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China's historical highlights

by Martha Hales

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Chinese culture and society is intrinsically tied to the history and legacy of the ancient empire. The first emperor, Qin united the whole of China under his rule more than 2,000 years ago, and the dynastic system of rulers endured right up until 1911. This is one of the major reasons why China’s history is so ever present even in modern times, and the devotion of the empire to art, religion and culture has meant that a rich heritage has endured to this day. The wealth of historic gems in China is endless and could keep travellers busy for several lifetimes, but if you don’t quite have that much time to spare we have picked out some highlights you might want to include in your next holiday in China.  

Zhujiajiao Water Town, Shanghai

Scattered around the outskirts of Shanghai’s metropolitan area are a number of ‘water towns’ - ancient settlements crisscrossed by waterways which reflect the quaint waterside buildings and offer some of the most photogenic surroundings in the Shanghai region.

Boat on a canal in Zhujiajiao, China

Zhujiajiao is an attractive option with a historic centre big enough to absorb the day trippers who come from the city, but small enough to feel charming and provincial. Wood panelled buildings overhang the canals, which in turn are traversed by a number of picturesque bridges. Don’t miss Fangsheng bridge which roughly translates to ‘setting free fish bridge’ where you can buy a goldfish and release it into the waters.

Fangsheng bridge in Zhujiajiao

Labrang Monastery, Tibet

Once home to more than 4,000 monks, the Labrang Monastery is a masterclass in Tibetan Buddhist architecture covering a vast 850 hectare site. To enjoy a great view of the site, consider visiting the Gongtang Pagoda in the southwest corner of the complex where you can get right to the top for a splendid view. Alternatively, cross the Xiahe river on the wooden footbridge and follow the trail to the hilltop from where you can see the whole of the Monastery laid out in front of you.

Labrang Monastery Tibet China

One of the most celebrated features at Labrang is the world’s longest line of prayer wheels, known as the Long Corridor of Prayer Wheels which extends more than three kilometres around the perimeter of the monastery and contains 1,700 prayer wheels each featuring scriptures and religious carvings. 

Prayer wheels in Labrang Monastery

Forbidden City, Beijing

Extending over more than 70 hectares, the Forbidden City was commissioned as a show of might by the Ming Emperors in 1420, and served as their seat of power for the next 500 years. It got its name - The Forbidden City - because very few people were allowed to enter the complex. Members of the Imperial court, the Emperors, their families and just a select few outsiders who served or did business with them were the only people present in this vast collection of palaces and offices, and in fact most of them rarely left.

Forbidden City, China

Today the Forbidden City is open to all as a museum, and it is fascinating to experience the locations which were at the core of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Architecturally they are fascinating, with a great deal of symbolic significance and a harmonious atmosphere.

Forbidden City China

Great Wall of China, Beijing

As many as one million workers are thought to have been involved in the construction of the Great Wall, the world’s largest fortification. Many of us imagine that the Great Wall is a single structure, but in fact it is a network of several walls, the building of which went on for around 2,000 years. The purpose was primarily defensive, but it also served as a conduit for communication - messages were passed down the line from one beacon to the next using smoke signals, lanterns and fires. The principal reason for the construction of the Great Wall was of course to repel invading forces, but it also served as a garrison. Many of the watchtowers which punctuate its length were used as military accommodation, meaning that troops were ready and waiting should enemies approach.

Great Wall of China, Beijing

Temple of Heaven, Beijing

The park surrounding the Temple of Heaven occupies more than 250 hectares and makes a great place to wander at will and relax. The temple itself was constructed 600 years ago and has become a famous highlight of Ming dynasty architecture, more immediately appealing than the Forbidden City complex and holding a very important place in Chinese religious history.

Temple of Heaven Beijing China

The concept of the site is to create a place where heaven and earth meet, and where the Emperors could commune with their gods. Heaven is represented by circular structures while earth is reflected by square constructions. The most important and imposing building of the temple complex is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, which impresses with intricate tile work wooden construction and beautiful interior.

Inside the Temple of Heaven, Beijing

Summer Palace, Beijing

The most extensive and best loved royal garden in China is located near Beijing, but feels a world away. When the Emperors spent their summers here they enjoyed the greenery, the fresher climate and the serene lakeside setting.

Summer Palace on the lake, Beijing

There is plenty to explore when you visit, including the Buddhist temples on Longevity Hill, from where views over the whole area are very photogenic. The Tower of Buddhist Incense crowns the hill in traditional style with four tiers of octagonal roofs each more delicate and intricate than the last. Other important structures in the Summer Palace complex include the Long Corridor which planks the northern shore of the lake, richly decorated with beautiful scenes of classic Chinese landscapes and mythology. The Hall of Elegance and Longevity is notable for the fantastical bronze sculptures in the courtyard.

Long Corridor in Beijing's Summer Palace

The Terracotta Warriors, Xian

Discovered in 1974 when farmers attempted to dig a well, the 8,000 strong Terracotta Army has been wowing visitors ever since. The detail on the 2,000 year old sculptures is astonishing, with unique facial features, different uniforms marking the various ranks and functions just as they would in a real army.

Terracotta Army in Xian, China

All these lifelike figures were commissioned by Emperor Qin Shihuangdi to be buried with him upon his death, ensuring that he would continue his reign of power and glory in the afterlife. The impressive infantry is located in three separate pits near the city of Xian, complete with generals, archers and even a cavalry.

Terracotta army in warehouse in Xian China

Ancient villages of Hongcun and Xidi, Anhui Province

The Hongcun and Xidi villages display fine examples of early architectural styles from the Ming and Qing dynasties, some structures dating back 900 years. The villages are both UNESCO listed due to their well preserved traditional layout and architecture - many such villages have been rebuilt or fallen into ruin over the centuries but Hongcun and Xidi are two that have stood the test of time.

Hongcun village in China

Not only are they notable for their historical value, but they also boast strong local culture and heritage and attractive locations among the mountains of south Anhui province. These two villages are particularly important because they are uniquely complete and both have their original village water systems which carry flowing water through the settlements.

Hongcun village and bridge

 

Dali, Yunnan Province

A truly picturesque corner of Yunnan province is the setting for the ancient town of Dali, one of China’s most evocative destinations. The photogenic architecture and beautiful surroundings are enhanced by the rich cultural heritage of the area, which has long been a region of ethnic diversity.

Streets of Dali China

Dali is celebrated for its predominantly Bai ethnic minority traditions, their distinctive architecture and fine cuisine. The town has a modern district, but most of the historic interest lies within what is known as the Ancient City, an area of low rise traditional homes with fine decorative features, imposing city gates and the nearby Erhai Lake. The principal sights of the city include the Butterfly Spring, the Three Pagodas - especially mesmerising when seen reflected in the lake, and the Cangshan Mountain which is enchanting in May and June when it is carpeted with wildflowers.

Three pagodas Dali

Make it happen

China’s history is one of the longest and most intriguing in the world, and relics from past glories are liberally scattered throughout the land. Our trusted local experts can combine your personal interests and priorities into a bespoke itinerary, and their local knowledge will get you under the skin of this fascinating country. Start a conversation with them today using our enquiry form and let them take the strain out of planning your perfect China trip. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office please call +44 (0)117 325 7898. 

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