial examinations and become powerful government officials. In short, the golden apple never falls too far from the money tree!

These compounds are so impressive in their grandeur that they are more like castles than mansions, with an architectural style that imitates the traditional “siheyuan” or “quadrangle” of northern China. The Chinese quadrangle is typically formed in the shape of a rectangle, with all of its rooms facing inwards towards a large courtyard. Shanxi Grand Compounds are like a composite of several small Chinese quadrangles, which are ultimately surrounded by high walls for defensive purposes. After all, such a large display of wealth is bound to attract unwanted attention! The layout of these compounds is usually symbolic and expresses the hopes of the resident family. For example, the Qiao Family Compound was designed in the shape of the Chinese character “囍”, which means “happiness” and conveys the family’s desire for a bright future.

If you are interested in the history of the Shanxi merchants who built these compounds, please read the article entitled Jin Merchants.

List of the most famous Shanxi Courtyard:

  1. Qiao's family compund02The Qiao Family Compound

Thanks to its starring role in Zhang Yimou’s moving drama Raise the Red Lantern, the Qiao Family Compound is the most famous of its kind and has thus been beautifully preserved. Located within the village of Qiaojiabao approximately 30 kilometres (19 mi) from the historic city of Pingyao, the compound was originally known as Zai Zhong Tang (在中堂) and was constructed in 1756 by a renowned merchant named Qiao Guifa, who made his fortune selling tea and tofu.

In the ensuing 160 years following its completion, it was restructured and extended three separate times by Guifa’s successors. The finished estate, which covers a colossal 8,724 square metres (93,904 sq. ft.), is comprised of 6 large courtyards, 20 smaller courtyards, one ancestral temple, and a staggering 313 rooms. Its imposing 10-metre (33 ft.) high walls endow the compound with a fortress-like appearance from the outside.

While the history of this majestic mansion began with the venerable Qiao Guifa, by far the most renowned and successful businessman of the Qiao family was Qiao Zhiyong. During the period when he was head of the family, the Qiao clan controlled over 200 shops located throughout the country, including a number of prototype banks, pawnshops, teahouses, and granaries. It was Qiao Zhiyong who embarked on the compound’s largest expansion, resulting in the grand mansion that we see today. Yet it wasn’t just Qiao Zhiyong’s business acumen that enabled the compound to succeed.

In 1900, the Eight-Nation Alliance sent troops to liberate their embassy in Beijing, which had been under siege as part of the violent Boxer Rebellion. Once they had resolved the issue with the embassy, they decided to invade and occupy the city of Beijing. In response, the governor-general of Shanxi province ordered that all foreigners in the region were to be killed on site. Seven Italian sisters, who were working in the country as missionaries, managed to escape the ensuing panic and eventually arrived at the Qiao Family Compound. They begged Qiao Zhiyong for protection and he accepted their plea.

To honour his benevolence, the Italian embassy awarded him with an Italian flag. Many years later, during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), the Japanese army chose not to destroy the Qiao Family Compound thanks to the presence of this flag, as Italy was one of their political allies at the time. The compound was occupied by the Qiao family right up until 1985, when it was converted into a museum.

Wandering through the compound’s many rooms and corridors is a banquet of delights, resplendent with some of the finest wood carvings, brick carvings, stone carvings, murals, and wall sculptures in northern China. Nowadays it houses over 2,000 cultural relics, including porcelain, silk embroidery, paintings, and divine furnishings that are sure to transport you back to the luxurious lifestyle of the Qiao family. Just don’t stay too long, or you may never want to leave!


  1. wang family compound01The Wang Family Compound

While it may not be as popular as the Qiao Family Compound, the Wang Family Compound is actually four times its size and rivals the Forbidden City in its magnitude! With six castle-like courtyards, six lanes, and one street incorporated into its vast complex, it stretches over an area of 150,000 square metres (161,4587 sq. ft.). Its five main courtyards were designed to symbolically represent the five lucky animals according to traditional Chinese culture: the Dragon, the Phoenix, the Tortoise, the Qilin (Chinese Unicorn), and the Tiger. In short, you could say the Wang family were living in the belly of the beast!

Like many of the Jin merchant families from this region, the Wang family began as simple farmers and eventually graduated to becoming small time businessmen. During the Ming Dynasty, they expanded their business gradually and hoped that, ultimately, their efforts would grant their successors the opportunity to gain official positions in the government. By the Qing Dynasty, the family had reached the peak of their prosperity and over 100 members of the Wang family were high-ranking officials. Talk about achieving your long term goals! Unfortunately all this good work would be undone towards the end of the dynasty, as future generations of the Wang family lacked their forebears’ ambition. After having lived in this grand mansion for 27 generations, the last members of the Wang family left in 1996 and it was opened to the public in 1997.

