Perhaps China’s wettest province, Jiangxi is the place to go if you’re dying to see mist-covered hills and rice paddies sparkling with water and haven’t managed to scare any up in the southern provinces. This land is made up of water, from the Gan River (Gàn Jiāng; 赣江) that flows from the mountains of southern Jiangxi to Poyang Lake (Póyáng Hú; 鄱阳湖), a massive wetlands area where the river empties. And while Jiangxi rarely tops the list of China travelers, its a superb place to get in some hiking among the poncho-clad farmers that till the land below rolling hills of pointy pine forests, far away from the rampant development of the rest of China.
Jiangxi was of vital strategic importance to various Chinese empires. Control over the Gan River allowed for access to the mostly mountainous regions of China’s deep south. As dynasties were mostly ruled from northern China, Jiangxi was something of a wild region, inhabited by hill tribes who slowly assimilated into Chinese culture.
However, the natural beauty of Jiangxi led to the region taking an important role in Chinese culture. While the peaks of Lushan (庐山) inspired some of the most famous poets of the Tang Dynasty, the town of Jingdezhen (景德镇) became the center of the Chinese porcelain industry, and throughout the entire province philosophy and religion flourished. The most popular sect of Buddhism in China – the school of the Pure Land – was founded in Donglin (东林, or “East Woods”) Temple in northern Jiangxi, while Taoists masters searched for immortality in the summits of Sanqing Shan (三清山).
The farms, temples and cities of Jiangxi were devastated during the Taiping Rebellion, which swept through southern China from 1850 to 1864. A Hakka man named Hong Xiuquan, who claimed to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ, led this rebellion against the Manchu-dominated Qing Empire (he found many willing recruits amongst Jiangxi’s impoverished farmers, especially his fellow Hakka of southern Jiangxi). Many of the estimated 20 to 50 million victims of the conflict were residents of Jiangxi, and the province’s population didn’t recover to pre-rebellion levels until the 1950s. Nearly all the major settlements of the region were devastated by pitched battles during what is considered by most historians to be history’s deadliest rebellion, and by the time European traders began buying tea and selling opium, Jiangxi was is utterly devastated.
War and revolution swept the area once more in the 1920s. The disadvantaged peasants of Jiangxi once again made eager revolutionaries, and were some of the earliest supporters of the Chinese Communist Party. After the Kuomintang began a deadly purge of communists in Shanghai, the communists first struck back in Nanchang, seizing the city with the help of Soviet advisors before retreating into Jiangxi’s lush hills to engage in guerilla warfare. Thus, Jiangxi was the first real battle between the Communists and Nationalists.
Jiangxi remained a site of war during the Japanese invasion. In the wake of the Allied victory and Mao Zedong’s subsequent rise to power, Jiangxi continued to be something of a backwater.
After the late 1970s economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping, who took de facto power after Mao’s death, Jiangxi began enjoying a period of peace and relative prosperity for the first time in 160 years. The province is still important for transport and culture, but it retains the lowest per capita GDP of any of China’s eastern provinces, even though it borders the nation’s two richest provinces (Zhejiang to the north and Guangdong to the south).
More than 99% of Jiangxi’s people are ethnically Han Chinese. There are many dialects in the region, with Gan Chinese (alternatively Jiangxinese – Jiāngxīhuà; 江西话) spoken in most of the province. However, in the cities, everyone will be able to speak (accented) Mandarin.
Hakka people – descendants of refugees from North China who settled in the region more than 1,000 years ago – live in the hills of the south. They not only have their own distinct language, but also have a different culture, food and dress from Han Chinese. However, it’s important to note that Hakka are still classified as Han.