A province full of little surprises, Jilin offers some respite to the veteran China traveler in the mood for something besides palaces, walls and temples. Within the province is a Korean autonomous prefecture kicking back with an easy-going feel, a folksy appeal and fantastic Korean food, as well as one of the last palatial residences of Puyi (the last emperor of China) in Changchun.
Out in the countryside is one of China’s most spectacular natural wonders at Heaven Lake, where pristine blue waters fill a massive volcano caldera and tourists are shuffled along its wonder with buses and wooden boards. Ski fans can also find one of China’s top ski resorts a short distance southwest of the capital city. The borders here also meet up with Inner Mongolia to the southeast, Heilongjiang to the northwest, North Korea to the south and Russia in the north, making Jilin an excellent jumping off point to some superbly interesting destinations.
When the southern areas of China were ruled by the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), much of modern Jilin was under the authority of the ancient Korean Koguryo Kingdom (37 BCE – 668 CE). The Koguryo are the most notable of the ancient Jilin Korean kingdoms, especially since the discovery of their relics has led to the southern city of Ji’an being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site (but other Korean kingdoms in the region included Buyeo, Hohuryeo and Halhae). Besides the Koreans, the province has long been a diverse area and was historically also home to the Xianbei (a Mongolic people) and the Mohe (an ancestor of the Manchurians).
Jilin, like the rest of the country, traded hands countless times throughout China’s long dynastic history until the Japanese invaded in the early 1930s. Changchun was then designated as the capital of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, which extended further into Manchuria. The recently abdicated last emperor of China, Puyi, was installed as the figurehead of the puppet government, and the area saw numerous atrocities committed upon the local population by the Japanese. Later on, the Russians stormed in and took the area from Japan before handing it back to China in 1945. Hard times continued for Jilin, however, as it became a bloody frontline during the Chinese Civil War until its end in 1949.
Recently, the privatization of heavy industry has stunted the economies of the northeast, which depend on such industry. This has resulted in a government-run campaign to pump life (and money) into the underdeveloped region.