The phrase “Mountain and Water Paradise” is often used to describe the city of Guilin, but those who have traveled Guangxi know this description is fit for the whole province. The towering karst mountains throughout northern Guangxi will have you looking up in heart-throbbing wonder, and if you’re smart enough to take a cruise down the Li River or do some hiking in Yangshuo, you’ll find lush shrubbery cloaked in mist that continues for as far as you can see.
Up north, rice terraces in farming villages spread out on vast swathes of mountainside, and the ancient wooden towns and timeless cultures of the Dong, Zhuang, and Yi minorities scatter the hillsides. Throw in the pounding Detian Waterfall or the Chenyang Wind and Rain Bridge of the highlands and Guangxi quickly shows itself as a paradise for the outdoor-inclined.
Move south and you will find some of China’s best beaches on the Guangxi coast, while the border with Vietnam offers more remote scenery. If you’re not the hike-till-you-drop type, Guangxi has plenty for you too in its peaceful boat rides and jaw-dropping cave murals, as well as plenty of other activities that won’t leave your legs aching the next day.
With its subtropical climate and its location along China’s southwestern border, Guangxi has long been viewed as a wild and open territory. The name Guangxi in English means “Wide West,” and this vast and expansive land, along with its neighbor to the east, Guangdong (Wide East), is part of the so-called Two Guangs. An original Guang Prefecture was founded around 226 CE by the Eastern Wu Dynasty, but it wasn’t until the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty that Guangxi was designated as its own province.
Before the Mongolians plowed into Southern China to establish their Yuan Dynasty, the land of Guangxi had passed between the hands of countless dynasties and kingdoms. Attempting to subdue the local Zhuang people, the Qin Dynasty was the first to shoot for incorporating the tribal peoples of Guangxi through military force in 214 BCE, and while this worked for a time with the eastern and southern parts, the hills of the west proved more resistant. Han Chinese generals and emperors continued to work to clench the region, and while the Zhuang peoples eventually conceded to the Han empires, the Yao and the Miao rejected Han control and the parties remained at war for centuries.
In the 19th century chaos swept through Guangxi as rebellions, wars, and foreign encroachment brought a series of trials to the local people. The bloodiest of these conflicts – and one of the bloodiest civil wars the world has ever seen – occurred when the Taiping Rebellion erupted in 1850, starting from the Taiping Rebel base at Guipo in Guangxi. The Opium Wars left their ash on Guangxi as well, particularly through the Treaty of Yantai (1876), which opened up Beihai and southern Guangxi as a foreign trading port and allowed the Eight Great Powers to open embassies in the area. Decades later the weakened Qing Dynasty collapsed in 1912, and Guangxi declared its secession in November of that year.
For much of the early 20th century Guangxi, Guangdong and Hunan were in the hands of the warlord Lu Rongting, a man who supported Sun Yat-sen and his Republic of China until the two men went to war and Sun gained full control of the province in 1924. This peace in the midst of a growing civil war between the Nationalist and Communist Parties lasted only a short time before Deng Xiaoping led the Baise Uprising in 1929 and communist bases were set up throughout the province (though many were later destroyed by the Nationalists). During WWII, Guangxi witnessed terrible destruction at the hands of the Japanese.
After the Communists took paramount control of the nation, Guangxi joined the Communist Party in December of 1949. Because the Zhuang people make up a strong 32% of the provincial population, Guangxi was soon reorganized as the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in 1958, though there are also a significant number of Miao, Yao and Dong people. The province took on its modern day shape in 1965 when the southern coast, including Beihai, was returned from Guangdong to Guangxi.
Though the Zhuang are significant throughout much of the province, their most populous areas lie in some of the western prefectures, like Baise and Hechi, where they make up 80% of the population. With a total population of 17 million, the Zhuang are the largest ethnic group in China. If you’ve heard of Li Ning – the man who won six gold medals (gymnastics) at the 1984 Summer Olympics and founded the sporting goods company that bears his name – then you know China’s most famous Zhuang resident. The true legacy of the Zhuang, however, goes back millennia, not only through their Sawnip writing system that dates back over 1,000 years, but also through their prominent rock paintings, the best of which can be found along the cliffs of Hua Mountain that were written during the Warring States Period (475 - 221 BCE).
The lingua franca in Guangxi is Cantonese, though you will certainly encounter speakers of local minority languages, including Zhuang, Dong, Xiang, Sui, Hakka, Yi, Hmong and Jing (Vietnamese). While this means that some areas may be tough if you’re a Standard Mandarin (Putonghua) speaker, the vast majority of places will have people who can speak, or at least understand, Putonghua.
Food in Guangxi is half Cantonese cuisine and half spicy Hunan cuisine. Spicy and savory flavors can be found in the famous beer fish and beer duck, while claypot rice involves meat being cooked inside a packed rice dish. Rice noodles with vegetables, spices, and a little bit of meat are the most famous noodle dishes. Fish is particularly popular throughout province, coming from both the rivers in the north and the sea off the southern coast. Check out the old Guangdong concession of Beihai and the whole coastal region for some of the area’s best Cantonese food. And don’t be shy about mowing down some fresh fruit; the plethora of local fruit farms means it’s always fresh and delicious.