Nothing captures the pulse of Chinese life better than the people around the Yangtze River, and no one knows the Yangtze River better than the people of Hubei. Hubei has it all, from Taoist temples and a nature reserve that’s supposedly home to Chinese Bigfoot to one massive megalopolis. You can also take a gander at the ancient city walls of Jing, explore the sites of the Chibi Ancient Battlefields, hike some amazing natural parks, study tai chi at the base of Mt Wudang (where it all began hundreds of years ago), or listen to Tujia (土家) tales about Mufu (沐抚) Canyon and its eerily shaped stone formations. None of the above caught your attention? Then go party in Wuhan and dance the night away. Hubei has what it takes to enlighten, enrich and entertain all travelers, so what are you waiting for?
During the Warring States Period (475 – 332 BCE), today’s Hubei was the core of the Chu Kingdom. The Chu (later renamed the Jing) accumulated power by incorporating the various indigenous tribes along the Yangtze River, creating a proud amalgam of pre-Buddhist cultures. At the kingdom’s peak, it spawned a rich birth of hybrid cultures and customs centered around a mutual respect of the natural and spiritual worlds.
Unfortunately, the Chu Kingdom grew too large and leadership became complacent, eventually falling to the Qin in 225 BCE. Upon hearing the news of the kingdom’s collapse, poet Qu Yuan committed suicide, later to be immortalized in the festivities associated with the Dragon Boat Festival.
Despite its end, the society the Chu had nurtured proved to be a headache for the overly legalist Qin, who tried punishing recalcitrant dissidents by forcing them to labor on the first Great Wall. The Qin were later defeated by the Western Han with the help of Chu remnants in 206 BCE, and after the Chu was absorbed into the Han Empire it became a major influence in the customs and culture of a newly unified China under the Qin.
Hubei’s importance in Chinese trade flourished, despite changing through the hands of various tyrannical warlords and bandits.
This trade eventually came to the attention of enterprising Western powers, and Hankou (now a district of Wuhan) became one of eight trading areas that the Qing Dynasty was forced to cede in the 1858 Treaty of Tianjin as a result of their defeat in the Second Opium War.
In 1911, the ancient Chu’s spirit of independence reemerged. Hubei played host to the Wuchang Uprising, an important event in the Xinhai Revolution that overthrew the Qing Dynasty and ended China’s long history of imperial rule. After the establishment of the Republic of China, the area around Wuhan became the industrial heart of a modernizing nation. But this came to an untimely end when Wuhan and the rest of Hubei suffered greatly in World War II.
Wuhan and most of Hubei fell under Japanese control and became subordinates to their once heralded leader-turned-Japanese-traitor, Wang Jingwei. To this day Wang’s name, like Benedict Arnold for the Americans, is synonymous with “traitor” among the Chinese. Wuhan became a Japanese command center for western and southern military advances, and because of its high military and industrial value, the American Air Force firebombed the city in 1944.
Today, Hubei is still playing a major part in the ever-transforming story of China. In relation to major population centers, it plays a central role in transportation and trade linking north, south, east and west.
There is a saying in China about the Hubei people – “天上九头鸟，地上湖北佬,” meaning “Heaven has the nine-headed bird, Earth has Hubei people.” “The nine-headed bird” is a mythical creature known for its craftiness and dishonesty, and the saying implies that the Hubei people are the closest equivalent to it. Don’t be alarmed, the welcoming and friendly spirit of the
Hubei locals can arouse suspicion at first, but if you respond in kind, you’ll find that they are amongst the most generous and helpful friends you can have in China.Hubei’s greatest cultural contribution to the whole of China is seen in the national Dragon Boat Festival (Duānwǔ Jiē; 端午节), celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. The holiday commemorates Qu Yuan’s patriotic commitment to the Chu Kingdom and his suicide upon realizing he couldn’t save his beloved nation. The most famous activities associated with the holiday are the dragon boat races, but eating zongzi (rice with meat or other filling wrapped in steamed or boiled bamboo, reed, or other large flat leaves) and singing and dancing by the river (to scare the fish away from Qu Yuan’s drowned body) are also common sights during the festival.
Hubei’s eclectic food encompasses the spicy palate of Sichuan and Hunan, the river and seafood affinities of Shanghai and Guangdong, and the noodle and pickling cultures of the north. This is not to say that Hubei hasn’t forged its own own unique Chinese cuisine. On the contrary, the province’s finest cuisine is famously summed up with the so-called “three S’s”: souped, steamed, and stewed.
It’s from Wuhan, the capital and heart of Hubei province, that one of China’s five famous noodles hails: reganmian (热干面). On top of this, sweet ribs and lotus soup, delectably numbing and spicy duck necks, as well as half a dozen original breakfast and late night street snacks, are all unique to Hubei’s delicious cuisine.
For some countryside culinary action, head out to Jingzhou to experience homestyle cooking derived from dishes once served to Chu kings, or out to Enshi for spicy fried and pickled fish. There are also the cured pork stews of the Tujia minority. Don’t forget to wash it down with some homemade corn wine, another local (and intoxicating) concoction.
With regards to language, Hubei people speak a southwestern dialect of Chinese that’s related to neighboring Sichuan and Hunan Provinces. Generally, there is no problem communicating in Mandarin with the locals, but you’ll definitely notice a strong accent, especially with those from rural areas.
Hubei also has pockets of local Tujia and Miao ethnic minorities, and they speak their own indigenous language. Luckily, most of these tribes also speak Mandarin, so don’t hesitate to spark up a conversation with them to practice your Chinese.