Hénán 河南

Capital
Zhèngzhōu 郑州
Divisions
17 prefectures, 159 counties, 2,455 townships
Area
167,000 sq km (64,000 sq mi)
Population
94,023,567
Ethnic composition
Han – 98.8%; Hui – 1%; others -0.2%

Henan is as old as China itself. With the mighty Yellow River slicing through the province, this region is considered the cradle of Chinese civilization, where it all began thousands of years ago. Four of the country’s eight ancient capitals are located within the borders of Henan (Zhengzhou, Luoyang, Anyang and Kaifeng) – the footprints of an ancient and great civilization nourished by the fertile Yellow River. From these beginnings, enough history to fill 1,000 encyclopedias developed, punctuated by the mesmerizing Longmen Grottoes, some of the most incredible collections of Buddhist cave art in the world, and the renowned Shaolin Temple, birthplace of the Buddhist martial spirit. If that weren’t enough, the walled town of Kaifeng provides its own fascination, and the mystique of the Maoist collective at Nanjiecun hints at a recent history that is all but gone.


History

Henan is as old as China itself. With the mighty Yellow River slicing through the province, this region is considered the cradle of Chinese civilization, where it all began thousands of years ago. Four of the country’s eight ancient capitals are located within the borders of Henan (Zhengzhou, Luoyang, Anyang and Kaifeng) – the footprints of an ancient and great civilization nourished by the fertile Yellow River. From these beginnings, enough history to fill 1,000 encyclopedias developed, punctuated by the mesmerizing Longmen Grottoes, some of the most incredible collections of Buddhist cave art in the world, and the renowned Shaolin Temple, birthplace of the Buddhist martial spirit. If that weren’t enough, the walled town of Kaifeng provides its own fascination, and the mystique of the Maoist collective at Nanjiecun hints at a recent history that is all but gone.

Culture & Language

Henan is one of China’s most populous provinces, with nearly 100 million inhabitants. If it were a country, it’d be the 12th most populated in the world. Today, most of the people are Han, but Hui Muslims also make up a small percentage. Furthermore, Henan (and more specifically Kaifeng), has a Chinese Jewish community, and even a small circle of Chinese Christians.

The province has some 20 dialects of Zhōngyuán Huà – known as Middle Plains Mandarin in English – which is itself a dialect of Mandarin. The vast majority of Henan’s population speaks one of these dialects, and the remaining folks speak two (of a total of 15) dialects of Jin, which is either a separate language or another dialect of Mandarin, depending on which linguist you ask.

Those Damn Dams

Henan is home to two famous hydroelectric dams: Sanmenxia (三门峡) and Xiaolangdi (小浪底). The former was completed in 1960 under Soviet supervision and was the first dam built on the Yellow River. In typical socialist fashion, the dam was promoted as a symbol of “man’s triumph” over Mother Nature, since the people could now control the flooding that had plagued nearby villages for millennia. Simultaneously, the dam would also provide hundreds of thousands with power. Sanmenxia was so iconic in its prime that the central government even printed it on currency notes.


The US$4 billion Xiaolangdi Dam, located 40 km (25 mi) north of Luoyang, is a mammoth structure that was one of the biggest dams ever constructed upon its completion in 2000. Similar to Sanmenxia, it was another effort by Beijing to control the flooding while supplying much needed energy to local residents, but it now also serves as a tourist site (¥40; 8:00-18:30). The best time to go is when they open up the flood gates and release a gigantic tsunami of silted water from its gates (see pic above). The spectacle (which usually takes place in the summer) is so impressive that Xiaolangdi has become known as the “Apocalypse” Dam by some, so be sure to ask your hotel or hostel in Luoyang when they’ll open up the flood gates so you can observe this rare and incredible event.

However, just like many dams around the world, the construction of these two giants has caused an uproar concerning their sure-fire environmental damage. Despite the backlash from environmentalists and even the arrest of critics, the government moved forward with the even more colossal and controversial Three Gorges Dam in Hubei and Chongqing provinces. For the time being, it seems that construction of mega-dams within the Middle Kingdom will continue no matter what opposition lays in its path; a blessing for some and a nightmare for those displaced by flooding and the animals that are driven to near (or total) extinction by the destruction of their habitat.

 

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