ON THE SOUTHEAST COAST OF CHINA, FUJIAN PROVINCE IS A COOL COMBINATION OF MOUNTAINOUS AND COASTAL LANDSCAPES, AS WELL AS A DAZZLING MIXTURE OF THE BYGONE AGES AND MODERNITY.
Lots of stunning stories are to be discovered in Fujian Province, and I am so lucky to experience its two radically different sides – the innovative city and the ancient houses, all of which come with chronicles.
THE ISLAND BEFORE XIAMEN
Once an anonymous island, the present-day Xiamen has a long and dramatic history with pirates, westerners, and the Opium Wars, before it was officially named and played an important role economically to mainland China. The first settlers were the Han Chinese of Chen and Xue clans who found a new space to grow their crops and make a peaceful living; they simply called it The New Town until it was named Jiahe in 857 AD. The island became heavily fortified during the Ming dynasty period, thanks to invasion by Japanese pirates.
Xiamen, meaning ‘the lower gate’, was originally the name of a tiny area on the island, which was then made a military base by Koxinga, a heroic Ming loyalist, who campaigned against the Qing dynasty. As his campaigns needed a lot of money, military funds were raised from maritime trade to support his acts, resulting in the rise of the Port of Xiamen, which came with impressionable prosperity. Even though he could not save his ally Ming dynasty, he was valorously successful in reclaiming Taiwan back from Dutch occupation in 1661.
Years after those remarkable happenings, development on the island was so greatly accelerated that it caught Westerners’ eyes. In the 17th and 18th centuries, due to high demand for Chinese merchandise among European countries, together with the Canton System limiting incoming foreign trade, the British East India Company attempted to reverse the imbalance by transporting opium through middlemen into the Chinese coast. Of course, by that time, trading and smoking opium had been illegal in China for over a century. The inflow of opium did overturn the lop-sidedness, which did a great deal of harm to the Chinese economy, as well as increasing the number of narcotic addicts. This conflict between Great Britain and the Qing dynasty led to the First Opium War, which was ended with the Treaty of Nanking (being considered an unequal treaty by the Chinese). Effective in 1843, Xiamen, known among Westerners as Amoy, became one of the treaty ports to open for foreign trade. The nearby tiny island, Gulangyu, became a foreign concession land in 1902, with people from many European countries coming to enjoy the privilege. There’s no doubt the Gulangyu islet did not look like China at all.
With the efflux of Chinese to other parts of the world, it turned out that Xiamen gained an influx of current capital from their Chineseethnic descendants, who sent their earnings back to their hometowns. Here came the first massive development of modern Xiamen, starting in the 1920s.
XIAMEN: THE NEW-FASHIONED CITY
The days in Xiamen are not so Chinese-ish, with its trace of Western influence. The streets are so clean and tidy, and dressed up modishly, that Xiamen is truly the modern China.
The weather is mildly cold, so I put on a light trench coat and walk around the sleepless Zhongshan Road Pedestrian Street, being fabulously lit up till late. Looking around, I find people here of all ages wear fashionable clothes, so I secretly call this one ‘the city of fashion’. Along the street are vibrant shops with everything stylish – even a display of teas or packages of dried pork look chic!
What I also found exhilarating is how people ride bikes, whether they are wearing formal suits or dainty long dresses. With cycling paths with a view, and loads of in-town public gardens, there’s no wonder people living here are willing to abandon their cars at home. True modern cities turn out to be the ones with sustainable and environmentally friendly means of transport, instead of fancy cars so congested and polluting.
Among cutting-edge high-rises, there are nestled historic sites, and one of the predominant ones is Nanputuo Temple. The Buddhist temple has been standing there since the age of the Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD), despite being damaged and reconstructed several times. Playing an important part of Xiamen’s cultural and religious aspects, Nanputuo Temple brings together the beauty of authentic Chinese architecture, scenic nature, centuries-long history, and people with faith. Whether one is a Buddhist or not, the temple’s captivating beauty and lighthearted aura will definitely beguile visitors in one way or another. Vegetarian foods at Nanputou Temple are surprisingly amazing.
THE ISLE OF PIANO
Merely a few minutes’ boat ride from Xiamen coast, I arrive in a pedestrian-only islet called Gulangyu (and many times called Kulangsu), also known as Piano Island. The weather is cool, the trees are tall and shady, and deciduous leaves and flowers perk up the grey pavement. A walk alongside the quaint colonial buildings doesn’t need any rushing, and the slow-paced experience is totally awesome thanks to the combination of everything on the islet, especially the romantic seaside promenades. With no motor vehicles allowed here, not a disturbing sound could disrupt the pleasurable vibes.
The architecture here is charmingly unique with subtle oriental touches, and there emerges the Amoy Deco style. Living together in harmony are the traditional Southern Fujian, Western Classic Revival, and Veranda Colonial styles. The merit of the colonial buildings here is that they are not simply an attempt to imitate – they are real. As previously mentioned, the settlers of this island are international elites, so the Western-ish constructions and dwellings are not just an influence, yet their very own culture. With the rich history echoing in places and modern living quality, Piano Island has recently been added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site list.
