Ask Mei

Yangzhou, China’s saving grace?

A charming place of 2,500 years old…

Decades of the “develop at all cost” model has transformed China from an economic backwater into a global powerhouse but also resulted in unprecedented environmental degradation, the destruction of historical relics and the spread of hyper-commercialism across the nation. Things have got a bit better in recent years with government policy shifting to more sustainable and innovative development. However, for many historical sites, traditions and lifestyles, it may already be too late.

As a native Chinese who has lived outside the country for most of my adult life, I try to follow the developments in my home country by reading about them, as well as travelling there. I always try to visit authentic and charming spots that instill historical knowledge and cultural affinity, such as Pingyao in Shanxi, Zhenyuan in Guizhou, and Tengchong in Yunnan. Now I am delighted to add another name to the list: Yangzhou!

Like most Chinese, I first heard of the ancient city in Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai’s famous line “Traveling downstream to Yangzhou in March amid the misty flower blossom.” Hence I have always associated Yangzhou with elegance but not until my maiden trip did I realise just how beautiful and elegant it really is.

Situated along the Yangtze River and joined by the ancient Grand Canal, Yangzhou is about 300km northwest of Shanghai. The 2,500 year-old city was among the richest during the Sui, Tang, Ming and Qing dynasties. Most of the wealth came from the salt trade. With wealth, it also attracted poets, artists and scholars from across the ancient empire. The famous “Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou” refers to eight Qing Dynasty artists who were known for rejecting orthodox painting styles in favour of more expressive and individualistic formats, for instance. According to an inscription under a statue of Marco Polo outside the East Gate, the Venetian also lived in the city, acting as a local magistrate in 1282-85.

During a two-day visit with my sister, we stayed in a state-owned guesthouse restored from a magnificent compound (which belonged to salt merchants during the Qing Dynasty). We walked along ancient East Gate Street where the guesthouse sits, toured the charming Ge Garden and He Garden, and rode on rickshaw through the alleyways. We took a cruise along the Grand Canal, climbed the steps up to the Daming Temple and spent a few hours getting happily lost at the gorgeous Slender West Lake.

Our readers may be more familiar with the famous West Lake in Hangzhou, where Alibaba’s Jack Ma used to hang out in his teens trying to practice English with Western tourists. I much prefer Slender West Lake, with its long, narrow stretches of water and charming scenery. During springtime, the weeping willows cascade down to the water like ladies showing off their long hair. Even with tens of thousands of visitors inside the park, you can still find tranquil spots where there is nobody else in your viewfinder.

You may wonder why Yangzhou was able to survive China’s wars, revolutions and the rampant commercialisation of the past generation. My theory is that it’s because there was no direct train line linking it with Shanghai (we needed to transit in Nanjing), nor has it been named as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites like Yunnan’s Lijiang, which is an over-crowded tourist trap these days as a result.

Another selling point for Yangzhou is its local Huaiyang cuisine, one of the Four Great Traditions in Chinese food culture. On this point, I highly recommend writer and Chinese food expert Fuchsia Dunlop’s Sharks Fin and Sichuan Pepper. If my column doesn’t entice you to pay a visit to Yangzhou, Dunlop’s vivid description of a typical local banquet should prompt you to go. I definitely want to go back to make up for one crucial omission: I didn’t get to taste the famed Yangzhou Fried Rice.

A native Chinese who grew up in northeastern China, Mei attended an elite university in Beijing in the late 1980s and graduate school in the US in the early 1990s. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China, both in the media and with two global investment banks, where she has honed her bicultural perspective. If you’d like to ask her a question, send her an email at [email protected]


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