Fujian is a lush hilly province on China’s southeastern coast, situated in between Hong Kong and Shanghai. It is a land of stunning contrasts – verdant hills descend into a wild sea, and sleepy traditional villages lie an hour’s drive from ultra-modern metropolises. Fujian appeals particularly to beach bums looking for a tangible piece of China’s history will be particularly wise to put Fujian on their travel itinerary.
The Minyue Kingdom ruled the hills, rivers, and beaches that now constitute Fujian Province until it was conquered by northern dynasties roughly 2,000 years ago. Fujian at that time was a tough place with poorly developed agriculture and infrastructure, but the area was gradually brought into the central Chinese fold by successive waves of refugees fleeing barbarian invasions in the northern plains.
One wave of these refugees maintains their unique culture to this day. The Hakka people communicate in a different tongue than their “local” neighbors despite the fact that the Hakka have lived in the highlands of Fujian for over one thousand years. Today, the distinctive circular communal tulou dwellings of the Hakka can still be found throughout the hills of Fujian Province.
Quanzhou, in the south of Fujian, and Fuzhou in the north, were the largest ports in China during the Ming Dynasty. Zheng He, a Chinese Muslim eunuch explorer, led his massive treasure fleets from these ports on successive voyages throughout Southeast Asia, India, Africa, and even perhaps the Americas, spreading Chinese influence and establishing trade routes. On one of Zheng’s voyages a giraffe was brought back to the Ming Court and presented to the king. Though not an impressive feat today, Zheng’s maritime journey from Quanzhou to Africa and back was considered an incredible accomplishment in the early 1400s.
In perhaps the worst foreign policy move in the history of Chinese civilization, Ming emperors forfeited their position at the head of international trade and imposed a total ban on seafaring after the expeditions of Zheng He. Private seaworthy boats were abolished, and residents of Fujian were forced to move away from the coast. These policies were implemented to stop a rash of pirate attacks from Japan, but they ended up costing China dearly by severely disrupting commercial, economic, and scientific ties with the outside world, paving the way for European ascendance in world trade and exploration.
In the 1800s million of Fujianese fled famine and later the Taiping Rebellion, with many settling in huge numbers throughout Southeast Asia. To this day, one can hear the local Hokkien language spoken in Singapore, Malaysia, parts of Indonesia and other places due to this event.
After being forcibly reopened to international trade in the wake of the Opium Wars (mid-1800s), Fujian received a large dose of Western influence. Christian missionaries were busy trying to save the souls of the locals, while their more commercially minded compatriots were more interested in selling opium. Gǔlàngyǔ (鼓浪屿) – a small island off the coast of Xiamen – was a major center of trade and missionary activity, and it’s still-standing Victorian buildings were once home to trading houses, consulates, and cathedrals.
Fujian was isolated once more during the Japanese invasion (1930s) and the ensuing Chinese Civil War. During the years of the Cultural Revolution, the economy stagnated under the policies of Mao and the threat of war across the Taiwan Strait put Fujian in the crossfire of total destruction. Despite hard times, things in Fujian are looking up – a booming economy and gorgeous weather year-round seem to back this notion.
Fujian is booming. China’s economic miracle is on full display in Fujian’s coastal cities, partly from improved relations with Taiwan. The Hokkien dialect is spoken in both southern Fujian and Taiwan, making Fujian an attractive destination for a massive influx of Taiwanese investment.
About 98% of Fujian’s population is ethnic Han Chinese (the Hakka people also qualify as Han). Due to mountainous territory and centuries of isolation, many languages and dialects are spoken throughout Fujian. However, all but the oldest and least educated members of society can speak Mandarin Chinese as well.