Nowadays, only two of the colossal courtyards and one of the ancestral halls are open to tourists, comprising a total of 123 smaller courtyards and over 1,100 rooms. The complex has been separated into three main areas: the Red Gate Castle; the Gao Jia Ya; and the Chongning Bao. Much like the Qiao Family Compound, these majestic halls have been transformed into exhibitions featuring artwork, calligraphy, sculptures, and other items that once belonged to the family. On August 18th of every year, a Tourism Festival is held in the Wang Family Compound, where visitors have the opportunity to watch and take part in traditional folk activities. It’s the ideal time to embrace the ancient culture in which this grand work of architecture was conceived.



Find more stories about Shanxi Grand Compounds and Jin Merchants on our tour: Explore Chinese Culture through the Ages



Nestled on the banks of the Yellow River to the east of the majestic Wohu Mountains, the village of Qikou was once one of the most prosperous settlements in Shanxi province. The name “Qikou”, which roughly translates to mean “moraine” or “a rock in shallow water”, may seem relatively uninspiring, but it is actually derived from the significance of the location that Qikou occupied along the Yellow River. It is at this point that the riverbed suddenly narrows from about 500 metres (1,640 ft.) to just 80 metres (262 ft.) in width, which forces the river into a tight channel and causes it to deposit a large amount of sediment on the riverbed. This in turn means this section of the river is impassable by boat. 

Historically, the Yellow River represented a vital waterway via which goods were transported between northern and southern China. In order to keep this transportation system running smoothly, Qikou became a major trading port where merchants would dock their ships and have their wares transported the rest of the way over land by camel or horse-drawn caravans. It rose to prominence during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties, where it was widely recognised as one of the most important ports along the Yellow River. In its heyday, hundreds of boats berthed at its docks, over 200 hotels and 380 shops catered to its many visitors, and more than two thousand dockworkers laboured tirelessly in its myriad of warehouses. It remained a bustling trade hub until the 1940s, when water and caravan transport was gradually superseded by rail.

Although it may no longer be the glorious trade port it once was, Qikou is still a picturesque ancient town with many historic buildings that have been beautifully preserved. In order to protect them from flooding, many of these houses, known as “yaodongs” or “loess cave houses,” have been physically carved into the steep hillside along the banks of the Yellow River. Looming over these houses on a raised platform, the Black Dragon Temple is the ideal place to enjoy a panoramic view of town. The temple is dedicated primarily to two separate deities: the legendary Black Dragon; and Guan Yu, a military general from the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280) who was eventually deified.

Located about 10 kilometres (6 mi) south of Qikou, the small village of Lijiashan is renowned for its myriad of over 400 yaodongs carved into the cliff-face of Lijia Mountain. When Qikou began to flourish as a port town, many wealthy merchants living in the town decided, for the sake of safety, to build secret homes for their families deep within the mountains. Lijiashan was one of the settlements established for these merchant families, which is why the cave dwellings of Lijiashan are particularly lavish and elegantly decorated. After all, a man’s home is his castle!



At the grand age of 2,700 years, Pingyao is one of the oldest cities in China and was once the financial centre of the entire country. The city was established during the reign of King Xuan (827-782 BC) of the Western Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046–771 BC), although it had to be largely rebuilt in 1370, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It was during this time that the city was expanded and its famed city walls were constructed. By the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), it was home to more than 20 financial institutions, which represented more than half of the total number in the entirety of China.


The Jin merchants who owned these institutions swiftly rose to prominence and became the most important economic influence on Shanxi province. You could say their sudden wealth meant they were laughing all the way to the bank! Nowadays it is home to some of the most well-preserved ancient structures in the country, many of which are located on its picturesque Ming-Qing Street, and it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

The City Walls

The city was built according to the typical layout of ancient Chinese towns, but also conformed to a traditional theory known as Bagua or the “Eight Trigrams”. To this end, the temples and government offices were located on both sides of the central axis, while the residential houses and commercial markets were in the town centre. This layout has been retained to this day, and the city is still home to some 50,000 residents. The ancient part of the city is surrounded by the city walls, which are 12 metres (39 ft.) high and stretch for 6 kilometres (4 mi) in length! The wall itself is heavily fortified, with four towers at its corners, 72 watchtowers, over 3,000 battlements, and a 4-metre (13 ft.) deep moat at its feet.

