Shanxi is as old as China itself. With its southern border straddling the Yellow River where the first settlements of Chinese people left their footprints, the province has seen the best and the worst of the nation’s extensive history. What it holds for the traveler today is some of the best looking scenery in the Middle Kingdom, punctuated by the picturesque ancient village of Pingyao, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s swaying with a wondrously large Ming-Dynasty city wall and red lantern-filled alleys over cobblestone streets.But though the achingly charming vibes of Pingyao, with its creaky temples and ancient architecture, are hard to leave, Shanxi offers plenty more outside of town, including more time-locked villages, the stunning vistas of Mount Wutai, a set of inhabited cave dwellings and a decidedly Buddhist disposition that climaxes at the magnificent grottoes of Yungang.
Shanxi was originally the prominent State of Jin during the Spring and Autumn Period (722 – 403 BCE) – a time when China was going through great change and Confucius began giving his first lectures on how to create a harmonious society. Not long after Confucius’ death, a great power vacuum opened and a turbulent storm of conflict between rivaling tribes swept through the land, sparking the Warring States Period (403 – 221 BCE). During the Warring States Period, Shanxi was split three ways between the states of Han, Wei and Zhou, but in the end it was Qin Shihuang who defeated all rival factions in 221 BCE to unite Shanxi with the rest of the country and become the first emperor of China.
Shanxi was prosperous during the Qin and Han Dynasties, but it was during the Tang (618 – 907) that it really thrived. The Tang actually originated in Shanxi Province, though they later moved their capital to modern day Xi’an in neighboring Shaanxi Province. Moreover, China’s only female empress, Wu Zetian of the Tang Dynasty, was born in Shanxi.
During the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 – 1912), the city of Pingyao flourished so much that it became the economic center of the entire country; centuries later, scholars would call it the “Wall Street of China.” Though it has lost this title to Shanghai in modern times, the antique town is still a wonderfully preserved melange of Qing architecture, ancient walls and aged cultural relics from the city’s rich past.
After the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, Shanxi suffered even more at the hands of the Japanese when they conquered the entire province during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937 – 1945). The province also saw mass casualties during the Chinese Civil War (1945 – 1949). Nowadays, Shanxi is slowly recovering, with a GDP that is still below the national average and an economy mostly reliant on farming, heavy industry and mining.
The local speech is Jin, and linguists still debate whether it is a dialect of Mandarin or a separate language altogether. Most people speak Mandarin, however, albeit with thick accents, so it may be a little hard to communicate, even if your Mandarin is strong.