So, why ‘Piano Island’? Not only is there the scenic sight of a marvelous tiny town, the islet is full of pianophiles and piano prodigies. Besides, this is the place in China with the highest piano ownership per capita. The Gulangyu Piano Museum here is the largest in the world.
HERE COMES THE OLD TIME
After waving goodbye to amiable Xiamen, it takes almost two hours to get to another city with a totally different ambience, as if I am timetravelling. Zhangzhou is an old city with traditional wooden buildings and narrow streets. Even though our main destination is Nanjing County, which transports us back to an even older times, a few stopping-by hours are remarkable.
The Lin Yutang Memorial Hall turns out to be the one I enjoy most. The story of the world-famous prolific writer, philosopher and linguist, Lin Yutang, whose literary works greatly impacted how Westerners perceive Chinese ways of living and thinking, is wonderful. As he spent a great deal of time in the United States and Germany, his fluency in these two languages was intense. Remarkable are My Country and My People, showing Chinese ways to the Western world; Moment in Peking, which is so dear that the story became a popular television show; and philosophical masterpieces like The Importance of Living.
THE EARTHEN ART
If ‘art’ is a term for the produce from mankind’s stunning creativity and imagination, then I would consider the tulou housings as habitable art. It’s amazing how people built up such abiding structures from modest materials without modern technologies, while simultaneously looking unpretentiously gorgeous.
Dated back to some time in the 12th century, the Hakka people lived inside minimalistic homes made of earth. Definitely, this is not the only area with earth architecture, but how they survived numerous natural calamities and battles for over 800 years is mysteriously top-drawer.
Within this Nanjing County of Zhangzhou City in the southern part of Fujian province (yes, I find it quite complicated too!), there have been fertile amounts of earth dwellings or “tulou” all over this county, yet only 46 buildings are officially recognised as Fujian Tulou, in the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Along the ridgy way in the midst of mountains, I sit on a bus and feel so delighted to eventually witness the real history. The first to behold is Tianloukeng Tulou Cluster, tranquilly tucked among big trees and rice fields, with a hilly backdrop. This “four dishes of rice and one cup of soup” cluster represents the five basic elements as in Chinese philosophy: gold, wood, water, fire, and earth. Due to my limited time, I can only see the batch from afar.
Nevertheless, I am still lucky to be able to spend time in Yuchang Lou. The five-storey leaning tulou is one of the oldest, being built in 1308. Standing so strong even 700 years on, an estimated 100 families are still living here. The untidy wooden corridors are full of stories, as this tulou has served as both dwelling and fortification. The more time I spend here, the more stunning it gets with the ancient wisdom.
One of the stops is at Taxia Village, one charming tiny town where people live a somewhat contemporary life. Parked in front of houses are modern cars, contradicting the classically outmoded houses. A small brook was there to cut through the village for reasons unknown, causing the emergence of 11 beautiful arched bridges, connecting the two sides of the village. Holding a warm cup of coffee, sitting by the brook, this village reminds me of, strangely, the Italian concept “Il Dolce far Niente”, or the sweetness of doing nothing – it’s just that I’m sitting in the most adorable part of China.
More to the serene ambience is the noteworthiness of Taxia Village. There are 42 earthen havens scattered all over the area, which could be up to 500 years old. The famous shrine of the Zhang family – the founder of this village – is a famous and preserved one, together with 24 treasured dragon pillars, considered one of the healthiest of its kind in China.
And, here comes my very favourite. Yun Shui Yao is beyondexpectation fascinating. As the sun is slowly setting, the peaceful village turns golden, and the feeling of standing by the river, witnessing this dashing change on those purely traditional houses and the iconic watermill along with the sedate sound of silence, lives on till now. Clearly mesmerising.
After five days with two World Heritage sites and different cities within the Fujian Province, it’s time to leave. Mainland China is more than gigantic and greatly rich in culture, and some of these Fujian wonders are appealing enough to draw me back to China again to explore what more is out there. Let’s see where to next!
FACTS: FUJIAN TRAVEL FILE
Visitors are able to travel conveniently to Xiamen Gaoqi International Airport with XiamenAir and Thai Airways offering direct flights from Bangkok. There are also plenty of direct flights from around 20 cities such as Singapore, Manila, Seoul, and more. Longyan Guanshizhan Airport is an alternative, available for domestic flights.
Touring around Xiamen is easy with public transportation like city bus, metro, taxi, and it could be even more fascinating to explore this city on bike. Most of the bicycle rentals are on offer on the Island Ring Road.
An organised private tour is a good idea to get around Fujian Tulou Clusters, as the area is somewhat remote from all public transport. Besides, without a local guide, language could be a major problem.
There are great accommodations in both Xiamen City and Nanjing County, from multi-starred hotels to homestays. It is recommended to spend nights within the Tulou Clusters in order to really learn about ancient-time Hakka Chinese.
Basic needs are provided within the accommodation and throughout the area.
Good international and traditional foods are bustling in Xiamen, so don’t worry about getting hungry. However, when in Nanjing County, do not miss trying Hakka dishes.