The walls are punctuated by six barbican gates in total, with one each on the north and south sides, and two each on the west and east sides. From an aerial perspective, this supposedly makes Pingyao look like a tortoise, with the west and east gates as the legs, the north gate as the tail, the south gate as the head, and the criss-crossing lanes within as the patterns on its shell. This has earned it the nickname the “Tortoise City”!

This resemblance is no accident, as tortoises are a symbol of longevity in traditional Chinese culture. It was believed that, by having city walls in the shape of a tortoise, this would ensure that the city would remain secure in perpetuity. Much like the tortoise and the hare, the slow and steady pace in Pingyao meant it definitely won the race! The city walls are in such great condition that visitors can still take a leisurely stroll along them to this day.

Exchange Houses

In ancient times, these city walls protected not only the people, but also the financial institutions that Pingyao eventually became famous for. Among these, the most renowned is known as Rishengchang or “Sunrise Prosperity”, which was established in 1823 and is thought to have been the first bank in China. During its heyday, Rishengchang controlled nearly half of the silver circulating in the country. It may have traded in silver, but it was worth its weight in gold!


The need for piaohao or “exchange houses” such as Rishengchang arose when traders began using silver coins during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Rampant banditry meant it was unsafe for merchants to carry large sums of silver with them as they travelled, so these exchange houses were able to provide money transfers, accept deposits, and give out loans. While Rishengchang’s base was in Pingyao, it founded branches in major cities throughout China, Japan, Singapore, and Russia, and used bank drafts to move money from one branch to another.

It managed to maintain its prosperity for a staggering 109 years, until it tragically went bankrupt in 1932 due to the advent of modern banking. The development of Rishengchang is considered so integral to the economic history of China that its original head office was restored and converted into a museum in 1995. It was even immortalised in the 2009 film Empire of Silver, about a wealthy banking family living in Pingyao during the turn of the 20th century. From the silver trade to the silver screen, Rishengchang was destined to shine!  (Find more stories about Jin Merchants.)

Temple of the City God

Alongside the city walls and Rishengchang, the other major attractions within the ancient city are the County Government Office and the Temple of the City God. While the County Government Office was designed to rule the “yang” of the human world, the Temple of the City God held sway over the “yin” of the spiritual world. These two buildings were placed on the same street in order to balance each other out, with the office in the west and the temple in the east. The County Government Office was originally built in 1346, during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), and is the largest of its kind in China. It represented a vast complex containing the home of the local magistrate, various offices, a prison, a court, meeting rooms, and a scenic garden.

In the same vein, the Temple of the City God is comprised of several decorative courtyards and magnificent halls. This Taoist temple was constructed during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and, unlike other city god temples in China, it honours the God of Wealth and the Kitchen God as well as the City God of Pingyao. While it is a popular tourist attraction in the city, it should be noted that it remains an active house of worship and is frequently visited by residents eager to appease their local deity!


Outside the city walls, two other temples have been included as part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site: Shuanglin Temple and Zhenguo Temple. Shuanglin Temple was built in 571 AD and is renowned for the more than 2,000 coloured clay statues that bedeck its halls, which were crafted between the 13th and 17th centuries. Similarly, Zhenguo Temple was constructed in 963 AD and boasts a number of magnificent sculptures that date all the way back to the Northern Han Dynasty (951–979). In short, Pingyao may not have the notoriety of the Great Wall or the Forbidden City, but its historical pedigree is beyond compare!


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Shanxi Province, with the short abbreviation of Jin, is located in North China, not far from the capital Beijing. The Chinese meaning of Shanxi is “west of the mountains”, where “the mountains” means Mount Taihang.

The Yellow river forms its western border with Shaanxi Province. There are two tributaries of the Yellow river – Fen River and Qin River, run from north to south through the province. In the north of the province there are some tributaries of the Hai River. However, even though so many rivers in Shanxi, the field there is barren because most of the areas in Shanxi belong to the Loess Plateau. There is a large natural salt lake in the south of Shanxi, which made Shanxi people wealth in the history.

shanxi locationShanxi is called “the museum of Chinese ancient architecture”.  It has more than 70% old buildings constructed during or before Song Dynasty (960-1279). Apart from this, there also have Yungang Grottoes, Mount Wutai that is one of the four Buddhist pilgrimage destinations. Mount Hengshan is one of the “Five Great Peaks” in China. The Ancient City of Pingyao is a well-preserved old town prosperous in Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties.

Shanxi has various traditional cultures and arts. Paper cutting and dough modelling are the two most distinctive crafts.

Yaodong (loess cave house) is the very typical traditional residence in the Loess Plateau. There are still many villages in Shanxi Province formed by this kind of house caves.


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