Hunan is a red-hot province. On one hand, Hunan (along with Sichuan and Chongqing) rests along the spice belt and is famed for its combustible spicy cooking. On the other hand, Hunan is where Mao Zedong - the firebrand father of Chinese communism - was born, making Hunan the Mecca of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). But under the hot peppers and red-star banners, Hunan is blessed with sacred mountains, fascinating ethnic minority villages and picturesque old towns; there are enough diverse attractions to keep any traveler, conservative and liberal alike, pleased for weeks.
Old Hunan was predominately occupied by several ethnicities: the Tujia, Miao, Yao and Dong. Over time, advancing Chinese armies incorporated the fertile agricultural region into the empire, turning Hunan into the bread basket of the region. With opportunity abound, waves of Han from the north migrated to the territory, consequentially turning the region’s indigenous peoples into a minority population.
Hunan’s agricultural success and the influx of immigrants eventually led to its downfall. By the time of the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1912), the area was immensely overcrowded, over cultivated, and had a terrible income disparity. This paved the way for several peasant uprisings, including the Miao Rebellion (1795-1802) and the Taiping Rebellion of the 1850s. Yet Hunan’s days of revolts only intensified after the fall of the Qing Dynasty as the locals’ communist sympathies rose.
The disgruntled peasants from Hunan became the base of the Chinese Communist insurgency. After years of fighting the Japanese during the Sino-Japanese War, Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalists party were crippled, and Mao Zedong saw his chance to fill the power vacuum. Fighting between the two sides erupted and raged for four years during the Chinese Civil War (1945 – 1949).
On October 1, 1949, the small-town Hunan native Mao Zedong declared final victory over the KMT and announced to the world the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
Around 90% of Hunan’s ethnic composition is Han, while 4% is Tujia, 3% is Miao, 1% Dong and 1% is Yao. Most Hunanese speak a Northern Mandarin dialect known as Xiang, but there is also a large proportion who speak the dialect of Gan. All of the ethnic minorities also speak their own unique language, but if you know Mandarin you should be able to get around fairly easily.
Hunan is famous for its food, and its cuisine is one of the Eight Culinary Traditions of China. Hunan cuisine, or Xiang cuisine, is hot and spicy, and because Hunan has long been a rich agricultural county, the cuisine has a great variety of fish, meat and vegetable ingredients. Expect to see portraits of Chairman Mao hanging proudly on the wall in many Hunanese restaurants in honor of their hometown hero.