Hebei is known for its surprising ability to shake things up. From the borders of Beijing to Tianjin – two of the country’s largest urban centers – to the sweeping corn and wheat countryside, a forgotten walled town and a handful of time-locked rural temples provides Hebei with a charming land of contrasts where few expect to find them.
It’s here where an assortment of aged and down to earth environments allow you to exchange the dust of an urban city for the dirt of rustic escapes. Head out to neighboring Tianjin or Beijing for a bit more cosmopolitan sophistication, surfs up with a trip to the Beidaihe beach resort (a favorite of national government bigwigs) or sneak around the wild borders of Manchuria into an incredible 18th century imperial retreat in the fascinating town of Chengde.
Human remains in Hebei are some of the oldest in China. Fossils of the now-famous Peking Man, a Homo erectus fossil, was found at the Zhoukoudian site near Beijing in the 1920s, dating back to over 750,000 years. The area that is modern Hebei was first called Yanzhao during the Spring and Autumn Period when it was first under the control of the State of Yan. Later during the Warring States Period, a time when the area was partitioned, much of the land went to the State of Zhao.
Over the centuries, the area – which sat right on China’s northern frontier – changed hands countless times, and it was during the Tang Dynasty that the name of Hebei, meaning “north of the Yellow River,” was officially designated to the region. From the time that the Mongolians thundered into Hebei to establish their Yuan Dynasty and on through the Ming and the Manchurian Qing Dynasty, Hebei saw itself as an area of imperial power, with all three dynasties holding their capital in Beijing. The Qing Dynasty noted the area’s political weight by giving it the name Zhílì (直隶), or “directly ruled,” but with the dynasty’s collapse and the Kuomintang’s successful Northern Expedition to take control of the region, the capital was moved to Nanjing and Hebei was once again called by its modern name.
After the founding of the People’s Republic of China the capital bounced around between Baoding, Shijiazhuang, Tianjin, and finally Beijing (known then as Beiping). The area that held Chengde and the old province of Chahar – part of today’s Inner Mongolia – were incorporated into Hebei, expanding its borders north and east and forming the area into what it is today. One of the most notable events of the province’s young life happened in 1976, when the deadly Tangshan earthquake killed some 240,000.
Today, Hebei is known for a particular disjoint between the impoverished rural lands and its booming metropolises. It is also considered the most polluted province in the country, with many of China’s top ten most polluted cities of 2013 finding themselves in Hebei.