The traditionally secluded area of present-day Anhui was often divided and conquered by various kingdoms and empires of the past, creating a cultural divide between the lands north and south of the Yangtze River. Nowadays, impoverished mining villages and farming communities lay in the north, while the south boasts some of China’s most dazzling UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
During the Sui and Tang Dynasties (500s – 900s), Anhui was shredded into several jurisdictions, and later it was ripped apart again with one part of Anhui belonging to the Jin Dynasty (1115 – 1234) and the other laying in the hands of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127 – 1279). It wasn’t until the 17th century, during the Qing Dynasty, that the current borders of Anhui Province were demarcated.
Following Anhui’s splitting past, the Communists in 1949 divided the region again into two separate provinces: Wanbei in the north and Wannan in the south. But three years later, the government pulled a 180 and glued Anhui back together again.
Though Anhui is a poor region, it’s considered the “big agricultural province,” and is even called the “Appalachia of China” due to its lush green rolling topography. Despite its backward hick image, Anhui has one of China’s brightest gems: the world famous Mt Huangshan that attracts more than 15 million tourists per year. Huangshan isn’t just Anhui’s most popular mountain, it’s one of the country’s primer tourist attractions.
Southern Anhui was known as Wannan in the ’50s, but before that it along with northern Jiangxi comprised an area called Huizhou. This region still has its own business culture, distinctive language, dazzling architecture and earthy herbal cuisine that’s considered one of the eight main culinary divisions of the Chinese kitchen. The small pocket of Huizhou culture is famous throughout the Middle Kingdom and a visit (along with Huangshan, of course)is highly recommended.
The Huizhou merchants were perhaps the most recognizable and influential people to ever come out of Anhui (besides former President of China Hu Jintao and entertainer Zhan Shichai, aka “Chang the Chinese Giant”). For 600 years their influence transformed Anhui’s Huizhou prefecture, giving rise to schools, ancestral halls and even entire villages that catered to the needs of their individual familial clans. But it was over 300 years from the 15th to the 18th centuries that the merchants dominated the region and carved out their greatest legacy.
When the Southern Song Dynasty (1127 – 1279) transferred their capital from Kaifeng in Henan Province to Hangzhou, Zhejiang – then known as Lin’an – the move created an enormous transfer in power and wealth from the north to the underdeveloped and impoverished southeast. One of the area’s most affected by this shift in wealth was southern Anhui and northern Jiangxi, a region known as Huizhou, which sat just across the border from the new capital.
Trade between Lin’an (Hangzhou) and the rest of China passed right through Huizhou, which essentially allowed the prefecture to act as a middle man between distant Chinese provinces and the capital, similar to how many small towns along the Silk Road emerged up and became prominent business centers. By the mid-Song Dynasty, a burgeoning merchant class had sprouted in the humble region of Huizhou, though for the remainder of the Song and on through the ensuing Yuan Dynasty, most of Huizhou’s population remained poor farmers.
Huizhou’s transformation really began to hit its stride during the prosperous era of the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644), as the rapidly growing economy began to present more opportunities for the local peasants. Recognizing the potential in trading commodities such as tea, silk, ink, paper and wood, local townsfolk left their rickety villages behind for a shot at making it big. The majority of those who made profit did so through the Chinese concept of guanxi (which means “relationships”) and gave preferential treatment to those from one’s home region or hometown. Through such personal networks there was a great blossoming of Huizhou’s merchant and trader class, a group of people that included around 70% of Huizhou’s population by the 1600s.
Soon the people of Huizhou had earned a reputation as natural-born businessmen who were well-spoken, well-dressed, and blessed with a powerful charisma and an instinctual knowledge of buying and selling. Business became ingrained in Huizhou’s culture: boys as young as 12 began apprenticeships in the art of trade and by 17 would leave their families and hometowns in search of business opportunities throughout the country. As the Qing Dynasty rolled in, the Hui merchants had already amassed some impressive fortunes, allowing them to pour large investments into the infrastructure of their hometowns. In particular, the Huizhou merchants built schools, clan halls and training centers in an effort to maintain their legacy of wealth and influence.
Through this flourishing of trade, Huizhou also saw everything from art and architecture to culture, politics and academia thrive. The more money the merchants made in other parts of the country, the more remittances they sent back to improve their hometowns, and today many of the villages in southern Anhui still stand as gorgeous testaments to this endowment, filled with wondrous Huizhou-style architecture and unique, time-honored arts.
As the 19th century reached its end, the sun was setting on the Qing Dynasty, which became overwhelmed by foreign powers looking for their own piece of China’s prosperous pie. Large chunks of the Chinese economy were hijacked by the Western powers as they were granted land and trading concessions after China’s defeat in the Opium Wars, and as money began to flow into foreign hands it consequentially left the grip of Huizhou.
Instead of investing in new technologies to compete with the advanced techniques of the Western invaders, Huizhou’s merchants continued to spend their cash building up their villages with pagodas, decorative doorways, white-washed houses, and cobblestone streets. As the Qing Dynasty vanished, so did the legendary merchants of the region, but the footprints they left behind in the picturesque villages of southern Anhui – many now designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites – are certainly worth far more than money today.
James Cameron, director of the 2009 hit Avatar, credited Mount Huangshan as one of his inspirations for the movie. Avatar is renowned for its ground breaking special effects and was the first film ever to gross over US$2 billion; it also won three Academy Awards for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects. Huangshan’s beauty is unparalleled and puts all other mountains to shame, and after a few minutes there you’ll most definitely see a similarity between it and Pandora. To walk like a Na’vi, visit the one and only Mount Huangshan.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Hongcun is not just a holder of the UNESCO heavyweight belt, it has also been featured in one of China’s most popular screenplays, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The joint American-Hong Kong-Chinese-Taiwanese film grossed over US$213 million internationally and over US$128 million in the US to become the highest grossing foreign language film in the history of US film. The bridge at the entrance of Hongcun is where one of the most exciting fight scenes was filmed, so be sure to check it out when you’re there.
Mukeng’s Bamboo Forest, just outside of Hongcun, is another site that was pictured in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. You’ll recognize this area as the setting of another famous Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon hand to hand fight seen where the fighters defied Newton’s law by flying through the sea of bamboo, one of the trademark special effects of the film.
The Laoyangjia Ranfang residence in old Nanping is the actual one that was used in the 1990 film Ju Dou. Ju Dou may not be as popular as the other films on this list, but it was actually the first Mainland film ever to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (1990). This controversial tragedy in which the main character, Ju Dou, is sold as a wife to a cloth dyer, was initially banned in Mainland China. After the film received heavy international accolades, however, the government lifted the ban in 1992.